Interview: Nineteen Events' Peter Jones

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What made you decide to launch Nineteen Events? There has been a lot of build-up to Nineteen Events and much learned along the way. Nineteen is really the culmination of doing a lot of things by trial and error, and getting it very wrong in the beginning.  My former business partner and I made our first attempt to become exhibition organisers more than 10 years ago. Within two years, we had built one of the fastest-growing organisers in the UK. People will probably remember us because it was the most amazing success story and spectacular failure in one go. In year one we turned over more than £1m in stand sales. Our backgrounds were in sales so essentially, we launched a business focused on sales, which is a really dangerous thing to do. In year two we turned over £1.1m and made our mark as exhibition heroes. No one could quite believe how we managed to do it, but we ended up demonstrating that. It was because we spent more than we were bringing in. By the end of year two we had gone bust. We had three shows: An aircraft electronics show called Avionics; a chocolate manufacturing expo; and a show that’s now known as Transport Security Expo [formerly Air and Port Security Expo]. We weren’t focused on costs, budgeting, forecasting or most importantly, cash. We found out the hard way that cash is king. Our bank manager at the time summed up our first two years as growing a skyscraper on a sandy beach. It was an extremely painful lesson to learn. I also had to explain to my wife and in-laws that we’d failed. They’d suggested we go back and get ‘proper’ jobs, but we were determined to somehow make it work and for the next year, we got things back together again. What was your next step? We started rebuilding in 2004, but this time with far more caution around costs and also with more structure and discipline. Cashflow on exhibitions is very deceiving; it lures you into a false sense of security that you’re rich. However, the chunky costs such as venue and contractor bills come out much closer to the show opening, while you have a year of selling stands and taking deposits. A lot of young entrepreneurs looking at their bank balance half way through the cycle will think they’re a lot better off than they are. Did you at any point doubt your own ideas? We had ideas and enthusiasm, and the drive and energy. What we were lacking was infrastructure. A business is like an engine; you might have the most fantastic pistons, gearbox and exhaust system, but if the clutch is weak, the whole thing is going to fail. We were burned from our experience but we’ve never looked back. In 2007, my business partner emigrated to Spain, so we separated the business. At that point I contacted Phil Soar to become a non-executive chairman of my new standalone company Niche Events. Even though I had gained more experience, I still felt too young to be on my own and I turned to Phil as a mentor and for support. As part of the split, I kept the Transport Security Expo, which celebrates 10 years this year. I was then looking for the next thing and in 2008 I launched Counter Terror Expo. That was my Vegas moment: Counter Terror Expo has turned out to be one of the fastest-growing trade shows in the UK. When we struck the deal with Clarion Events in 2009 it was one of the largest deals that year, against possibly the worst fiscal conditions, as the global economy collapsed. The three-year deal with Clarion was a long earnout. How did you manage it? The April 2012 show was the culmination of the three-year earnout deal. Since launching, Counter Terror Expo has grown from 900sqm to just under 6,000sqm, with just over 8,000 international attendees. Clarion is a much bigger company and things are run in a more structured corporate way, so to bring that together with our ‘tin shed’ operation was a very challenging thing to do. After getting over the initial excitement, there was a lot of anticipation and nerves about the three years ahead. But it turned out to be fantastic and Clarion has been impeccable throughout this period. In the first year, they were keen to get involved and understand the show, but quickly realised it was going well and growing quickly, so they took a step back and let us do our thing with their support. In our final year, Clarion put three full-time people into our company to ensure a seamless transition, who were immersed in our team. Before April, I had firmly set my sights on my next step, Nineteen Events.What’s Nineteen event’s mission statement? The mission statement is ‘world-class events by passionate people’. Over the last 10 years the biggest challenge I’ve faced is finding talented people. What I’ve come to realise is not everyone in the world wants to run their own business, and not everyone in life is as money-motivated as I am. Most people need to know they’re secure, that they’re looked after, and that there’s a career path. It doesn’t always mean becoming the next Alan Sugar. With Nineteen Events, I want to show our focus is on our people. We have made a big investment in new headquarters, as well as employee benefits such as a pension scheme, either free gym membership or healthcare and paid-for parking, and flexible hours on when you start and finish your eight-hour day. Why was the rebrand necessary? Technically Clarion bought Niche Events, but if we’d wanted to keep the brand we could have. I wanted a new beginning. Nineteen marks the start of doing things differently. In order to get the real buy-in and support, my team needs to be supported with the right environment and culture. I want to grow this company into something significant in this industry. Niche Events, although very successful in selling Counter Terror Expo, was the way we did things before. We now have the