Renowned for being the hardest working man in exhibitions, Doug Emslie squeezes the odd 96-mile run in between leading a global business, running trade shows across 19 countries, in 20 different sectors, and championing the industry. The Tarsus Group CEO slowed the pace for a moment to share his thoughts on the future of the exhibitions industry with EN Editor Emily Wallin.
When Doug Emslie and I meet in Tarsus Group’s Hammersmith headquarters he is trying to spearhead the recovery of the exhibitions industry whilst preparing for a 96-mile run across the Highland Way.
Emslie is far more relaxed and friendly than you might expect a man trying to bring 180 shows back from a pandemic-induced brink on the verge of a recession. But the softly spoken Scot has time to sit down with EN to discuss his vision of the future at length before heading off to complete a marathon training session.
After senior management roles at Blenheim and UBM, Emslie joined Tarsus at its launch in 1998.
Emslie says the exhibitions industry has “dramatically evolved” in his 30-year career, with most of the UK-based big players, including Tarsus Group moving most if not all their shows abroad.
Despite their London headquarters Tarsus Group does not run a single show in this country – a fact that Emslie thinks helped them weather the Covid storm better than some because some countries opened up the shutters as other parts of the world locked down.
Stepping into the position of SISO chair just as the pandemic hit presented extra challenges. But with dogged determination Emslie set about enlisting virology specialists to show that exhibitions were safer than supermarkets to get the industry up and running again.
As the world returns to some form of normality Emslie is optimistic about the future of exhibitions, but says organisers need to work harder than ever to demonstrate their value.
There are always lessons learned and positive things to take forward. Firstly, what we have proved as an industry we won’t be replaced by virtual events. But what digital is doing is improving education and content.
There are digital ways to give content at events and outside of events – so there are definite revenue streams which is a benefit of the pandemic.
It’s very clear the commercial component of exhibitions has not been replicated digitally. People are coming to see products and discuss them in lot of detail and do the buying. They are not going to do the buying on a Zoom call. They are going to do that face-to-face and that has not changed.”
Another thing Emslie is convinced does not work at virtual shows is networking.
The whole thing about going to show is you meet someone in the bar or have a chance encounter in the aisle. The whole experience of digital events has been very poor. I don’t think it’s because of the delivery. The delivery and technology hasn’t been great, but I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s just that as humans we want to meet face-to-face.
Virtual events became like something in the background – you’re still looking at your emails and doing something else.”
He gives an example of a visitor at one of their shows travelling from New Zealand to Indonesia with the specific purpose of tracking down a potential contact he knew would be attending.
He spent a year trying to contact this person by phone and email and had no reply. But he came to the event knowing he would be there, had a 15-minute meeting that resulted in a contract worth millions. It shows it’s really difficult to go face-to-face with someone and ignore them.
People will generally only answer the phone to someone they know.
It has reinforced the power of face-to-face.”
Emslie may be averse to virtual events but he is no technophobe.
Tech has been equated to virtual and you are on the wrong foot. It turns people off because the virtual experience has been incredibly poor.
We are using a lot more technology around sales and marketing and in terms of understanding interactions with customers, what they are engaged in, having a lot more information about people we don’t have relationships with but are interested in.
That’s where we are spending a lot of our time and attention. Then at shows, technology around meetings
The most important thing he says to remember is that “humans are there to have fun as well”.
Technology can help us give a better experience.”
As an example Tarsus has been targeting new buyers through AI.
We spent a lot of time putting the personas together of what those buyers look like and using AI technology to find them. We need to use technology to solve our problems rather than getting the technology and then trying to work out what the problem is.”
Where technology in the event industry lags behind other sectors, is because event tech businesses tend to be smaller, Emslie says.
You need bigger companies that can scale and deliver in multiple geographies and large show volumes.
The good thing is technology has moved on and we’re embracing it more.
We’re less luddite than we were.”
Tarsus’ sights are now set on recovering from the past two years.
We always envisioned it being 2023 by the time things got back to normal levels but we’re also looking at organically developing the business because what customers want has changed.”
As an example Tarsus’ medial business is 50% classic exhibitions and 50% education. That education was previously at shows but has moved online.
As the industry recovers it needs to improve, to show exhibitions are worth the investment, he says.
It’s no longer good enough to throw 10,000 people in a hall, you have to procure it a lot more – so we’re doing a lot in that sphere. For our industry it’s about return on time. We have people spending money to come to shows, but it’s also their time. We need to maximise what they can do with their time, products they can see, education, networking opportunities. We need to respect that they are giving up time and give them the maximum opportunities while they are there.
That has always been the flaw, I think, to assume we have people engaged for two or three days at a show, ‘why can’t we engage them 365?’ Well, the reason you can’t is [at an event] you get them really focused and after that they have a life, run a business, you’ve lost them. That’s why we need to make sure people are having the best possible experiences when they are at a show.”
Another fork on the road to recovery, will be recession, he says.
Who would have thought we would be dealing with a war that looks like it’s going to drag on and oil prices and utility prices going through the roof? For our industry the big question is when will that hit? Because it will hit. We are lag indicators. The world is recovering [from Covid] but we are slower to recover.
But the other side is when a recession hits, you don’t feel it straight away because you’ve got all the bookings. What we saw in the last financial crisis is the period of response was shorter. If the low point of the financial crisis was October 2008, it was really February 2009 [exhibitions] saw the low point, and that’s what I’d expect this time too. We’re probably six months behind a recession.”
Despite the difficulties, Emslie is optimistic. He concludes:
I think it’s an exciting time for the industry.
The unfortunate thing is just as we are recovering, we are going into a recession. What’s different is people have a lot more revenue streams. Every difficult situation brings something different.”
This interview appears in the September technology issue of Exhibition News.