Paul Colston puts the questions to Ray Bloom, chairman and founder of the IMEX Group.
We live in uncertain times. At IMEX you seem to have taken a clear, long-term view and dealt quickly and openly with the 2020 in-person show cancellations and implications. How did that approach help you formulate the PlanetIMEX solution for keeping the global community together?
Despite having had to cancel our shows this year, we’ve never changed our long-term view of the industry and believe that, in the long run, our community will come back stronger than it has ever been – but it will take time.
Back in March, once we decided that IMEX in Frankfurt wasn’t able to take place and our team was working remotely, our thoughts immediately switched – how can we make a contribution to the industry and keep IMEX in touch with our marketplace globally? In a matter of weeks we had created PlanetIMEX.
Many are suffering in our great events industry community, how confident are you in the adaptability and resilience of the industry, given its experience with overcoming disruptions such as bird flu, volcanoes, global recession, etc?
I have great faith in the future of the industry, but am fully aware that it will take time to get back to the scale that we enjoyed previously. We have seen the re-emergence of hybrid meetings and they will undoubtedly play an important part in our industry going forward. In the long-term (once travel is enabled) I believe that, even with the added element of hybrid meetings, meetings and events will return to the levels they once were.
What has the industry learnt in terms of political lobbying? How much more can be done for governments to truly recognise and support the business events sector?
Meetings Means Business is a good example of an organisation that was established in a previous crisis (the economic crisis) and therefore has experience of lobbying during difficult periods. I sit on the board of the coalition which provides a very useful function, mainly in North America, bringing together the industry and lobbying government.
Looking outside of North America, while a great deal of work is going on within the UK, our industry is very disparate and we’re competing with many other sectors that also need government support. We often don’t like to explain our industry in terms of economic impact, because we know that bringing people together means so much more. However, economic impact figures resonate with politicians and we have some powerful stats to hand to convince them of the value of our industry. A good deal of work is happening but there’s more to be done both at local level as well as national level.
However, there has been one overriding goal for our sector over the past few months – securing government approval to host meetings and events in the UK. In this matter the sector has worked very well together. In fact, it’s reasonable to say that the industry has come together more during Covid-19 than at any other period I’ve ever experienced.
What new skills and experiences have you and your team learned during this period, in terms of technology and new approaches to business?
Our team is structured and focused around delivery of live trade shows. In the digital world, however, everything was new. The IMEX Group had to learn to work in a new way and adopted an agile project management approach while collaborating for the first time using Microsoft Teams.
The collaboration process created many cross team squads who worked together and really fostered a strong sense of teamwork and pride. They also had to get to grips with new technology suppliers and tackle the sheer complexity of delivering online education – especially such a large concurrent programme with 40+ speakers, four concurrent tracks and 32 sessions in just one day!
The whole process also uncovered new skills within the business. Some of the team were able to apply their personal talents – for example, one of the Operations team is now resident DJ for PlanetIMEX and provided a live mix during one of the EduMonday Live social events.
What’s next for IMEX? How do you see the shows evolving and how may PlanetIMEX integrate with the shows in future?
We’re currently in the exploration phase and looking carefully at how best we can serve the industry and our many special interest groups. We expect to go through another learning curve with PlanetIMEX in October. After that, we’ll set out our plans for 2021.
How have you managed your key relationships with all your stakeholders? Has there been a sharing of the financial losses involved, because the relationship, particularly between organisers and venues has varied widely around the world in this crisis?
Our relationships with key stakeholders have gone very smoothly indeed. These are relationships built and maintained at the highest level over many, many years and there has been great understanding. In both Frankfurt and Las Vegas the venues and other suppliers that we work with could not have been more supportive.
Some PE-owned organisers have cut expenditure radically and raised investment in the money markets as a medium-term fix for the situation. What have been your key tips for surviving this crisis in business terms?
Cash conservation is critical – the key to business survival is to have sufficient cash to come through the crisis as demonstrated by many of the major exhibition companies, whether on the public markets or owned by private equity.
How have the actions and policies of other nations in terms of how they have treated their events industries compared to the UK during the pandemic?
In general, in some countries there have been furlough schemes or unemployment benefits of some kind which have encapsulated all industries (including ours).
I believe there will be more sector-specific support to rebuild the meetings industry, and frankly travel in general, as we come out of the pandemic, including – hopefully – in the UK.
What do you think the UK government and, indeed, the events industry, could have done better with hindsight?
I’m not sure there’s anything that the government or our sector could have done better with hindsight. The events industry has come together and acted collectively to deliver a level of partnership that’s on a different level to previous years.
PlanetIMEX returns 12–16 October www.planetimex.com