Interview: Diversified Business Communications UK MD Carsten Holm

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How did you get into the industry? A lot of people in the exhibition industry started in publishing sales and I’m no different. I was working on a weekly trade newspaper for the commercial fishing sector called Fishing News. There was a show up in Aberdeen called Catch, and our MD realised we were doing all the promotion and marketing for it, while they were reaping the financial benefits for owning that industry for just two or three days a year. We decided to launch an exhibition in Glasgow and within a couple of years we became the biggest trade show of any type in that city. It taught me an awful lot about trade shows because we were very good at looking after the customers. We had things like a free bar and cabaret nights and it became an internationally renowned event. It was also a time when exhibitions were coming into their own. You then joined Blenheim. What did you take away from that beacon of the industry? I joined when Blenheim owned the Harrogate Gift Fair. At that time, it had been the big summer event with about 1,200 exhibitors. One year they had a huge fire, which took out all the lower halls, affected hundreds of exhibitors and left many unable to exhibit or having to be relocated. They actually ran the event but it was horrific. Many people went bust and there were a lot of problems with insurance. The fair took place in July and the team at Blenheim didn’t know whether the show had a future. So the company recruited a new team headed up by Stephen Richards with me as sales manager. We started from November on a July show with 30 contracts signed, but half thought the fair was cancelled anyway, so we basically started from scratch. At the same time, TPS launched the Autumn Fair in Birmingham and many started to think that would take over from Harrogate. We worked so hard and everyone was completely committed to Harrogate. We ended up with about 950 exhibitors, which was an incredible achievement. We also completely changed the look and feel of it with modern shell schemes, party nights, jazz bands in the halls and made it more of an event. And Harrogate came back. The experience taught me so much about teamwork, as well as working closely with our contractors. No one is more important than anyone else in this industry – we are all equal.What brought you to Diversified? Diversified acquired Natural and Organics Products Europe from Robert Bines, and ran it for three or four years under his stewardship. A competitor came in to the market and it became personal, and Diversified’s show began losing market share. Our CEO Nancy Hasselback realised Diversified in Europe would be a short-lived idea unless they did something about it. One day I got a call about becoming MD. I had been at Clarion and had spent time working with Emap and Quantum. I then tried to launch something on my own, a Christmas event in Hyde Park, which very nearly happened but ended up out of my control. You need a lot of luck in this industry – there are barriers and you don’t always know what’s going to stick, so you have to be prepared to just keep trying and if you try enough, you’ll have your successes. I was doing a project for Andrew Morris and told him I had some great ideas but didn’t have the cash to launch and needed help achieving them. He suggested Upper Street Events, so I joined them and out of that came one launch, Caffe Culture. But I had been called two months into my stint with Upper Street by Diversified and while it was a great team there, opportunities such as heading up Diversified UK don’t come along very often. How does being part of a US company affect your expansion into other territories? Our biggest show is still European Seafood Exposition in Brussels, which is about 40,000sqm, and that’s organised out of the states because that is where our global expertise is based. We also look at how our events out of the UK can be adapted. For example, the Service Desk and IT Support Show, which we acquired [from VCM Events] about a year ago is a great show with potential to geoadapt. We only have about 80 exhibitors, but they’re the ones that matter and because of that we get 4,500 visitors. Our exhibitors suggested we look at other markets and we are exploring those at the moment. Lunch! is another example. It can only work in countries where you have that fast food culture, such as the UK or Australia. It would not work in India or China. We launched in Australia a few weeks ago after a short launch period of 10 months and we ended up with 112 exhibitors and 3,600 visitors. The quality was phenomenal, the exhibitors loved it, and that 112 will be 250 exhibitors next year. That is a great example of how a brand can travel. But it’s important to remember something that works in one country will be different in another as there are distinct market dynamics. What is your unique value proposition? It is that we are able to develop cultures in each country. The Diversified way of doing things is serving our customers and making sure they get ROI, but the individual offices are allowed to develop their own ways of achieving that. We also have a flat structure and again that’s something greatly encouraged. Another huge difference is we are a family-owned company. If you have big corporate shareholders, the bottom-line pressures are very different than having a family of shareholders which takes a much long-term view. It’s the best of both worlds – we have access to funds, economies of scale and support, but we are not so big we have lost entrepreneurialism or a local approach.  I remember when we were launching Lunch!, Nancy called me up one day because we were behind the business plan in terms of sales, and said to me ‘It’s not looking too good, is it?’