Interview: Reed Exhibitions chairman and CEO Mike Rusbridge

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Holding onto the reins of the world’s largest exhibition organiser brings with it no shortage of complicated decisions. The ocean of live marketing, exhibitions and all in between is undergoing a tidal change and Reed Exhibitions, as the largest ship in the ocean, is the one all eyes are on. Mike Rusbridge, as chairman, has his vision on the horizon as does any other corporate leader. But the sheer size of the company’s operation, while bringing benefits in terms of economies of scale, requires navigating months or even years in advance. Take virtual shows. While contemporaries such as UBM made landgrabs for this market, Reed has been notably reluctant to embrace them, as Rusbridge explains. “We are not, and never have been, believers in the concept of virtual trade shows. One or two of our competitors have made a big deal of it and I think they are rapidly, quietly retreating from that. “What we have done though, is you have to fully embrace the Internet. That has huge value to us and the way we interact with our customers, and it extends the period of the relationship we have with our customers,” he says. “I don’t see that being in the form of virtual tradeshows. There is a range of other services we can offer via the web, and so far, so good. We’re investing heavily in it, we’re experimenting. “We’re going to considerable lengths now in terms of customer knowledge and insight. We have all kinds of processes, software research tools and KPIs that we can show in terms of customer satisfaction across a whole range of metrics. “So as opposed to virtual tradeshows, what we have done is invest more than £20m on a web hosting platform. We’ve got over 300 of our shows on that platform.” Reed’s suite of applications ranges from appointment setting systems to interactive high-quality content directories, enabling visitors to interrogate that information ahead of time. “A lot of visitors will go to a show for a day or two, so they want to be very effective in how they spend their time,” comments Rusbridge. “So we are now, on a lot of our shows, developing tens of thousands of individual meetings between buyer and seller. “What we’re doing more of is how can we help clients after the shows. What about the 200 or 300 people you never got to see? How can we help you follow through with that? At the heart of everything we do is still delivering a face-to-face event. What we recognise however is that four days of the year isn’t how people operate, but it is very important to them. So we’re trying to make that event very focused on internal investment. We’re trying to extend the value of what we do from four days to three months, to six months, to ultimately 12 months a year,” he says. Relationship broker Rusbridge talks about Reed’s foremost role in business being a ‘relationship broker’, responsible for uniting parties mutually capable of benefiting from each other’s business. As a result, any new trends in technology or strategy must revolve around fulfilling that need. “We broker relationships between buyer and seller,” he says. “If you’re going to be successful in doing that, you’re going to need to know enough about the buyer and seller to know what the two of them want, and that it will be productive for them to meet up and do business together. That means you need to know an awful lot more about them than the name of the company and the address and so on. “It’s not just data, which to me has connotations of slabs of information. What we’re looking for is the type of knowledge we need to do the best job we can.”  To Rusbridge this means segmentation and working to create the most appropriate appointment models,  for example ‘one-to-many’ or ‘one-to-one’.  Of course the complication arises in that creating requested one-to-one meetings is quite a challenge when you’re managing 1,000 companies and upwards of 40,000 visitors. “Increasingly customers are saying: ‘We’re not interested in the 40,000. What we’re interested in is the 500 that we particularly want to see. Are you going to be able to deliver them to us?’,” says Rusbridge. “Therefore the range of services we offer have to really deliver return on investment. They must be efficient at what they do. Because the investment, as we all know, is not insignificant.” In an industry dedicated to face-to-face meetings, the likelihood is that in creating effective online tools that extend and promote our existing offering, we will need to look outside our own businesses. It is here that Reed hopes to take the lead, tapping skillsets from other industries in order to augment our own. “We are already working with [these companies],” says Rusbridge. “Whether it’s publishers moving online or online service providers, we can work together to create a service or an offering that on our own we could not do. It’s back to this notion of partnerships. We can’t possibly be specialists at everything we do, so hopefully we’re honest enough with ourselves to say ‘look, in this particular area, or skill, or service level, we’re going to have to go work with someone who is’. “As a result we are always putting our feelers out to a range of companies to say ‘why don’t we work together to deliver something that on our own we could spend a long time trying to develop and probably fail, or we can do something together.” Of course not all projects bear fruit, as Rusbridge concedes. “Frankly it’s try and test at the moment, some work; some don’t. We’re working with people and saying ‘why don’t we greenhouse?’. You need funding, help and support – why don’t we do something together? We’ve got a few of those working quite successfully now. “So all the time we’re trying to push that envelope in terms of how we need to work and how we need to change. There are a lot of very smart people doing very smart things. And we could do with their help and support them.”Give them what they want Reed is a big player when it comes to hosted buyer programmes. Events such as the Barcelona-based meeting planners show EIBTM and its US stablemate AIBTM regularly attract thousands of visitors, all getting the most they can from the events due to Reed’s adherence to planned meetings. In 2012 Reed delivered its most successful hosted buyer programme to date, with more than 4,100 international hosted buyers taking a table as one of as one of 65,000 pre-scheduled appointments throughout EIBTM. “We invest millions on just one show delivering hosted buyers,” says Rusbridge. “Whether it’s hosting them fully, or block booking to get preferential arrangements, or working hand-in-glove with the cities as we do with our shows [MIPTV etc] in Cannes.” Reed has a variety of relationships with cities and governments, claims Rusbridge, and most are open to the negotiations necessary to develop the shows effectively. Ultimately an exhibition brings big business to that city – aiding the organiser is win-win and if the case is carefully put, the benefits are forthcoming. “In Vienna, which has been highly successful for us, we’ve worked closely with the leading exhibition organising company there to deliver a really vibrant congress business. It put enormous wealth into Vienna, it helps pay for our tenancy costs, and so on,” says Rusbridge, adding that knowing these parties are likely to be amenable to Reed’s aspirations for the show, increases the chance it will develop successfully in that city. “[Our business] is far from formulaic, it’s considered and tailor-made to suit individual requirements. That could be a venue, a city, another organiser, a partner or whoever. And we have hundreds of these arrangements in various parts of the world. The factor that everybody buys into is that we’ve been around for a long time, we have very high standards, we’ve very focused on quality and understand the needs of the individuals were getting involved with,” he claims. “If you like, we prepare the ground pretty thoroughly before we do something, rather than throw mud at a wall. There are other organisers who launch a lot and cancel a lot. We don’t do that. We launch quite few, but most of them stick. That’s all part and parcel of the relationship. You’re not going to get credibility with a partner or a city or a hall if you launch 10 shows and cancel eight.” But despite Reed’s obvious leverage from its network and economies of scale, Rusbridge claims most of the organiser’s expansion is – and will continue to be – achieved through organic growth. “Acquisitions are the icing on the cake,” he says. “Fundamentally we’re focused on organic growth and acquisitions add a per cent or two to that growth rate. It’s not the primary driver of our business.” Reed launches 30 to 40 shows a year, in 2012 it launched 32, and is now working hard to win buy-in from businesses it may acquire, or invest in, in order to grow them faster. “I think we’re all on a rack,” says Rusbridge. “You can’t stop and we will continue to innovate and to improve the services and models we use. The big broad ones, the niche ones, the confex ones, the summits, all kinds of things we’re playing around with. We continue to innovate and develop. I think the message is you can’t stand still.” This was first published in the March edition of EN. Any comments? Email exhibitionnews@mashmedia.net
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