Following her appointment as MD of Telegraph Events, EN sits down for a chat with Ruth Carter to talk passion, events people and the future of the business.
Ruth Carter’s CV is impressive. Coming from a B2B background including time as managing director – conferences at EMAP (now Ascential) and chief executive of UBM Conferences she’s now bringing that experience to Telegraph Events as managing director.
Last month, EN headed to the Telegraph office in Victoria in London to learn more about her career, her plans for the business and her thoughts on the industry.
So, Ruth, how did you get into events?
I don’t think anyone when they’re little, and they’re asked what they want to be when they grow up, says they want to work in events. I think we fall into events. Everyone in the events industry has a different background, but all the good people have one thing in common; they burn with passion for what they do. You can’t do this unless you burn with passion. There’s always that ultimate criticism that exhibition people just book the shed, and the other work is done by everyone else. But the more fluid and the more successful and the more beautifully delivered an event is the harder the work is. The more relaxed an event is, the more engineered it has to be to create that feeling.
You have to be passionate about what you do. People try and escape, and sometimes they do, but rarely. They’ll always want to come back, because we like the level we operate at. We like the speed and the pace and you never quite know what you’re doing from one day to the next. Your diary might be planned, but actually something different happens every day. Fantastic – there’s no buzz like it.
Everyone is concerned with how to make each event better; is it all about ‘how can I keep improving on this?’
That’s what the market wants. People like familiarity, but peppered with excitement. I know that when I go to the Telegraph Ski and Snowboard Show that there’s going to be something new and exciting each time. It’s giving them a level of familiarity that will help them cross the threshold, but it’s also that absolute experiential piece that will help them come back year after year, because they know that the show will evolve.
That must be a common question from exhibitors – what’s going to be new, what’s going to be different?
The first impressions of a show are really important, whether you’re an exhibitor or a visitor. As a visitor you want to be able to say ‘ooh, that looks different’, and as an exhibitor you want to say, ‘I can see that they’ve invested in my show’. Exhibitors spend a lot of money. They want to see that we’ve invested, and they want that feeling of progression.
And as an organiser you surely want to be as in control of someone’s first impression as possible, not just once they walk in but also the parking, the public transport etc?
The experience – whether it’s for an exhibitor or a visitor – starts the moment they leave their house. We have to think about that whole journey. I love going into an event and pretending I don’t know what I’m doing. As a seasoned event person, I know exactly where to go, but if I was just an ordinary person would I know the touchpoints, would I know where to go? It’s about making that journey and that experience as clear as possible.
Do you find that when you hire new people, you suddenly have a fresh perspective?
I always try with all new starters to catch them in the first month. After they’ve done a month you sit them down and say, ‘what surprises you? What was exactly as you expected? What wasn’t as good as you expected?’ After a few months they’re in our way, they’re in the Telegraph way of doing something, but in that first month there are things that are exciting and weird and I want to know these things, because they see my business in a totally different way.
How did you see the business before joining, what were your preconceived ideas?
I loved the brand. I’m a sucker for a brand, and this is one of the biggest in the business. Events people can do any event anywhere and make a success of it, if they’re good. That’s easy. Making truly great events – working with a brand – gives you that opportunity ten times over. I had a marvellous experience at EMAP, which was very brand dominated. We do come to work to have fun; there’s purpose in what we do, and actually it takes up most of our waking hours. If I’m not having a bloody good time and laughing so much, then that’s not right is it? I want to have a really good time at work.
We’re passionate about what we do. My husband always says to me, ‘you’re very cagey when you describe what you do’, and it’s because I’m so proud of what I do – and so excited – that I’ve got to try and contain that a little.
Going back to the start of your career, what was the day-to-day of your time as a conference producer for IIR?
It was long, hard days, but it was never the same thing twice. The conference business was interesting because you become a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. I can talk to anyone at any dinner party about any subject, but only for 15 minutes. After that my knowledge is superficial, l and I have to move onto the next thing. As a conference producer it’s deep dive; get on with it, and then get out. Exhibitions are very different. It’s a longer burn, it’s a bigger play, and the fascinating thing about the business here is we’ve got those dimensions. We’ve got the big consumer shows and we’ve got the business events, we’ve got a whole host of experiential bespoke events, and we’re also looking at acquiring into the B2B trade show piece as well.