experience and science to apply to all our events moving forward.Will you look to particular market segments or industries for growth? No, although we focus on trade shows only. My preference is industries where a lot of kit is involved, because that needs space. An exhibition is also about demonstrating products and allowing visitors to touch, feel and have a hands-on experience. These are all things you can’t do with other media and that’s where a show comes into its own. We are starting with two trade events: Transport Security Expo and our new Clinical Cosmetic and Reconstructive Expo. What prompted the Clinical Cosmetic and Reconstructive Surgery Expo? The idea was originally for a B2B clinical cosmetics show, but we’ve developed the concept to also include the reconstructive sector, which brings a serious element to the show such as post-trauma and work with the military. We’ll also look at non-surgical procedures. What impact is the recession having on spending in these sectors? Cosmetic surgery through the last four years has actually been growing at 5-6 per cent per year, according to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, despite the terrible economic climate. Reconstructive surgery doesn’t really change based on economic circumstances as it is a need-to have. The non-surgical market is also a booming market as people look to enhance their appearance but don’t want to go under the knife. What’s the biggest challenge you face as a small organiser? The challenge is to live up to our benchmark. Counter Terror Expo was phenomenal and we sold that in our launch year in a deal worth just south of £10m. The pressure is on to do it again and better it. I think we have our next winner with the Clinical Cosmetic and Reconstructive Expo. It is highly topical, recession-proof, and if you look at the market stats, it’s a growing industry. Now we have more time to spend on Transport Security Expo, we also have major plans for that show and expect to double or triple its size over the next two to three years. The challenge is to find number three. We are delighted to have been invited to Exhibition News’ Dragons Den for the exhibition world and excited to be helping foster the next ideas. I want to help other people rise up the ranks. Over the last 10 years, I’ve gone it alone, gone bust, put it back together and got the business to a point where we’re doing really well. I want to help other people at the same juncture I was then, where they have an idea but don’t have a background in running their own business. What we can offer is the infrastructure and the blessing of not having to get funding from a bank to launch a new show. Our investment arm Nineteen Invest is my own cash and I’m prepared to risk it on someone else’s idea while being there every step of the way to support them and make sure it works. Are there still opportunities left in the UK? There is massive opportunity here. Counter Terror Expo is testament to that and Transport Security Expo has tripled its attendance since being in London. Clinical cosmetic hubs could be Geneva, Paris, Los Angeles but we chose London and we’re getting a huge amount of encouragement and backing for that show. What’s your verdict on the overall health of trade shows? It is a tough market. But as Phil Soar points out, more millionaires are made in a recession than any other time. It opens an opportunity for small organisers to have a chance because it forces people to be innovative. When times are good, people are complacent because everyone is booking. When times are hard, you have to work much harder to find the money and that is where small organisers have an opportunity. The more established shows struggle with this because they’re relying on rolling out the same thing over and over again. Unless you’re putting in lots of additional value, exhibitors won’t book again next year. As I tell my sales team, every company needs to do business and in order to do that, you have to keep marketing yourself. And in order to market yourself, you have to spend money. How can organisers innovate an exhibition? It comes down to content and trust. With the Clinical Cosmetic and Reconstructive Expo, we have planned more content than any other event in the market, from clinical masterclasses to live demo theatres, conferences and debates. There is a small charge for the conference, but that is mainly to satisfy the keynote speakers and allows us to qualify who is in the theatre. There are so many different reasons to attend the show. The other thing that’s important to establish when times are tough is trust. For someone to invest in your show, particularly a launch, they have to trust you. We have the leading UK plastic surgeon, Norman Waterhouse, endorsing the show and as our lead clinical director of content. We know how to organise a trade show, but when the industry asks what expertise we have in this field, we can rely on him for guidance. Norman is also putting together an advisory board for the content to ensure it is focused and accurate. How far can Nineteen Events go? I want to create something I can not only be extremely proud of, but also the people involved in it with me. I’m very lucky to be at the stage financially where I don’t have to do anything. I am doing this for the pure thrill of launching and growing trade shows. Why makes exhibitions so great? An exhibition touches on the humans’ most fundamental chord, which is interaction with other humans. It’s so much more powerful being face-to-face with somebody if you want to get your message across. There’s nothing quite like the buzz of opening the doors to a show and watching the buyers and sellers come together. Thsi was first published in the August edition of EN. Any comments? Email exhibitionnews@mashmedia.net
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