How did you get into the exhibition industry?
I joined Aztec in 1999, an audiovisual company, after being in the IT industry and working in computer retail. Before that, I was in marketing and started life in the stores doing training, so I’ve always had a technical and electrical side. Aztec had a division that needed a managing director, and I took the job knowing nothing about the events industry. From a standing start of no contacts in the exhibition industry, we were suddenly dealing with most of the largest organisers. In 2006 I bought out the division and we started expanding into conferences. I also got involved in the associations at quite an early stage and have been vice-chair twice, previously when it was the AEC [Association of Exhibition Contractors]. A few years ago, we discussed merging with BECA [British Exhibition Contractors Association] and after a long engagement we finally tied the knot and merged into a single association, called ESSA, in 2008. Why is an association like ESSA important to the industry and to you personally?
I feel the association can help improve standards across the industry. At ESSA, we also work closely with organisers and I’m very passionate about aligning what we do as an association with organisers and venues, and helping foster links. The ultimate aim is to improve standards and encourage organisers and venues to use ESSA members, because that will be good for all of us.
What are your top three priorities as chair?
It has been a rough time for most businesses, as well as our association, over the last couple of years. As a result, we battened down the hatches and focused on delivering good value to the members and just maintaining members. It was also the same time as we were merging with BECA, and we were concerned about the fallout of members. Looking forward, the focus for me is very much on improving member benefits and growing the association, and the two go nicely together. We have several working groups within ESSA, one of which is the communications working group, and one of the things we have tried to focus on is a ‘use an ESSA member’ campaign. Over the next couple of years, I really want to get that message home so that the ESSA logo is seen as a mark of quality. I might not achieve it, but I’m going to give it a damn hard go. Another objective I’m keen to achieve is around our ‘events’ profile. At the moment, although our name is the ‘event supplier’ association, most of our work is focused on exhibitions. That’s not true for Aztec though – my world is split between exhibitions and conferences. As an association, I want to attract more members from the conference sector and give them reasons for engaging with us. When you talk to a lot of our members, you will also find they operate in the conference sector, but they don’t really have representation with conference organisers.Secondly, Aztec is not a big contractor. Although ESSA already represents the smaller players in the contracting market, I’d like them to see it’s not just larger players controlling their organisation. What is the key to achieving contractor quality?
I think we already offer quality but we’re not necessarily communicating it effectively. The challenge is not so much that we’re not achieving standards – although they can always improve – it’s getting organisers to recognise that the ESSA brand means something. It’s about getting them to encourage exhibitors to use our members. ESSA and AEV are now sharing a new director, Chris Skeith. How does this move things forward?
It’s a thorny one in many ways because you’ve got this potential conflict of interest. But I’m very pragmatic about it and believe it does help foster communication across the various associations. In many ways, the AEV [Association of Exhibition Venues] has similar objectives to contractors in that we’re both working on improving the standard of service for exhibitors coming into an exhibition. We’re also both working for the organisers. We’re not talking about a merger or anything like that, we’re just talking about having a joint director and improving communication flow across the two organisations. How have suppliers fared during the recession?
There has been quite a lot of damage done to the contractor market – a lot of companies have exited and there has been lots of merger activity and downsizing. There can’t be a company in the contractor sector that hasn’t downsized in one way or another. In AV specifically, there have been some bigger companies who fell down. But on the flip side, there are fewer companies going for contracts and although the pie is smaller, everyone is starting to recover. What impact has the recession had on the relationship between contractors and organisers?
It’s always going to be an area of contention, as we have different objectives. But there has been a move towards ‘trench’ mentality and I think some recognition from organisers that we’re all in this together. One of the things organisers could have done is maintain margins by squeezing at the bottom end but in reality this hasn’t happened. There has been pressure down the supply channel to reduce prices, but my own experience and what I’ve heard is that organisers have treated that responsibly. I had one organiser who said they had to cut pricing down somewhat, but that they’d also use fewer suppliers so the contractor gets more volume coming through. How can we improve that bond moving forward?
We are moving into a more buoyant market and a phase where those relationships will improve. Some of this will happen naturally, but some we can engineer. ESSA’s share of voice is getting stronger and louder and because of that, we will be quite difficult to ignore and therefore the instinct will be to engage. You will get pockets of resistance, but because we’re maturing as an association, I think communication channels will improve. I don’t feel as though one sector is calling the shots. Where do you see the biggest challenges and opportunities for the industry?
The biggest challenge as well as opportunity, and it’s a perennial one, is to improve the experience of the guy who’s exhibiting. It’s not something exhibition organisers can address on their own – the exhibitor has to deal with a number of different people, some from organisers, some from venues, then the contractors and electrics. One way or another, we have to improve that experience because it’s the exhibitor who pays our wages. It should be a good exhibition from end-to-end. There is nothing as powerful as face-to-face marketing and there’s never going to be. What are the best business lessons you have learnt?
Don’t try and develop something – whether it is a product or new sector – without fully researching and understanding it. I have always stressed to my staff that whatever we do, we do it well. You won’t always get it right, but it has to be driven from the top. What I challenge my staff to do is a good job, all the time. If they do a brilliant job every now and then, it’s fantastic, but they have to do a good job consistently, every time.