And are you bringing in that B2B knowledge and background?
Absolutely. The comment up here a lot is, because my background is B2B, does that meant we’re exiting consumer? I’d be mad to exit consumer, we’ve got lots of fantastic shows. We’re doing a portfolio review – there’s no secret about that – and there are a number of products under that portfolio review. There are also a number of products not under portfolio review. We’ve got some super consumer shows. We’ve got some really strong DNA talent; I’d be crazy to walk away from that. Having said that my background is B2B so watch this space. Clearly we’re investing in our business events, clearly we’re going to be investing in B2B trade shows.
Tell me a bit more about your past roles
I worked at IIR for about five years then I moved to EMAP. I’d worked for EMAP previously in a very junior role. I kept saying to my husband that EMAP should do conferences, and I should run it for them. One day he said to me, exasperated, ‘they don’t even know you exist’. So I wrote a letter to the chief executive and said ‘I can make you a lot of money, I know everything there is to know about conferences’. It was at a time when EMAP had done a lot of acquisitive growth, and were taking a bit of a pasting from the city, not able to do organic growth. It was also at a time when they were just seeing the early decline in publishing. They had really strong brands, really strong brand affiliation and loyalty but the revenues were just starting to dip off and they saw conferences as a solution. So I pitched up and said ‘I can do a conference business’, and they said ‘go on then’.
Were you intimidated by the prospect?
I’d never run a company before. I knew how to create a conference but I’d never run a business. I’d come from a very pure play conference kind of environment and EMAP was very brand-led. It took me about a year to work that out. How to keep the process and the productivity that you get with a pure play, but really play to that brand piece. And how to work with great editors and people who have got their fingers in that industry and match that with really qualitative research and really strong processes. I did that for seven years. My brief was a blank piece of paper. I had a healthy mixture of attitude and lack of knowledge. I think if I’d known how difficult it was going to be I wouldn’t have done it.
What came next?
I was headhunted by UBM, who wanted to start up a European conference business, and it was very obvious very early on that there was a much bigger opportunity. I worked quite closely with the CEO and the CFO and was promoted up to global CEO of UBM Conferences in July 2008. And of course September 2008 went really well.
It was an interesting time. I remember an old boss of mine saying to me, ‘you don’t know anything about leadership, because you’ve never had a difficult time. You’ll never know what you’re like as a leader until you’ve managed through really difficult times’. I thought it was just sour grapes until 2008. I learned more, and became more resilient. You simply never give up. Every morning you wake up and there’s a global economic crisis and you can’t fight it. The only way you can do it comes back to passion. That was 2008/09 and we didn’t bounce back until about 2010. Everything was affected, but it was partly because the business I had set up was Europe focused. I put the European business on the backburner then thought – literally – ‘where in the world am I going to go?’ We launched into India, set up a business in India – which was great and worked really well – and set up businesses in China and São Paolo, and then South East Asia, North America and Eastern Europe.
How did you cope with navigating the cultural differences?
The culture thing is fascinating. One day you’re sitting in Santa Monica and dealing with very fast-talking Americans who all interrupt each other, and then the next week you’re sitting in Shanghai and it’s a very different culture. My take on it isn’t that it’s the art of communication, but the art of interruption.
The further east you go, you find that someone says something and then there’s a pause. They think about it, and it’s not because they don’t know what to say, they’ve got a lot to say, but they’re trying to work out the best way of saying it. The culture piece I loved, I absolutely loved it. You can only communicate in GCSE English, because that’s what everyone else speaks. Don’t say ‘I’m interested in a contiguous market’, because no one is going to know what that is. It’s thinking about the way you communicate and the words you use, and thinking about the culture that’s around you.
What came next?
I was at UBM for seven years. I realised I knew very little about some of the corporate pieces that go behind a company. At UBM we never had to worry about cash flow; and there are 24 people sitting in Croydon or Peterborough who have to worry about my cash flow. I had no exposure to any of those things. So I went to work for a small Australian media company and exhibition business to run that, based in London. We were doing some really interesting things with the company.
It was everything that I wanted in terms of giving me exposure to that corporate piece behind the operational piece. It was the difference between understanding how a company runs and running a company. I did that for a couple of years, then a few consultancy jobs, and now I’ve ended up here!
