Taking stock of your business mistakes can help you find show success long-term. Nadia Cameron asks exhibition organisers to own up to their biggest errors in judgment and the lessons they took away.
Everybody makes mistakes, right? We’re human after all. And unless you fail, how are you ever going to figure out what success is or avoid making mistakes next time?
The exhibition industry landscape is strewn with errors and misjudgements: From unsuccessful and unprofitable shows, to good but mistaken ideas that failed to launch and the relationships that turned sour because of miscommunication or insufficient knowledge.
Every failure can help us create stronger opportunities and successes next time. EN asked several of our industry’s leaders to admit their show mistakes but more importantly share the lessons that came out of them.
MD, Ocean Media
Clarion Events’ Fly The London Airshow was conceived by James Brooks-Ward, with his sales and show directors while at a pub behind Earls Court. The brief was to deliver a launch consumer event with high-ticket items catering to a dedicated and easy-to-reach audience. Cars and boats were already well covered, so what about planes?
“The first question you might ask is why not run it on an airfield, which may have been more sensible,” Brooks-Ward said. “We wanted an indoor show that could complement outdoor events, much like the London International Boat Show versus the Southampton Boat Show.
“There is a lot of money in flying – helicopters and light planes cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. It has both a new and second-hand market. There’s also the growing computer gaming and flight simulator business.”
Response from the aviation industry was overwhelmingly positive and complemented high plane registrations in the UK and research from two airfields. Helicopter and plane manufacturers, aviation accessories providers and the industry all got behind it and sponsors proved easy to find.
“We were sure we were onto a winner,” Brooks-Ward continued. “The one thing we hadn’t taken into account was the additional overheads and the 11m wingspan of most of the planes. Even on a diagonal, only 7m would fit through the Earls Court loading bays. We also needed to get planes transported down the motorway.”
Despite the hurdles, Fly The London Airshow ran for three years, attracting 15,000 visitors in year one and making a small profit in years two and three. But there were four issues the trio hadn’t explored in great depth which led to the show’s cancellation: The cost of making planes airworthy again once the wings went back on; the market catchment size; the lack of growth opportunities; and the actual dollars in the pockets of its potential audience.
“What we discovered was that people were enthusiasts for flying, but they’d sell their grandmother and kids trying to get the last gallon of fuel to fly on Saturday,” Brooks-Ward said. “This didn’t translate into sales.”
So what lessons did Brooks-Ward take from it?
“Firstly, the lesson is to make sure you don’t allow gut feeling people to solely make decisions,” he claimed. “You need decent market research and to stress-test the launch criteria.
“We also should never have assumed the audience had money. And if you don’t earn enough money, you’ve got to determine what second point there is to the show, such as a spin-off event, or brand extension.
“Finally, the lesson is to be flexible – if you can do it and if your first isn’t working well, choose another location quickly.” Brooks-Ward admitted show launches are tough but encouraged individuals who erred first continue trying.
“If you have setbacks or a lemon, go and make the next event better. You will fail if you do launches and you can look like an idiot, but it’s the launch people who will eventually make the money,” he claimed.
MD, The Energy Event, Emap
Emap’s Alison Jackson said the mistake that deprived her of the largest amount of sleep was made in the lead-up to the 2009 Spring Fair International. Emap had just been acquired by joint venture partners Apax and Guardian Media Group and the pressure on cutting costs was high.
“We had a 30-year tenancy agreement with The NEC and as a result, were focused on getting out of it because of the massive pressure we were under in terms of cost,” Jackson said. “The NEC was happy to help us, but the result was that we were going to have to charge for parking, which was £8. I thought this was reasonable, so I simply put the information into a letter four months before the event.”
However, Spring Fair exhibitors and visitors thought differently. Within one day, Jackson had received 330 emailed complaints. The situation was exacerbated by the rise in social networking sites as well as her initial efforts to ignore the response.
“It proved a massive mistake and an oversight on what people value,” Jackson said. “The more I ignored it, the worse it got. Things really got out of control.”
The severe response from Spring Fair supporters gave Jackson a great insight into identifying customer values.
“Emap has several shows where people pay for parking and those markets value other things from us,” she said. “With the Spring Fair customers, paying parking was a valuable offer.
“The other thing is you don’t just put this information in a letter – we needed to explain why and show how we were reinvesting that money into new content and features. So it’s worth pointing out the good news in the same time. Spring Fair is in great shape now as a result of the money being reinvested.” Emap nevertheless reversed its decision and continues to pay for parking at Spring Fair.
“The cost was over £300,000 but I had to put a stop to the problem as it would have ruined the show,” Jackson said. “You shouldn’t judge just by what you think is reasonable.
“You can’t do enough research into what your audience values in the experience of your event.”
Not understanding your customer base presents plenty of scope for mistakes, but how about those little errors that can hinder acquisitions and mergers?
For Pioneer’s Nick Orton, his error was in deciding not to act on an opportunity. The show in question was Race Retro, an historic racing car show founded by Ian Williamson at Stoneleigh Park.
“Ian wanted to put on a very high-level racing car show because that market wasn’t being catered for,” Orton explained. “He was an enthusiast and owned a number of historic cars himself, but he didn’t really know how to put a show on profitably.
“Ian started putting the show together and had aspirations for it to be seamlessly beautiful. What happened was that he created a market-leading event in that sector and got great respect from the industry for doing it and he loved it. But he got into financial issues and as a result, wanted to sell the event.”
Orton, who also has a passion for cars, saw an opportunity to purchase the event and began due diligence on Race Retro’s finances, budgets and future growth potential.
“I could see I needed to get better pricing, improve the marketing so we got better gate returns and sell more space,” Orton continued. “We could improve everything including the margins.
