In her latest feature, EN guest editor Ruth Carter talks to Media 10 CEO Lee Newton about his beginnings in the sector, where the industry finds itself, and offers advice ahead of the reopening
To say that Lee Newton, chief executive at Media 10, was ‘born into events’ would be both metaphorically and technically correct as Bouncy Baby Newton arrived unexpectedly into this world in his family living room during a party. So, having attended his first event when he was only one second old, it was preordained that events would play a major part in anything Newton did.
His life as ‘cheeky Essex Boy made good’ is a film crying out to be made. Picture an early-life-later-life double hander between, say, Jude Law and Ray Winston.
Needless to say, Newton was an entrepreneur from the start. His early career running his own handbag stall on Romford Market (the aptly named Lee’s Bags) gave him a hunger for commerce and taught him two things: the fact that he wanted to do things quicker, bigger and better, and the need to have a job that was not outside as he didn’t like the cold.
Newton’s career is one of launch, acquisition and growth in the exhibition world. But his first foray into this sector started in publishing. Newton believes that this set the framework and shaped his thinking about the visitor.
“In the early days, because we didn’t know any better, we ran the floor plan in the same way we ran a flat plan for a magazine. In a magazine, you would have editorial then advertising, editorial then advertising. So, we laid out a ‘flat floor plan’ just like that. We had features and education points, restaurants, bars and seating areas and much more than you get a normal show.
“We thought of it just like we thought about a magazine. We made sure that the ‘front cover’ of the show was fantastic. The entrance of the show was like a front cover. The second you got there, you thought ‘wow’. Before you even walked in, you were smiling and thinking that the £10 ticket was a good investment.
“If you take customers in smiling, then they tend to keep smiling.”
Newton also applied the principals of layout and structure of a magazine into how they laid their shows out.
“With a magazine, everyone wants a right-hand page at the front of a magazine and the same applies to an exhibition. Everyone wants to be at the front of an exhibition. So, I thought that if we had an entrance tunnel that takes people right into the middle of the show floor and split that show floor into maybe four sections, then you have got four different exhibitions and four ‘front covers’.
“The philosophy of taking people in to a show, surprising them and actually guiding them round so that they didn’t leave, works. Our publishing experience was of always trying to get people to turn to the next page and go all the way through until the back of the magazine.
“We used that approach on our shows and we felt that, if we kept them in there longer, they would spend more. And it worked.”
Newton and Media 10 have worked across a wide variety of both B2B and consumer shows. The company’s pedigree includes three sizeable launches in China, buying the Ideal Home Show, working for both the Prince of Wales and the Queen, launching one of the biggest polo events in Europe and launching ITV’s This Morning Live. But Newton is at pains to point out that they make more revenue from trade shows than from consumer and feels that the secret to their success is creativity and imagination.
“Trade shows do not have to be dull. We aim to make our trade shows beautiful. And we do that by not accepting that things have to be done a certain way. If Health and Safety tell me that I can’t do something, I tell them that isn’t my problem, and they need to find a way that it can be done. Let me get creative and you sort the problems out.”
Newton has been a disruptor and a change agent all his life and has relished being edgy and not playing by the rules. How does he see the next wave of change panning out in our industry?
“Being honest, I think there will be less revenue around than before Covid-19 happened. There will be fewer people spending and there will be less money around for a while. We might see a lift upwards but then I think it will come down a bit.
“I think that, unfortunately, some of our exhibitors will have found other ways to sell and market their products and we will have to start the fight again. People will find that they have actually done very well by going online. This may be due less to the actual online medium and more because the current restricted environment means that buyers have nothing else to do but shop online.
“All this digital advancement and disruption means a change of thinking in our industry. It will need every part of the exhibition to take a step back, retrench and start the march forward together.
“But the other side of me says that I am desperate to get out, desperate to start running shows again, desperate to socialise and therefore I can only assume that other people will feel the same way.”
While Newton is positive about the long-term future of the industry, he is less convinced that there will be a dramatic bounce back and feels that we have to get out there and get on with it even if our early shows are not as big as they were previously.
