Interview: James Brooks-Ward

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How did you get into the industry? Like a lot of people, I drifted into the exhibition industry. I did a stint in the army and left not knowing quite what to do. My father ran horse shows including most of the big ones in this country, and my twin brother does the London International Horse Show at Olympia. Both of them were BBC commentators and very involved with the horses, but I didn’t want to go into that industry. I did however like the idea of events, so I took a job free of charge for three months as a sales executive and went from there. I had no sales training and was lacking in professional qualifications. The only skills I had are those that bring most people in exhibitions together: Determination, good humour and an ability to communicate. I’ve been with Ocean two years and before that Clarion Events. Before that I was with P&O Events.What were your main objectives coming into Ocean media? When I came in this was predominantly a publishing business [Trinity Mirror] with an exhibition department. The exhibition business was sold in a management buy-in, which I joined after a year-and-a-half. Interestingly, although the exhibition department was small and the company was predominantly focused on publishing, 72 per cent of the profits came from revenue through exhibitions, events and conferences. Although everything was working, we didn’t have the ‘normal’ format of a show director, marketing, operations and sales working as one cohesive unit. The second point was that the ops people were all ex-house, whereas I think it’s important to have a centralised ops department in-house. My third priority was to convince the team that they could do more, particularly when given more.How many shows do you organise? We had 12 when I came in; now we’re up to 20. As well as launch, I wanted to advance the products as some of the exhibitions looked tired and were under-funded. We poured a lot of money into our weddings portfolio for example, putting back in features like the catwalks, plus better lighting and shell scheme to make the visitor experience more appealing. I also thought we needed to develop a team spirit that was fun and happy. That’s what makes people motivated and helps them to achieve more. I was also keen to ensure the event directors were the heroes of the piece. They should get kudos and credit for their efforts because they do a fantastic job and I’m immensely proud of their achievements. Ocean’s profit has grown in the last three years and the turnover has grown significantly despite the recession. This is the only true measure of success – being able to make money, have fun and expand. How important was investment into new features and content? Most exhibitions are temporary retail environments and whether you’re a business-to-business visitor or a consumer, you’re still a shopper. If you keep visitors engaged and make it a pleasurable experience, they will stay longer and buy more. You also have to identify the people who are good at running your existing portfolio, then search out the people in the company who are risk takers.How have you restructured the Ocean team? The lesson I learnt early in my career was not to expect people who were very good at developing and managing a successful business to be natural launchers. The skills are different and understanding that is key. What was the thinking behind launching a boutique show like White Gallery? We are of a size where we can do smaller fairs. Some people have a limit they won’t go below – such as £500,000 revenue in two years – because they can’t do it operationally. The other thing to remember is that a lot of shows start small and grow big – they don’t start big with 10,000sqm net space and a big conference on the side. I did a lot of launches at Clarion and my experience has been that what you start out with isn’t necessarily what you end up with. You’re talking to clients and visitors all the time, so hopefully there’s some flexibility in where you end up. Too often people stick to their plan, and you’ve got to be slightly flexible to cope with a launch. Will we see more boutique-style launches from Ocean? We’d already launched a boutique lingerie show in Berlin from our Dutch office – we decided in February 2009 to launch and in July 2009, we ran it. It will have its fifth outing in July. You never really know whether that’s the show that will be 10,000sqm in future or will remain boutique. Its life will dictate that course.Is there a risk of cannibalising your larger events? Sometimes. In any market place, there’s a top-end and bottom end and exhibitions sitting in both. Every show has its right audience and I think with White Gallery, it’s a much narrower base than our bigger wedding shows. What you do get though is not cannibalisation, but a redrawing of the boundaries where one show gets bigger, and the other gets smaller. Hopefully you’ve got all markets covered. What market sectors are you focusing on? We’re concentrating on the leisure sector with Boat and Caravan, and we have the Event Production Show. Our biggest area is specialist fashion. We have evening wear, lingerie and weddings and will do other launches in specialist fashion. To support that, we have magazines here and on the continent, plus websites and awards, so we’re building a community. If I had a golden pot, I’d buy into another specialist fashion area and build that up. We have launched seven shows in that space in the last two years. Are you looking abroad? Like everyone else in the industry, the growth is overseas. The UK is a very crowded marketplace; it’s incestuous and fickle. Whichever region one chooses to invest in, there is business to be done. And size is irrelevant – you don’t need to be big to go overseas.  Our preference is to have local experts and launch alongside them with our own staff. We incentivise launches heavily, so if someone has a good idea, after three years they can make some money. We launched Luxury Wedding Show this year, we’re launching a social housing and IT event in Holland, which is specialist, and we’ve recently launched a German-based United Sourcing Fair for fashion wholesalers. We’re doing another launch in the social housing market in the UK and we did The Outdoor Show at The NEC for the first time this year. What inhibitors do you face as a company? There are no inhibitors in terms of launches, but what you’ve got to accept is that they’re a much longer return and they’re more valuable as a result. The main thing is you have to find someone who understands the market place, and a belief in the project will go a long way. People given products to launch will never achieve. I’ve failed quite a few times and that’s also something that’s valuable.What are the challenges for our industry? You do have to provide more than you used to. Certainly in our game, we have to deliver catwalks, trend seminars, newsletters and other types of content. There will be more linkages with conferences, particularly in B2B, because that’s delivering content at a high level, whereas exhibitions tend to be more middle market and everyone is welcome. We’re all going to have to work harder on our web propositions and how we market ourselves. In this game, you must believe in the ability of face-to-face sales and touching and feeling product. Humans are a social, interactive group and they like mixing. Any comments? Email exhibitionnews@mashmedia.net
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