Home TypeNews It’s always about the people, stupid

It’s always about the people, stupid

by EN

In his latest article, EN guest editor Phil Soar (pictured) says it’s all well and good recognising successful shows, but that real credit should go to the people who make them happen

‘We are a people business,’ says a recent announcement on one trade show website (a US one as it happens). As opposed to what? Concrete? Penguins? Muffins?

The clichés are so familiar that we barely hear them: ‘Our assets all go up in the lift each morning’; ‘We are proud to be a people business’; ‘It’s our people who make us what we are.’ All very easy to say, but do the people at the top, the people who parrot these phrases, really believe it?

In the case of trade shows, it is not only true, but utterly inescapable.

A story: It was February 1990 and Europe was going into the worst recession since the Second World War. Brian Wiseman, who ran a men’s wear show for Blenheim, came along with a suggestion. “It’s as bad as it gets for retail out there, really terrible, so why don’t we launch a womenswear, childrenswear and menswear show in Birmingham, fashion capital of Europe?” On the surface, utter, utter madness.

There were no clothing shows at the NEC, the ones in London were struggling. But because it was Brian we said yes. Three years later we had two 25,000-metre clothing shows – Premier Collections – annually in the NEC turning over £13m and making north of £5m profit. That was more than 12% of the whole of Blenheim’s annual profit – in those days £5m was a lot of money. And it had cost us nothing.

It became the Blenheim flagship. We would book carriages on trains from Euston to Birmingham and fill them with City analysts and prospective investors. Premier Collections was a show Blenheim had launched, not acquired, and was proof of just how successful a trade show business could be – but, above all else, one which could showcase the people who really mattered, the Brian Wisemans. The cat walks were always popular with our investors, and (a confession) Brian always planned the lingerie cat walks for the arrival of the trains. (Children – they were different times).

The whole thing was about Brian Wiseman – all the management did was offer him support. Without him it would never have happened, could never have happened, and the shareholders of Blenheim would have been £75m worse off. Brian was paid well but, in truth, not remotely as much as he was worth.

For we are an industry which depends utterly, utterly on those who run the events, who understand their markets and have the vision (vision is the right word) to see what their customers might need from them.

We are strangely reluctant to pick out individuals for praise

Writers like me are rarely courageous enough to pick out individuals for praise, but at my age I can.

Bob Munton worked for a US corporation and conceived DSEi for them. It was to be the first tri-service defence exhibition anywhere. He worked with the Ministry of Defence to bring in 70 missions from around the world. He then brought together a few smallish events and persuaded ExCeL to run the very first DSEi in 2001. By very good fortune, that US corporation found itself in financial trouble and we were able to buy their embryonic shows and create Spearhead. The first DSEi opened at 5am New York time on 11 September 2001. We know what happened four hours later – and this was a defence show full of the military from all over the world. By 3pm London time it was deserted. But Bob grew the show dramatically and future owners extended his base so that DSEi is now the largest show in the UK by revenue. But without Bob Munton the UK’s largest show would not even exist – it is his legacy.

We owned spearhead for 22 months and never ran a show

One other tale worth telling. We acquired four shows from the US owners. They were all biennial and all ran within an eight-week period in the odd year. Reed were keen to buy so we sold the company (Spearhead) to Nick Forster 22 months later (I wish we hadn’t). The oddity? We owned the business for 22 months and in that time never ran a single exhibition.

Mark Penton and Ian Smout are as wonderful an example as you can find of entrepreneurs who recognized a business almost before it existed. Their Learning Technologies was launched in 1999 before the term meant anything, long before broadband had made learning online straightforward, and before there were really any companies addressing the sector. Twenty-three years later they still run the show and the conference and have expanded it into other geographies. Its turnover has grown 100 times. But Ian and Mark still work from their homes, have a tiny team, and are a central part of a now major industry which continues to grow at a rapid rate. Great examples of the simple truth that what matters is the people.