“We are hoping to run shows from September. I don’t know whether that is a dream or not at this stage because every date we have picked so far that we thought was OK at the time, within weeks it became a ridiculous idea and we questioned why we had even thought about it in the first place.
“Going forwards, we have a show in each month in September, October and November and have a budget if they do happen and a budget if they don’t. So, this time round we have learned our lesson and created two budgets so if things change, we can change with them.
“Luckily for us, we had a lot of stuff booked in for 2020 and we haven’t lost much of that. Customers have stayed with us and allowed us to move that revenue forward each time. We will probably have good shows with reference to size when they do start again. But the last 20% will be the difficult bit as that is the new clients and the late bookers. Will they be there this time round?
“The key thing is whether the visitors will be there. In some industries and locations, yes. If it is a local show, then you should be fine but if your show is international or people have to travel across the country then you might find you have a big knock back on numbers.
“I think trade shows will struggle when it comes to crossing countries and continents to get to an exhibition and will really ask themselves whether they actually need to go to that show.
“People’s habits have been broken. There are lots of exhibitors and advertisers who have always gone to a specific show and have not wanted to find out what the impact would be if they didn’t do that event. But now they have had that forced upon them. If they haven’t done so bad, they might not jump back in as easily.
“I am extremely confident about the industry though. It will all come back. Just understanding when the challenge will be. Predicting when it will be ‘good’ again for our industry is so difficult. I have been wrong so many times with this pandemic. It has screwed up all our abilities to predict outcomes and therefore make decisions and see the wood from the trees.
“At Media 10, we talk a lot about being able to steer a steady ship. If we can sail a steady ship, keep it going in the right direction, at a steady pace in calm waters, then we can make good money. As soon as the waters get a bit choppy, we make less money. When we have no idea whether it is going to be choppy or smooth tomorrow, we can’t make any money.
“That is exactly what is happening now. It is hard enough making money and getting it right in normal circumstances but it you can’t tell what the weather will be like tomorrow, that makes it doubly hard.”
Looking beyond 2021 and thinking what needs to be in place to see a strong 2022, Newton has three core pieces of advice for the exhibition industry.
“Firstly, you need to make sure you have the right people who are still motivated and committed to the future of live events. They were before everything changed and you need to make sure they still are. You need the right team with the right philosophies who are driven and focused.
“Secondly, you need your products to have evolved over the last 12 months. Just because we haven’t run shows, doesn’t mean that we should be standing still with our evolution. Our customers haven’t so neither should we.
“I was in the B2B magazine industry when the internet was born. The number of businesses in that space who said it would not hurt them was ridiculous. Everyone thought that the B2B magazine industry would take control of the internet as they had the databases, the editorial, the content, the history. But they didn’t. They didn’t adapt to it. It was almost as if they felt it was their God-given right to control the markets. And of course, it wasn’t. It was the new generation coming through and doing it in a completely different way who were the winners.
“So, my advice would be to make sure you do pick that up. Don’t watch too many people working in your market in different ways. It is your market and your space. Don’t think that whatever you are doing today will last because it will not.
“I want to come out of this with a digital business that runs on its own. Almost a separate business in the same markets. That is because I want to ensure a genuine focus on digital and treat it with the respect it deserves. It isn’t just about slinging out virtual events. They need to be thought through carefully and treated differently.
“My third point is that, as an industry, there is no one in a better position, with the assets that we have, to take the digital market. But we need to want to do it properly. We have databases, brands, buyers, sellers, industry knowledge, there is simply no one in a better position than us to do this.
“If we gave our assets to a standalone digital business, they would wet themselves. They would be amazed that we already have everything in place. That is where we can come out of this as a different industry. We will not ‘just be live’. We will be a true media industry. We almost don’t know how lucky we are.
“That is my plan for Media 10. That we come out of this with two revenue streams. We get live back and then get a brand-new stream with digital. If we grab the new digital revenue as well as our traditional revenue when we come out, then we could even be twice the size.”