EN sits down with Simon Foster, CEO of Comexposium and chair of the AEO International Organiser Group, to discuss industry trends, his exhibitions career and growing internationally.
It’s a sunny May morning when meets with Comexposium CEO Simon Foster at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, just ahead of his weekly commute to Paris, to discuss all things exhibitions.
Foster has been CEO of French organiser Comexposium since 2017, following almost 20 years at UBM launching business and building brands and teams around the world, and was announced as the new chair of the AEO’s International Organiser Group in early 2019.
Comexposium is truly a global organiser, hosting more than 135 B2B and B2B2C events in over 30 countries. The business was ranked sixth in AMR International’s 2018 top 20 global organiser rankings by revenue and has grown significantly since private equity firm Charterhouse Capital Partners acquired a 50 per cent stake in 2015, which was then sold to Crédit Agricole Assurances in 2018.
Like many in the industry, Foster stumbled into the world of exhibitions in a roundabout way. After studying geography at university, he decided marketing was the profession for him, and began working for the British Security Industry Association, then and now a sponsor of security event IFSEC, organised by UBM.
“When I was working on IFSEC a young man called Paul Thandi (now CEO of the NEC group) was the event manager,” recalls Foster. “He and I became good friends and long story short he recruited me as the marketing manager of IFSEC.”
We discuss how commonplace it is to hear that someone ‘fell’ into the exhibition industry, and how relatively unheard of it is for someone to have aspired to enter the industry from school or college-age.
“As a marketer I think exhibitions is one of the best kept secrets,” says Foster. “Everybody in the world is trying to bring buyers and sellers together and we see it happening live.
“What the industry wants is specialists in data, specialists in IT, and specialists not just in marketing but in forms of marketing. It’s about bringing more of those skills into the industry.”
Foster’s marketing background arguably sets him apart from many C-Suite leaders in the industry, who often hail from the world of sales.
“I always describe myself as a marketing person who could sell,” he continues. “Salespeople always think they’re better than marketers – or certainly when I was a young marketer I thought that was the case – but as a business leader now I want salespeople to be competitive.
“It’s an interesting point and I don’t want to overemphasise it because I think salespeople and sales leaders are really important to our business, but I think marketers often get underestimated.”
Recruiting from within
Recruitment has long been a hot-button topic in the exhibition industry, with companies across the organiser/venue/supplier spectrum struggling to find the talent to fill key roles.
“At UBM we had a big debate about whether it was better to recruit from within or without, and at Comexposium we still have that discussion internally,” says Foster. “What’s changed over the last few years is that we’re trying to recruit specialists. Probably one of the single most significant changes we’ve made at Comexposium is that we’ve recruited a head of digital, digital director etc. and we weren’t interested in someone from the exhibition industry, we were interested in someone who could take a different approach.
“For me, it’s about making sure you can drive innovation and change. One of the ways of doing that is bringing in someone who can disrupt, and disrupt is often a scary word. It’s always valuable to bring in people who can give a different perspective.”
“I don’t know how many years the exhibition industry spent debating whether digital was a threat,” Foster tells EN. “It’s obviously an opportunity.
“We have the magic of creating those experiences but digital gives us an absolutely huge opportunity to do more. I think this is a great time for us to even innovate. We’ve always been about bringing buyers and sellers together, now we’ve got to keep doing more and driving more.
“The biggest threat to our industry is not digital. The biggest threat to our industry is constantly producing the same, again and again and again.”
The cyclical nature of the exhibition industry, continues Foster, can be a barrier to genuine change.
“One of the challenges of our business is that it’s very deadline-driven and it tends to make us repeat things,” he explains. “You’re always chasing a deadline and the thing that can kill shows is doing the same as last year, plus a little bit.”
We discuss the construction of a floorplan, and how precarious visitor experience can become in the face of additional profit. When organisers are faced with the choice of constructing a rest area for visitors or selling an additional stand it can be difficult not to go with the commercial decision.
“Of course, you have to think about it commercially,” adds Foster. “We’re all about leveraging commerciality, but we also have to make sure that we’re providing the right experience. Yes, it’s about commerciality. Yes, it’s about driving bigger floor plans – or certainly better floorplans – but it’s also about driving up value and how we can use innovation to do that.
“Square metres are how we leverage the connection we make. At Comexposium we’ve got a one-to-one model, a hosted buyer model, and if you look at the sqm rate it’s ridiculous. But the point is measuring it per square metre is not the right way to measure it.
“Customers don’t measure it that way, they measure it by the value of the connections they’re making in the meetings.”
Hosted buyer programmes and match-making services have been implemented by many organisers in a bid to quantify exhibitor ROI and improve the effectiveness of events for visitors, but Foster says the event format has to suit the audience. Comexposium has many large international events and smaller meeting-led hosted buyer events, and both can be extremely effective.
“The key to any event is understanding the dynamic between the buyers and the sellers,” he explains. “The number [of visitors] creates a buzz and excitement, but I think as an industry we can get too caught up in that. What’s more important is the reality, which is quality and making sure the right people meet.
“I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find metrics and helping exhibitors demonstrate their ROIs and we should be continuing to do that. We’re not competing with other exhibitions; we’re competing with other media.”
The conversation turns to Foster’s perception of Comexposium before being approached by the company.
“My perception was limited, to tell the truth,” he admits. “We were big, and very well known in France, with a really interesting story.”
When Charterhouse private equity firm first became involved in the business in 2015, Comexposium’s products were around five per cent international, now around 30 per cent are international.
“What attracted me was the ability to continue with that,” says Foster. “There was a great opportunity to raise the profile of Comexposium and to accelerate what we were doing internationally.”
When EN brings up the topic of standardising practices across the business, Foster is sceptical.
“I’m a great believer in consistencies in the way we do stuff, but standardisation/centralisation, that’s not the key thing for me,” he explains. “This is a people business. Some of the big changes while I’ve been here have been really focusing on bringing the cultures and teams together.
“Our team in China look like our team in Manhattan and our team in Marseilles, because they’ve got that passion and that understanding. You can always spot event people.”
Not cloning but adapting
One of the most common ways for organisers to grow their business is through geo-cloning, but Foster isn’t a huge fan of the term.
“I think ‘geo-adapting’ is really important,” he explains. “Geo-cloning implies taking something and replicating it exactly. SIAL China has distinct Chinese characteristics that you wouldn’t have in Europe, but it’s still a SIAL show. The fundamental principle is the same, but you have to adapt. It’s lower risk than a new launch in a virgin territory or sector. Which, notoriously, most of the big exhibition companies are not so good at.”
A good geo-adapt, he continues, should be a reaction to the market, to a clear need from customers or buyers.
“Good virgin launches tend to come from individuals who are embedded in a particular industry and who see an opportunity,” he continues. “People who are in an industry tend to be better than event organisers. What organisers have to be good at is spotting them early and helping them. There will be people reading this and saying, ‘that’s not true Simon’. I’m just saying as a percentage of the overall exhibition industry.”
Foster is active in the Association of Event Organisers (AEO) and SISO, the Society for Independent Show Organizers in the US, and concludes our conversation by emphasising the value of the exhibition community.
“I think if someone has been in the industry a long time, has been involved in some large organisations, has learnt a lot and met lots of great people then it’s important not just to sit on the sidelines,” he tells EN. “We’re very lucky. We’re an industry where we’re able to still talk to each other. Acting together there are many things we can and need to do.”