. She asked whether it was time to call it a day, and I told her that if my house were on it, I’d carry on. That’s not to say I wouldn’t lose the house – I might – but that was what I would bet. She said ‘that’s good enough, carry on’. That casual conversation was better than having to go through lots of hoops and demonstrates the trust across our company. Lunch! took us three years to get to profit and five to become a great show, but it has been worth it. That’s the way you’re going to see Diversified in this country continue to grow. It’s going to be gradual, with one or two launches or acquisitions a year.Diversified has done acquisitions and launches almost in equal measure. Is it better to launch or acquire today? I would love to do more acquisitions, because it’s easier and you know what you have, but it’s very difficult to get the right one. When the right opportunity comes along, everyone wants it. These days I’m seeing more opportunities than I have done over recent years. We are looking at a couple of things and within the next 6-9 months we shall hopefully have something to announce. The opportunities are going to come from niche, vertical events such as Lunch!, a 2,000 or 3,000sqm show. We do have a few things we’re working on in other territories that we’re also looking to bring here in the next couple of years, so that’s exciting. Will you expand outside the exhibition model? We are looking at a conference, but I’m a strong believer in trade exhibitions. If you get it right, it beats anything. What’s interesting is a few years ago everyone was talking about virtual events, then running virtual events running alongside trade shows. The reason for trade shows is people want to meet face-to-face, touch, feel, sniff products and look you in the eyes. If you want a virtual exhibition or to look for a specific product, go to Google. Trade shows are about lots of products, talking about prices, content and engaging with people. Some shows go through bad times, and others come along, but all in all I think this sector is in rude health. Would you agree the trade show of today isn’t the same as the one of yesterday? Absolutely, and that ties into Diversified’s focus on small to medium-sized events. In former days, visitors were numbers and although we researched them, we didn’t really get close to them. Nowadays, partnership is the reality. With every event we do, we have an advisory panel of exhibitors and buyers that we bring together in advance. They love the opportunity to meet but also to discuss how to improve the event. Another change is recognising trade shows need to be alive throughout the year. To do this, we have devised weekly newsletters, LinkedIn pages and other such offerings to hold that audience together. What’s the challenge for Diversified? It’s to continue to grow without losing the small company culture. Worldwide we have about 500, in the UK we’re 31 staff. For us, the most important characteristics are personality and attitude. Experience and skills are things you can give staff, but the personality and attitude you can’t. If you get one person wrong, it upsets the whole team. Everyone is working so hard for each other and committed to making sure our exhibitors have great shows. We have musicians, comedians and actors at Diversified and those kinds of people are a little bit odd but fantastic. The event director on Lunch! is a stand-up comedian and hosts our British Smoothies Championship, and he gets the audience laughing on the show floor, which creates ambience and a relaxed feel. That’s important to us. It’s a serious business but people must enjoy coming along. How do you decide when you’ve got a concept worth launching? You need 100 ideas to get one that sticks. One of the benefits of being around for a while in this industry is you engage with a few different sectors, know what has happened before and understand history has a habit of repeating itself. To launch something successfully, it needs to be a fairly simple concept. If you’re going to excite people, you need to get across what you’re trying to achieve in less than a minute. Once you get that across and people acknowledge it as a great idea, you’ve got something. If it takes more than a minute, it’s too complicated. Or if they say no, walk away. Some people will do a lot of research and go into too much detail. You can feel when it’s right, and back that up by making 30 or 40 calls to key people. If they like the idea, you ask them to help you do it and be involved as partners. If all that doesn’t work, or you get conflicting views, then you’re either going to end up with a show that looks completely different to what you first envisaged, or nothing. If it’s nothing, move on. Do you have to know that market sector in detail, or can an organiser run any show? You need to employ people that know the industry inside out. We are a specialist exhibition organiser and what we’re good at is facilitating. We are not the industry and if we end up thinking we know more than that sector, we could end up with conflict. A few people questioned us when we acquired the Service Desk and IT Support Show, because it was so far outside of our comfort zone. If we’re going to grow, we can’t just be a one-trick pony and rely on what we know. That show has opened up a new opportunity already for us. Will it be successful? I don’t know, but we’ll give it a crack. How do you see the industry evolving? For starters, Germany will become increasingly powerful internationally. Excel London is a brilliant facility and its day is arriving. In the not too distant future,  there will also be an announcement of another London facility. We need it and it has got to happen, as Earls Court will probably go. Otherwise Excel will have a monopoly and will get to a point where it runs out of space. Someone has to wake up and get that London is a fantastic destination for trade shows. The exhibition industry is becoming increasingly consolidated and as organisers, we have to focus much more on our businesses, the visitor experience and on giving them value throughout the year. This was first published in the October edition of EN. Any comments? Email exhibitionnews@mashmedia.net
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