Note: Since this interview was done with Exhibition News, Mark Snell has become appointed to the helm of UBM’s US Canon Events business. He is now based in Los Angeles.
How did you get into exhibitions?
Frankly, I bluffed my way into a job at Blenheim in 1991 and it was the best thing that could have happened. It was a good time to be joining the business and the industry and the company was a great learning ground. From Blenheim it became Miller Freeman, then United in 1998, CMP and now various derivatives of UBM. It feels like it has been 10 businesses, but what has run throughout is that core focus on exhibitions and Blenheim’s bedrock of experience. What do you cover today?
I have P&L responsibility for a circa-£18m turnover business with 80 people. There are three main parts: Marketing, technology and e-commerce; Air Traffic Control (ATC); then call centres and customer management. Within each there are different brands, not all of which are exhibitions. We tend to focus on communities, but not by geography or platform; it’s about the market. In marketing and technology for example we have Technology for Marketing and Advertising (TFM&A) and shows around that. In e-commerce, we have Internet World, we acquired eCommerce Expo last year and we have other events in the UK. We are increasingly looking not to geoclone, but rather ‘geoadapt’ these overseas. We’ve also got a lot of what I’d call ‘service offerings’ that we target the visitor with. For instance, the US part of our call centre business is under the International Customer Management Institute, so it has a quasi-industry body position and has been training and certifying people to run call centres. How important is it to position an exhibition within a broader brand?
Our business is quite clear: We want to service professional communities. It’s not just about exhibitions either – there are conferences, events, awards, virtual events and so on – but as a whole, events are a very important aspect. What is on the top of your priority list in the next 12 months?
Growth. There are lots of layers to that. Twelve months is very tactical as a timeframe. As a business, we’re looking medium term and strategically while making sure things keep ticking over day-to-day. We have come through the recession very well but we’ve been out of the bunker for a long time and looking more long-term and expansionist. This includes expansion of longer-term planning, launching, buying and what we call non-exhibition revenue. Is it all smooth sailing from now?
The outlook is choppy, but the reality is businesses still have to do business. We have to go out and win the recovery. That’s the sea change in mentality I’ve seen from exhibitors more recently – you can see it in the investment into stand and build today. UBM has launched as well as acquired. Is one better than the other?
I know this is going to be a hedging answer, but it’s generally both and it depends. The objective is growth, but there are multiple ways of doing that and you have to get the balance of both right. If a market is underserved – either because of a gap or because those in that market aren’t doing a good job – launching would be the way to go. In a lot of geographies and markets things are pretty well served, particularly in the UK. If that’s the case, or if you want to get into adjacent spaces, then acquisition could well be the way to do it.
Overseas is different. We tend to buy controlling shares but we’re not closed to doing JVs either. One of the big things for us is what we’ve called ‘Infracos’, or things that originally come to us through acquisition. It’s about buying something in a particular geography with a good set of existing assets and shows in good markets with good growth prospects, then using that infrastructure to channel products from all around the world to launch into that market. Is your investment centred on exhibitions or other service or media platforms?
Within my business in the last couple of years, we acquired eCommerce Expo and Publishing Expo, which is now next door to TFM&A, and we have done organic launches such as OA&A, which is a bolt-on to TFM&A. We are doing TFM&A and eCommerce Expo in Manchester as a one-day regional event and that offers some further growth potential. Internationally, we are geoadapting and launched TFM&A in Shanghai this year, which will be joined by our Call Centre and eCommerce Expos to build scale there faster. We launch TFM&A in Mumbai this year and depending on how that goes, we will look to co-locate Call Centre and eCommerce Expo there as well.
To sum up, growth for UBM is through internationalisation, organic growth and launch, by acquisitions and via non-exhibition revenue. We’re doing a lot of virtual events for example, and ATC is researching its ability to produce a data product for exhibitors aggregating visitors to the exhibition.What do you mean by geoadapting?
It’s not about doing a carbon copy imitation; it’s about adapting shows to the realities of the local market. For example, TFM&A in the UK grew as a database marketing show and over time, added more email and mobile marketing as those areas took off. In China, it’s a lot less about data and more about online advertising. It’s partly market maturity, but also China is a relatively young consumer economy that’s high-tech savvy. Over time, marketers there will need to make sense of the data being accumulated and we’ll bring that content to them. As an organiser, you need to maintain an elastic brand that can mould to whatever is more topical and contemporary for respective markets. Has this cross-platform strategy changed the way you perceive exhibitions?
The basics of how you run an exhibition are the same. What this strategy opens up is more opportunity for clever marketing and smarter innovation. It does mean our managers are dealing with more complexity. They need to know how to run an exhibition but also see beyond that to learn from different business models and leveraging different assets. Have exhibitions as a medium changed during your 20-year career?
When I started, a lot of exhibitions were about chest-thumping marketing. It was about who had the biggest stand, was spending more on sponsorship and who had more gimmicks on the stand. There are still elements of that and exhibitors are competitive at shows because they want to carve a position and perception of who they are and how well they are doing. But both exhibitors and organisers have become much more sophisticated.
Broadly, the days of chest-thumping marketing have gone or evolved. Marketing is far more considered and targeted. We had an internal conference in January around our global events initiatives and heard a fascinating presentation from an ex-marketer at IBM. It’s incredible – the company had balance scorecards of assessing an event, strategic marketing objectives and how exhibiting fits into an annual platform.
Exhibitions are great – the core proposition of what we do is bring buyers and sellers together and it’s on the money. But we have had to surround that fundamentally sound core with a lot more. It’s particularly the case in my market segments, which need knowledge economy shows rather than transaction-led shows. In other sectors you need an exhibition to stock up or see what the next product is. But I would suspect even transactional shows are surrounding themselves with content and looking into hygiene factors to improve the experience.
How much of your business is international?
Financially, 45 per cent of my business is outside the UK. Over the last five years we’ve also changed our focus to be more collaborative internationally. How do you feel about Earls Court’s potential closure?
You want your event to be in what you perceive to be the market-leading location. But if that doesn’t exist anymore, then you should be able to put it in an accessible alternative venue if the brand is strong enough.
As an organiser, I’m all in favour of Earls Court staying open and very much support the AEO lobbying for that. I’m a pragmatist and a realist who’s having to work on the worst-case scenario and making contingencies while backing industry efforts to maintain Earls Court 100 per cent. How is technology changing exhibitions?
There’s a lot happening around mobile technology as well as traditional data capture. For us organisers, it’s about getting a helicopter view of what’s going on beyond the gate. We welcome having that aggregated view of who is capturing what and what interactions are happening between visitors and individual exhibitors and getting a sense of how someone is performing against other exhibitors.
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