The MD of F2F Events and chair of the AEO reflects on building associations, exhibition businesses and communities.
It’s a stormy November day when EN arrives at the InterContinental London Park Lane to interview Austen Hawkins, managing director of F2F Events. We have less than an hour to chat but much to discuss.
It’s been less than two months since Hawkins was elected the new chair of the Association of Event Organisers (AEO) and he has big plans for his tenure at the head of the association, an organisation which he has a long connection with. Plus, Hawkins is looking ahead to the launch of the Mental Health Show – a consumer event covering a complex and sometimes stigmatised audience.
But, before we delve into all his exciting future endeavours, the conversation takes a trip down memory lane…
Easy as ABC
Over 20 years ago, Hawkins was working at the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) in a division that ran exhibition auditing, and he had some thoughts about the process.
“It was rubbish and the rules made no sense,” he tells EN. “I took hold of it, rewrote all the rules, and went out to market with this brand-new fabulous idea of auditing the attendance of exhibitions.
“We formed a working group – the chairman was Kevin Murphy – and I went off and pitched to everybody, including people like Peter Osbourne, Tim Etchells – all the bigwigs of the day.”
A colleague and friend at ABC, by the name of Trevor Foley (now MD of tfconnect), left the bureau to become chief executive of a little organisation called the Association of Event Organisers. With a turnover of less than £100,000 a year, it was one of the smallest event associations on the block.
With unpopular changes happening at ABC, when Foley asked Hawkins to join the AEO as deputy director he didn’t hesitate.
“I had three months to sell enough membership to pay my salary,” he recalls. “There was no website, no email, no connectivity, the computers were all separate. There were three of us and about 17 members.
“The exhibition business in those days was really the poor relation. If you wanted to be cool you worked selling magazine space or selling broadcast or TV. Exhibitions were almost the barrow boys; they were a bit market trader-ish in the view of some of the big brands.”
It was a time when publishing still reigned supreme, and huge publishing organisations had the occasional little exhibition on the side.
“There were some really big shows, don’t get me wrong,” adds Hawkins. “There were some very impressive shows, and people spent huge amounts of money on stands. It did exist, but it didn’t exist in the format of today, with the exception of Reed.
“Everybody was looking at what Reed and Mike Rusbridge were doing and saying, ‘wow, he’s taken an exhibition business and made it global’. Everybody was following Reed.
“I can remember when Clarion was owned by Earl’s Court and called Philbeach Events. Simon [Kimble] led the management buyout and there was all this sniggering that he’d massively overpaid. Now look at what he’s done. He’s created this incredible global business.”
As the exhibition industry continued to grow exponentially worldwide, it was the UK organisers who were blazing the way, creating truly global business giants.
“The island wasn’t big enough to sustain large businesses,” says Hawkins. “If they were going to grow their businesses they needed to make it globally. If you’re an organiser in America you don’t need to leave America because it’s so huge. Germany is structured differently because businesses are owned by the venues. In those days they ran their own shows and didn’t need to go elsewhere. And we were good at it, the Brits are good at it.
“Within that you had people like Phil Soar [CloserStill CEO] and Neville [Buch] at Blenheim who just suddenly took hold of this business.
“Phil is a superstar businessman. He understands how to take businesses and grow them and sell them. You had certain individuals who weren’t just great businesspeople and who weren’t just great at running exhibitions, they understood business.”
And while the exhibition industry was going through this period of change and evolution, the AEO was too. In the days before the AEO Awards, the AEO Conference and more, the first step was defining the value the association could provide for members.
“When I first started, I sat down and said, ‘why should you be a member?’ and it was quite dodgy. I wasn’t quite sure why you should be a member,” continues Hawkins. “There wasn’t a network at the time. I genuinely believe that we took people and pulled them together via networking events and they grew as businesspeople and that’s where they traded and went on from there. That’s really important. A lot of the business leaders today have used the AEO as a starting point and a connector. So that was one thing that we did – lots of events.
