Alison Jackson, managing director of Nineteen Group, tells Louisa Daley about how it feels to be running live shows once again
September 2021 has been an incredibly busy and exciting month for the Nineteen Group. From running The Emergency Services Show at the NEC Birmingham to the International Cyber Expo and International Security Show at Olympia London, the return to live has never felt so good. To find out more about the shows, we spoke to Alison Jackson, managing director of Nineteen Group.
Louisa Daley: How does it feel to be back running live shows?
Alison Jackson: It’s a huge relief and we are so proud of our markets and our team. While our business planning was based on an 18-month wait, no one knew what the return to live would look like and plenty of individuals thought the B2B trade show market would not recover.
During the pandemic, we were brave, took risks and kept the team together. We didn’t buy into the ‘pivot to digital’ story completely and decided to stick to our knitting, not make redundancies and try to trade through the pandemic. This approach could have been viewed as risky, but it paid off as the Safety and Security Series doubled in size and the Emergency Services Show grew by over 20%. The audiences also grew significantly, and we had a record-breaking rebook.
Deep down, given the characteristics of face-to-face events and the need for people to come together, we felt confident that once we received the green light, we could deliver for our markets that had waited patiently. Several customers referred to our shows as an ‘out of body’ experience. What’s clear is that this success story is common across lots of other markets, just look at how many successful shows ran in September this year.
LD: Tell me about your marketing strategy for the shows, considering the backdrop of Covid-19.
AJ: We are lucky as the markets we serve remained active during the pandemic. This is because many were key workers and so the vast majority were supportive of the need to get back to the NEC as soon as possible. We had to postpone our events three times and over 93% of customers rolled forward to 2021 and to 2022. Our approach was to keep the team intact and stay close to the market. We introduced a lead generation service, called Connect+, to say thank you for staying with us and delivered leads through a variety of virtual experiences. Once we knew we could run the events, we focused on highlighting the level of innovation, the new products available and the need to reunite the industries in a safe environment.
LD: Tell me about your visitor and exhibitor feedback.
AJ: The feedback from both exhibitors and visitors has been so positive. Even three months before the shows, there was still some doubt around if they were going to take place and if so, what restrictions would be put in place to impact them.
Once it was clear the shows were going ahead, it was a challenging time for contractors, the venue, customers and us, as it felt like we did three months of work in three weeks. However, once the doors opened, it felt like we had created a platform for one big reunion and customers were extremely grateful for that. People had been apart for too long. Yes, they could gain CPD points from virtual conferences or set up Zoom calls to look at new products, but it’s just not the same. The sheer joy on the faces of visitors and exhibitors was plain to see.
LD: Did you face any challenges in the operations of the events, maybe with regards to Covid-secure guidance?
AJ: Pre-show, we had some exhibitors and visitors question the policy as they could not find it on the Government website and therefore felt we might put off people attending as there were fewer restrictions in other public places. We simply said that while no environment could be billed as ‘Covid free’, after 18-months of no live events, we wanted to create as safe an environment as possible, so we required proof of vaccine or a negative lateral flow test.
We had few issues on-site with these measures and virtually everyone complied. We even used a few hundred tests on-site for unvaccinated people who had not done a test and the NEC worked hard with our teams to ensure this process was hassle-free. I believe most of society are accepting of these measures if it means they can get back to face-to-face business.
LD: Considering travel restrictions, has your show’s international draw changed your strategy on the domestic market or how you engage with international stakeholders?
AJ: Our NEC events do have an international draw, although they are largely domestic. In fact, more international exhibitors attended than we forecasted this year, and some chose to roll their contracts to 2022.
We did organise some virtual and face-to-face meetings for international visitors at The International Security Expo, which took place from 27-28 September at Olympia London, as this event has more of an international focus. This was received extremely well, and we plan to roll this out across all our events next year.