And there are plenty of other stars

I can pick other great examples. Clarion’s Olympia Antiques Fair has been led for nearly three decades by Mary Claire Boyd. It would be unfair to embarrass her too much by repeating everything the Clarion heirarchy says about her, but (and quoting): “She has a depth of experience with that very rare mix of being totally solid, yet adaptable and innovative. She is fantastic with her customers and her team, has massive energy and drive, is impressively resilient and has the ability to get others to be the same.” That’s as close to perfection as any of us could wish for in a show director – success is about the person.

There are others we admire who are central to the wellbeing of their events – Anna Knight with Brand Licensing, the astonishing Alison Jackson who ran Spring and Autumn Fairs so well and is probably the best director of exhibitions of our generation. Jonny Sullens grabbing the Photography opportunity at the NEC and making such a success of it. Versha Carter with Oceanology. Laura Shapiro turning Clinical Pharmacy Congress from a mere idea to a serial Best Trade Show winner.

Have you ever seen a show director praised in annual reports?

But when you read Annual Company Reports – and I have written a few in my time – how often do you hear about the people who have made these companies what they are? It is almost as if all this success and all these profits would have occurred anyway, by some mysterious process which the board magically conjured out of the ether.

In my long experience, it has been a general rule that those at the top don’t fully or really (or perhaps at all) appreciate those who make them successful. We see it in all walks of life. Look how poorly we pay and often regard hospital staff, care home workers, office cleaners, charity workers – the people who make Guide Dogs so successful are saints. So allow me a diversion.

We sponsor puppies to be trained as Guide Dogs and one year we met the lady who was training our puppy. She looks after them and trains them for the first 12 months of their lives – then hands them over to their new – usually blind – owners. We asked the obvious question: ‘How can you bear to part with them’? ‘Because their new owners have far more need of them than I do – that’s why I do it’. ‘How long have you done this’? ‘27 years – 27 dogs.’ And she gets no reward, no baubles, and is paid nothing to do it. End of diversion.

The awards and baubles so often go to those who have gilded birth, or education, or family (Zac Goldsmith loses his Parliamentary seat and 6 days later, as a friend of Carrie’s, becomes a Peer and a minister). There is a baseball phrase “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” which describes these ills rather well. As we are seeing so clearly at the moment, we can be a shabby people.

Other media praise the people who really count

And failing to praise the key people enough isn’t always true of other, comparable, industries. Rothermere doesn’t conceal his praise for the editors of the Daily Mail – David English and Paul Dacre. Nigel Newton of Bloomsbury Publishing rarely writes a sentence without emphasizing that it was J K Rowling who built his company. Does the BBC promote Have I got News for You without acknowledging Paul Merton and Ian Hislop? Radio Stations name their three-hour segments after the hosts. Do Bond film posters mention Daniel Craig?

I cannot claim to know that many of the industry’s show directors, nor name all the real stars (if I could, no doubt you would have been offered jobs at CloserStill). So, excuse me if I don’t mention your name.

Of course, the reverse is also true. Shows can be damaged and even destroyed by poor show managers despite their markets not being in decline. I can quote a large number of examples but one will suffice. In the space of two years UBM lost both EcoBuild, for which they had paid £52m, and Interiors, the second largest event by square metres in the UK. There are few better examples of: ‘Triumph has many midwives, disaster none.’ No one ever owned up and let’s not point fingers. It was clearly the case that the management structure at UBM at the time was disconnected and not responsive to dangerous decisions being made a few levels below.

I can never stress it strongly enough – in the end it is not about the people at the top of the pyramid. It is all about the shows and the vital people who run them.

POSTSCRIPT: Two weeks ago, I wrote about the perils of assuming anything. I talked about currency risks and mentioned that the Turkish Lira had fallen at 20% a year for the past seven years. Since I wrote that article, in the last three weeks it has fallen from a dollar being worth 9.5 Lira to being worth 13 Lira. In other words, the Turkish Lira is worth 27% less in just three weeks. Work out what that would mean for your business if you had exhibitions in Istanbul. Be careful, don’t assume you can be sure of anything.

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