“The problem was Ian had a massive debt and needed to sell the event for quite a lot of money. He was quite willing to do a deal so that I took over the event, he kept a proportion of it and exited over the long-term to get his debt repaid.”
Although initially keen, Orton was persuaded by a respected industry colleague to rethink the transaction. Live Promotions subsequently took over the event which still runs today.
“The mistake I made was listening to that person too much,” Orton said. “What I didn’t know at the time was that he had his own agenda, which didn’t fit with mine.
“The industry veteran I asked had an opinion and I didn’t have any complaints about that, but if you’re an entrepreneur and are looking to acquire a show and build a business, you have to be very confident in your own abilities. In that instance, I looked to the veteran’s opinion and let that outweigh my own feelings. As it happened, my colleague’s approach put the seller off, who didn’t like this other person being involved.”
Orton said the experience gave him more confidence in his own abilities and helped to put future third-party advice into perspective.
“My advice to others is to seek other people’s help, but believe in your own ability. If you are passionate and committed enough to go into something, you will make it work,” he added.
MD, Haymarket Exhibitions
The greatest lesson for any exhibition organiser to learn is that turnover is vanity but profit is sanity, Haymarket’s Gavin Brown claims.
“There is no point chasing your ego over something which isn’t viable,” he advised. “You need to focus on the current contribution a show makes, or be very clear on what contribution to the business a show will make down the track.”
Brown speaks from experience. Earlier in his career and while still in partnership with June Barker at Barker Brown, his company pursued a consumer exhibition it probably shouldn’t have. The company was focused on the fashion and clothing industries.
“We launched and set ourselves a cut-off date six months in,” Brown explained. “We pursued it for another three months after that before coming to the conclusion we could have made earlier: That it wasn’t viable.
“But because we were passionately attached to it, it seemed like a good idea to keep going and going. That decision proved very expensive because we didn’t proceed but we still had costs related to it.” Brown said exhibition organisers must set deadlines on what they need to achieve with every show and then stick to them.
“What’s the point of giving it a bit longer? You need to be brutal with yourself as well, which is sometimes difficult because of our emotional attachments to events,” he said.
“You lose money in year one, break even in year two and make money in year three. So if you don’t have something which you can see making money after two years, you need to have something which will be an instant hit financially.
“There’s no reason you can’t do one-off events, you just need to identify that and adjust your investment accordingly.”
MD, CloserStill Media
The human dimension is often overlooked in commentary and analysis of business performance and what makes a company tick, CloserStill’s Andy Center claims. It can also lead to mistakes.
“Choosing the wrong key staff or business partner can be equally as damaging as any other form of misjudgement or miscalculation and can often lead to far more damaging results,” he said.
Center pointed to two examples where choosing the wrong type of business partner led him to poor business decisions. He defined these as “the dreamer” and “the schemer”.
“First, ‘the dreamer’: The convincing, erudite strategist who, for some reason, has yet to actually make any of his or her grand plans actually work,” Center explained. “They are usually charming, well-intentioned and believe every word they say.”
In Center’s case, the dreamer was a French entrepreneur with charm and savoir faire.
“He had a colourful past as an opera agent for a transsexual, Brazilian male soprano and was incredibly articulate, stylish and did everything with real panache,” Center explained. “He also had a fantastic idea for a trade show bringing together exotic, hard-to-source foods from all over the world to satisfy the increasingly international tastes of consumers in developed western economies.
“The bad news was that he didn’t know one end of a budget from the other, was an inveterate exaggerator and surrounded himself with interesting rather than effective staff.”
Center’s mistake was to give the individual too much latitude while continuing to believe in the dream and promises of ‘imminent’ sales.
“Crucially, I didn’t put in a hard-headed GM to put some discipline and craft into the business to go with the grand plans,” he said. The poor partnership culminated in an event in Paris with a 2,700sqm hole left by the biggest promised exhibitor who didn’t turn up.
“A bizarre sequence of events culminated with me and our French lawyer stumbling into what seemed to be a ‘Triad’ den above a laundry in a backstreet of the Chinese quarter of Paris,” Center continued. “After a tense and rather troubling couple of hours, the two of us left more quickly than we had entered with €20,000 in used and small denomination notes stuffed into an attaché case.”
Luckily the experience didn’t cause significant business damage. Center said he also took pride in the event bringing Halal and Kosher food side-by-side for the first time.
“The lessons are, I think, obvious: Turning dreams into reality calls for the application of sound business principles, hard figures and dreamers should probably be locked in a room and asked to pass their ideas out under the door for others to execute,” Center said.
On the flip side, “the schemer” is far more sinister and “altogether more unpleasant”. Center admitted his misjudgement was to invest in two “schemers’” businesses.
“The signs are obvious, so don’t ignore them: Small, pointless lies, numbers that change repeatedly or don’t add up, poorly paid or fearful staff,” Center continued. “But don’t lose sight of the wheat for the chaff.
“Ironically, I don’t regret any of these misadventures, although I would rather have avoided their consequences. The alternative is to be cynical about everything, to assume the worst in people. Frankly, I would rather not.”
However, Center admitted to learning even harder lessons from managing staff and advised business leaders to support employees effectively. He highlighted one example where his determination to see one promising female staff member rise to board level put her under too much pressure and led her to leave the exhibition business.
“I am much more aware now of the need to keep an eye on the most committed members of the team and to ensure that no-one shoulders too heavy a burden on their own,” Center concluded. “It is hard to ask someone to slow down in a pressured environment but everyone has their limit.”
Better long-term interpretation
With every mistake comes an opportunity for us to become better individuals, better business leaders and better exhibition organisers.
As our respondents have proven, taking stock of the situation and identifying the lesson can lead to successes later on. Sharing these experiences is also a useful way of assisting colleagues and staff to develop and find the confidence to test themselves and deliver stronger results too.