“Then we really focussed on teaching people how to make the most of exhibitions. We had our own training courses at the time, training salespeople and marketing people, which is not necessarily needed today but it was then.
“We created a website. We had a newsletter. I’d been there three weeks and I sent out an email to the entire membership about a networking event and it had a virus.
“I spent Monday morning phoning all of them, introducing myself: ‘Hi I’m Austen Hawkins, the new deputy director of the AEO. I sent you an email on Friday and it’s got a virus in it’. I then had to send out another email on how to kill the virus.”
“When we started no one shared anything; it was too scary because we were all competitors,” continues Hawkins. “Way back then the venue association and the contractor association hated me, and I mean really hated me. We’d have these big industry meetings and I’d walk in, the room would go quiet and they wouldn’t let me talk. They really despised me.
“We forget how much we’ve done now; we’re much more integrated and we all love each other. Some of my best friends are contractors and venues because I’ve grown up with them. A lot of the people who run venues now are from an organising background, whereas previously I never saw the chief executive of the NEC. You didn’t get to see him. Now we’re much more connected. It’s a three-legged stool; you can’t run events without the three component parts, and they’re equally important.”
Foley and Hawkins are largely responsible for the ‘three-legged stool’ as we know it today – namely the AEO, AEV and ESSA – having launched the Association of Event Venues as a competitor to the existing Exhibition Venue Association and combining the Association of Exhibition Contractors and British Exhibition Contractors Association to form the Event Supplier and Services Association (try saying that ten times fast).
“I look at ESSA today and it’s an amazing association with a really strong membership and a loud voice,” continues Hawkins. “Looking back, particularly at ESSA, a lot of the people that we had really strong debates with at the time are now really good friends.”
Hawkins reduced his direct involvement with the associations, until the then chief executive of the AEO resigned and he received a call from Phil Soar.
“He said, ‘would you like to be temporary CEO for three months to get us through the awards and then we’ll find a permanent replacement?’,” recalls Hawkins. “I went to Phil’s lovely house – he lived next to Tony Blair at the time – and he said, ‘oh, by the way, I think UBM and EMAP are going to resign, and I’m not sure Reed are going to stay either, so next week can you arrange meetings and go and pitch them to make sure they stay?’
“So off I went and pitched, and changed some of the fee structure, and we kept them in.”
After spending some time running a lot of businesses and “running around like a lunatic”, Hawkins set up his own business, staying on as a consultant for the associations. March 2006 saw the launch of the organiser’s first event: The Back Pain Show.
“I was told I was stupid, and no one would come because only passion or hobby-led consumer shows worked,” Hawkins tells EN. “No one would ever go to a health show. I’d also borrowed next to no money. My first lunch I went out with Chris Hughes [CEO of Brand Events] to ask his advice and he asked, ‘how much money have you borrowed?’, I said ‘20 grand’ and he said, ‘I’ll buy the lunch’.
Hawkins, in his own words, ‘got away with it’, but hugely overspent on marketing, fought through another year and decided to add to the portfolio. Then, in 2009, he bought an event called The Allergy Show, which launched in 2010.
“It was an alright show then it hit on hard times and the owner was emigrating,” he explains. “I managed to get it for next to nothing, but at that time there was a high potential that I’d just blown a few tens of thousands and it was un-rescuable.”
Luckily, the F2F team stumbled across a new thing called ‘gluten’, which was arguably an intolerance more than an allergy, but they decided to add it to the show to attract food companies and changed the name to The Allergy and Free From Show. The event now has editions in Scotland, Liverpool and London and F2F also runs Love Natural Love You, the Just V Show, the Eat Smart Show and the Free From Trade Show.
At F2F’s first edition of Allergy and Free From, the organiser noticed something interesting about the visitors at the consumer event.
“A lot of physios and chiropractors turned up,” recalls Hawkins. “The second year we put on a lot more content just for them, and charged a little bit, and they all turned up. We had surgeons talking about red flags, new technology etc. It was medically led.
