How did you get into exhibitions?
I began as a trainee accountant before becoming a salesman selling double-glazing then photocopiers. I got involved in exhibitions after meeting a show director at Montgomery Exhibitions.
Montgomery was, and to a large degree remains, synonymous with greatness in our industry. I joined while it was still run by Bryan Montgomery. It’s true to say that if you worked there, you left with a qualification around your subject. This was because Montgomery couldn’t be beaten on best practice.
At that time in the mid-1980s, the exhibition industry was serviced in a very different way. You had a project manager, which now translates roughly to event director, then you had a secretary who sold and organised stuff as well. I joined because the project manager wanted to employ a different model involving a direct sales force. I ended up as sales director on the International Food Exhibition, the second biggest show, then launched some shows and was running a team of people at 21.
After almost 10 years I realised if I was going to go anywhere, I’d need to know about general business management, operations and marketing. It was then Malcolm Taylor at Brintex offered me an opportunity on several shows including the London International Wine Fair as a group exhibition director. A few short months after that, Brintex owner John Hemming offered to appoint me to the board. The rest is history. I don’t know many who planned to get into the exhibition business but once people are in, they’re superglued in.Why did you join Centaur?
I spent the last four years with Chris Hughes [Brand Events MD] as chief operating officer helping him build a business. Brand Events went from one UK company to a globalised group with eight businesses in seven countries in probably one of the most difficult economic times. My role was to complement Chris and build a structure and sanity around everything so it could be replicated globally. After four years, I’d appointed MDs to run those companies and felt my job had run its course.
I had aspirations to start my own business, but other people had aspirations that I should join their businesses. One of these was Geoff Wilmot [Centaur CEO] who I met with for two-and-half-hours to hear his story. As soon as he left I bought shares in Centaur – that is how convinced I was that this was a business going through transformational change. The Centaur opportunity seemed too exciting not to do. What topped your initial priorities list?
Restructure is a short word – what happened in the summer at Centaur was monumental. It was immensely brave of the shareholders to permit wholesale change at the scale they did and to redefine a business and its purpose. The shareholders saw a way forward that would be difficult to tackle, but which they recognised they needed to do. It was a complex business that had evolved as a federation of small businesses.
My observation was that the business could be considered as running in silos, as very competitive internally and division by division, product by product. Uniting all of those strengths was the first task. Empowering people in business is critical so I’ve spent time understanding the business, the structure and making sense of the opportunity going forward by painting a vision. The business has been restructured in three divisions, and three of the five people on the operating board are new – I think that is a pretty bold statement from a CEO and collective of shareholders.
Our group headline is that we will double the size of this business in three years. It’ll come from a combination of activities – organic growth will get us 12-15 per cent each year, so we have to turn our attention to acquisitions and portfolio building. Centaur wouldn’t blip as readily on the exhibition radar as other smaller companies because it has been purposeful at flying under the radar. I don’t subscribe to that and believe demonstrating why you’re good at what you’re doing is really important, particularly if you want the talent that resides in or is coming into the industry to consider you as a place to go and work. How will you ensure centaur’s exhibition portfolio meets this challenge?
My task is to transform what we do, why and how we do it. Part of that will be aggressive organic growth in addition to some acquisitions. The first step is to optimise what we’ve got.
For example, we are known for running Marketing Week Live [MWL] and to be an organiser of considerable strength. It would be utterly wrong to say we’re optimised. I visited MWL this year and was blown away that at 9.30am the hall was full and it felt more like a consumer show in terms of excitement and engagement. It’s only a two-day show attracting 12,700 people. Calum [Taylor, former Centaur Exhibition MD] did a fantastic job launching this product. The magazine and the website, which has 140,000 unique visitors a week, should demonstrate how far we can now go.
Reputationally, the Marketing Week brand has never been higher and we have a two-day manifestation of it. When we’re complete, that will become a minimum three-day show within a week of celebration of marketing. Up to 30,000 people is entirely achievable for us and at the right quality.
To exercise the power of the brand, we’ve broken down internal barriers. The teams are in total unison [conference, editorial, magazine publishers] and the realisation of what we can do together will be seen next June. We’re only scratching the surface right now. Has there been a particular focus on sectors across your portfolio?
Shows like our National Homebuilding and Renovating come out of a defined strategy of working in the middle of a market and with a magazine, which is Home Building and Renovating. Aligned with that is Real Homes, which complements that sector, plus Period Living. They are all about homebuilding and interiors. That is probably the best demonstration of our capabilities currently in terms of synergy. Our visitors are pre-qualified, have budgets of £75,000-£150,000 per head and they come to our events with builders’ plans. While the number of homes dramatically declined last year, our audience increased.