What do you see as the challenges of consumer vs trade?
There’s a huge amount of similarities. Attendees at shows, whether consumer or B2B, want three things. The first is content, whether that all the right exhibitors, exceptional seminar or conference programmes or the features, content underpins everything that we do. If you look at the successful exhibition companies content sits at the heart, because that’s what people come back for. I’ll always see the same exhibitors, and it’s great to have some fresh ones, but the content and the features at the heart of the event will change. The second thing people want is community. Certainly with conferences it’s less about what you’re going to learn and more about who’s going to be there. The community piece is massive. The final piece, which has really reared its head recently, is experiential. I need to have a really good time at a show. Whether it’s consumer or B2B it doesn’t matter, I need to have a good time.
We’ve got to get into the shoes of our customers. I think with B2B we have to remember that just because it’s B2B they’re still people like you and I; they still behave in the same way as consumers. It might be more about a speaker or about a feature, but actually they respond really well to left field experiences.
You have to acknowledge that exhibitions can be a tiring experience, so it’s about finding ways to help people go through that
We did a lot of work around attendee ROI. Exhibitor ROI is something everyone thinks about. But attendee ROI is important, especially when they come in for free. We did a lot of work around when a visitor or a delegate or attendee would go off the boil, which was usually around 2.30/3pm. They have their lunch then they start flagging nearer three o’clock. They’ll go and sit down – their legs are tired – and go on their phones, and as soon as that happens you’ve lost them. Their ROI has dropped. Once they pick the phone up they’re engaging in the outside world and we’ve lost them. We started to push things through on apps at three o’clock. Making sure people are engaged. You want maximum dwell time, and we can manage that dwell time by knowing when the down times are and hitting them with maximum ROI opportunity.
Are we likely to see some launches from Telegraph Events?
Absolutely. We’re certainly working on a couple of launches at the moment in the consumer space, areas where the Telegraph dominates and where it’s logical for the Telegraph to be. We will certainly launch consumer shows, definitely launching business events, early days on B2B trade shows. I think my preferred route at the moment is acquisition to get resource management, team know-how and product in the door. I like the term business event; I think it moves it on from conferences.
Why should we move on from conferences?
55 people in a room listening every 45 minutes to a different speaker, I think the world has moved on from that, and I think people like a change of pace. They like mixed media, they like different touchpoints and sometimes I think the conference word resonates with the former and not the latter.
Do you think conferences can’t help but be too general?
I think people like to be part of a big community, there’s safety in numbers, but we’re also tribal. We like a niche tribe. I think a successful large-scale event is a mixture. You belong to that community and there is power in your community. Being part of this you can see how you can makes changes and affect outcomes. You then niche it down within the event. It’s that balance of large-scale community and niche tribe. We all like that.
Do you think it’s important for the exhibition industry to have events for itself?
I absolutely agree on that. I think there is an honour amongst thieves in the events industry. We’re a small industry, and everyone knows everyone. You play nice, because you might need help the next day. We all poach each other’s people, and we’ll all try and do each other’s event in, but actually at the end of the day we’re all in this together. We want our industry to succeed, as long as we succeed more than the next person.
Does the industry as a whole have to stand up against other marketing channels and events?
One of the big problems that we’ve got is that we’re not a burning platform. You look at the transition that publishing has been through, which started 15-20 years ago. It was a burning platform and therefore they had to make that very aggressive diversification to digital and to additional revenue streams. At the heart you still have the brand, but you surround it with all these other things that are going on that feed the brand. Telegraph is a really good example; quality journalism wins every time. And we surround it with all these other things to support it.
It’s a symbiotic relationship, that brand and the event piece. The better our journalism is, the more clout the word Telegraph has, the better my events will be and the more money I’ll make to fund quality journalism.
Do you think we need to have a crisis moment to force us to modernise?
I really don’t want one. Who is my competition? My competition is all the other companies in my space, but my competition is also AliBaba, eBay, YouTube and 3D Printers. The advantage that we have that will never go away is that people like to be face to face. If you want deep, rich experiences you do them face to face. If you’re in for a quick hit of information we do that digitally. Personally, I can’t see a time when face-to-face events won’t have a place at the table.