“Out of that we decided to launch a load of physio and chiropractor conferences. I remember to this day, we sent out four emails and sold out 300 places and I made a net profit of £25,000.
“We started to run them every other month and it was really easy, we made a lot of money.”
EN asks about Hawkins’ approach to launching.
“Research, research, research, then do some more research,” he says. “Then talk to everybody and anybody. Then understand that, when you talk to people, they’ll tell you it’s a great idea and they’re going to support it, but that when you put a contract under their nose it’s a very different story.
“We became specialist at running consumer health shows, and we got really good at it. The market has changed from where we were 19 years ago; people are much more in control of their health, they don’t accept what the doctor says, they want to take responsibility and they want to try different things. Our European IVF shows are successful because people aren’t just going to their doctors, they want to know what’s out there and what’s available.”
In June 2019, Hawkins, along with industry consultant Simon Coe, is launching The Mental Health Show at ExCeL London, and says feedback so far has been incredibly positive.
“But it’s hard,” he adds. “There’s a good reason why people haven’t done it. It’s scary, because of the vulnerable audience that you’re going to be bringing in. It’s very difficult to find a model to make money, because you can’t really sell stands and you can’t really charge visitors.
“But the desire, the need the want…I’ve never experienced it before, it’s been truly incredible.”
The 11 content theatres at the show will be curated by 11 different mental health charities and will include experts talking about the psychology of mental health, stories from the public, celebrity speakers and psychologists.
“At the end of the day if we help a few people, I’m alright,” says Hawkins. “I’m lucky, the big shows that I run have a significant positive impact on people’s lives. We specialise in health shows, and out of that you help people.”
The middle of the building
In September 2018, Hawkins was elected chair of the AEO, having served as vice chair to Montgomery’s Damion Angus the previous year. EN asks what his goals and aspirations are as chair.
“I really want to get to the middle of the building,” he says. “I want anyone who works in an AEO member company to know what AEO is and to have some sort of engagement with us. I want the new generation to be given the same opportunities that my generation had, in terms of networking, to build their own business relationships.”
Additionally, he has a desire for the exhibition industry to be understood and recognised at the highest level.
“Chris [Skeith, CEO of the AEO] is doing an amazing job on government, something I never achieved because I didn’t have the patience,” he continues. “I suspect that the Prime Minister and down can name the top ten UK industries, but I don’t think they know who we are, let alone who the big players are.
“You should know about us, and if you’re going to make any really stupid decisions around our industry you should understand the impact it might have on us. If we want to engage government at any level we have to understand the size we are and the impact we have on UK plc.”
We also discuss the ongoing issue of recruitment, and the perception (or lack of) of the industry at university/college level.
“We need to influence marketing courses,” says Hawkins. “Not just to get talent in, but when that talent becomes a marketing director/head of marketing and has millions of pounds we want them to know the value of live events.
“If they’re not being trained about live events in their marketing courses then when they come to be the decision-maker on spend they know about magazine and newspapers and Google but they don’t know about us. One of the big things that we should try and do is influence that, not just to get talent but so they spend money with us.
“I also do believe, and everyone disagrees with me, that the next generation are so digitally oriented that they’re not going to have the same love of face-to-face that this generation does. That’s not to say it’s going to die, I just think that the upcoming generation have been taught that their social and their business and their learning are through digital and nothing else.
Finally, the conversation turns to the future of the industry, and Hawkins’ overall outlook.
“Short to medium term, massively positive,” he says. “I think that we are the best form of marketing to deliver the best results. The proliferation of digital has made it even more important to do live. Television, radio, magazines and newspapers can’t deliver what they used to deliver, and we can.
“I wouldn’t change anything, what an industry to be in! If you said to me pick a media to work in today, easy. Easy decision from a job satisfaction point of view and an opportunity point of view. We are in a golden age.
“People have predicted doom and gloom about our industry and it hasn’t happened. We’re human at the end of the day and humans love interaction, it’s what we do.”
The Mental Health Show takes place on 29-30 June 2019 at ExCeL London.