We also have three editions of the Business Travel Show, which is a sector this company has been involved with for 18 years. Then we have the launch Aidex show, which is focused on the humanitarian aid industry and could offer an opportunity to reverse out other editorial projects.
Centaur’s stated mission is to be absolutely at the core of every market we’re involved in by utilising assets, enhancing our reputation and only then, considering new market areas. Will you look to make acquisitions overseas?
This company has three shows managed in countries outside the UK; if we are to get where we need to go we have to have capability within our portfolio to grow internationally. If you’re running a show in Dusseldorf for the business travel community, it’s sensible to have a German running the show, based in Germany. That is what we have now done. Are we going to become an international business? You bet your life. Do we still see opportunities in the UK? Yes we do. We can unearth some gems still. What is your biggest challenge?
The first realisation is around confidence in the business leaders and their plans; the second stage is to identify which markets we want to be in. This is going to be fast-growing markets with high yield and a potential to be in more than one destination. With respect, the brethren at Reed, Emap, UBM and everywhere else have been saying this for a long time. However it hasn’t been applied with vigour here and that’s our challenge.
We will centre ourselves in sectors that generate profits, so I expect attention to fall on B2B. The genuine opportunity is around the immense work to realise this business’ potential. Most of all, where I get the most pleasure is seeing individuals succeed and becoming an employer of choice. I’m intent on fuelling this business with young, hungry talent and enabling through the tiers of management, a fast-track growth to realise employee potential. The biggest hurdle is people.
We need to focus on acquisitions that have a strategic and cultural fit and get us where we want to be, then drive growth through those. What’s your opinion on the state of the exhibition industry today?
The model I was baptised in was gigantic shows. A year-and-a-half into my life at Montgomery, Interbuild ran its biggest ever show, which was 100,000sqm. These are days we’ll never see again and probably shouldn’t see again. Now, you have to complete with all manner of forces you didn’t then. The channels to market were easy to understand, the communication was relatively simple, the event proposition was less complicated and easier to transcribe to the visitors.
Some of the practices we adopted then are coming back in. This was illustrated to me through Aidex, where we built a show with no database of exhibitors or sponsors and audience. The humanitarian aid sector is diverse and if there is a crisis that takes place in or around your show, then your audience are going to deal with that over coming to an exhibition hall in Brussels. One of the things we adopted was a ‘war room’. We had a team of 10 people a day ringing visitors, reminding them of the show, the value propositions, explaining the misunderstood stuff like not having to pay to attend, and doing all the old practices we used to do.
Things have become more difficult. Communication channels are more diverse and we’re finding ourselves using tools like social media that we never thought would be relevant to our businesses. There is also an ever-decreasing attention span on what we do for a living in the eyes of our customers.
When your visitors leave in the morning to attend your event, they will have an expectation of what it will look like. If you improve on that expectation by giving them a great experience onsite on top of their learning or the effectiveness of the content, that’s your holy grail. What is your greatest fear for the industry?
My big, current fear is what opportunity my organisation will have to launch new shows long-term if and when Earls Court is redeveloped. Unfortunately, there’s a paucity of space in central London. I’m one of the biggest adopters of Excel but I also believe some shows need a home more akin to the facilities that Earls Court and Olympia [EC&O] offer. One of the biggest barriers to the development of my business is going to be where we are going to be able to host events. If you’re trying to launch a new show and you want a venue that provides flexibility in the space you want to start with, the truth is EC&O has a very difficult time planning a migration, exercising it and then trying to keep satisfaction between new and existing customers who want to launch new events.
For most of us that will be the biggest issue of all over the next few years. What’s the exhibition of the future look like?
Events of the future will be more of the same. If they deliver genuine value and return and a positive experience for visitors and stakeholders, exhibitors and the other people from those communities that are on the floor, then there’s a future for us all. I expect to see many organisers moving away from coveting high visitor numbers and becoming more obsessed with rebooks. It’s the first instigation of a commitment to your show and it’s only delivered via a good experience.
We’ve got to become increasingly sophisticated around our customers’ needs and deliver products that genuinely offer solutions. The clever organisers will deliver more integrated sponsorship solutions rather than just sell floor space. If you are positioned in the centre of your community and have data, then you can offer customers far more pre- and post-show offerings than what we are judged on, which is open periods of the show. That’s our growth opportunity.
Any comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
This interview was first published in January 2012's Exhibition News.