When the pandemic hit and for the first time in almost 40 years Mark Allen Group were unable to hold any live exhibitions, a third of its revenue dried up overnight. But how did the family-run company straddling publishing and trade shows still manage to produce an ‘exceptional’ rise in profits? Founder and executive chairman Mark Allen spoke exclusively to EN editor Emily Wallin
Exhibitions made up a third of Mark Allen Group’s revenue up until 2020. But when Covid-19 hit, the publishing side of the business kept them afloat – and flourishing. Founder and executive chairman Mark Allen is convinced live exhibitions will return to being the bread and butter of his business and even more profitable than before. But how have they have managed to flourish through disaster? Confident Allen says they expect to be performing at better than pre-pandemic levels by the end of next year.
“For 2022 we saw turnover of £60m and made EBITDA of £13.3m,” he tells me from their headquarters in a vast decommissioned church in leafy Herne Hill. “The vast bulk of that revenue came from publishing, mainly because we only started doing live events again in the autumn. Before the pandemic exhibition revenue comprised about a third of our revenue.
“Now we are back in business on the exhibitions side and we expect exhibitions to grow. It’s something we are totally committed to. We are looking at exhibitions being really profitable again, and we are looking for further acquisitions.
“The first year of the pandemic we weren’t able to do a single live event. The exhibitions side of the business made a big loss but the company as a whole made a very nice profit, EBITDA of £10m – that’s despite not doing an exhibition.
“In 2020-21 our exhibitions made a small profit, but we’re very pleased with that. This year (2022-2023) we’ll make a much bigger profit and year after we should make a really sizable profit, well in advance of where we were pre-pandemic.
“What exhibitions are is a buying and selling mechanism and a chance to meet and network with other people and those human aspirations are never going to go away. There will always be an events market.”
As Mark Allen Group looks to grow, their sights are definitely acquisitive. Over the past 12 years they have achieved huge growth through acquisitions of companies, events and magazines. Allen is quite clear that he plans to acquire more.
We meet just days before their latest acquisition – and second so far this year- Heelec Ltd, which runs EMEX, the net zero and energy management expo.
Allen says: “We’re in a very good situation, we’ve got a good track record, we’re very profitable and must be one of the fastest growing publishing and events businesses in the country. We’re in very good position to grow.
“We see the future of our business as a combination of magazines and events and they coalesce very well together and dovetail with each other.”
Reflecting on a career spent watching digital and technological innovation radically alter the publishing and events landscapes, Allen embraces change.
“There’s no doubt people still want to go to live events, but you can’t ignore advances in digital. It has been demonstrated over the past couple years, we have been running webinars and digital events and I see that development still going on. But I also see live events going back to being accessible and popular, certainly in most parts of Europe and most of the rest of the world.
“As far as publishing is concerned, I’ve always been agnostic over whether it’s print or digital. We’re talking about a delivery system. The same thing applies to events. Some events will become digital events. We do a number of healthcare events, and doctors and nurses are busy, they want quick-fire information and don’t necessarily want to meet people, but there are some sectors where networking is crucial. A lot of people are guilty of thinking one size fits all.
“I think you have to be sensible in your approach and let customers lead the way. If they want a digital event, we’ll give them a digital event. If they want live, we’ll give them live. You have to let your customers lead you, not the other way round.
“What appertains both publishing magazines and creating events is content. If you get the content right everything else follows. If technology helps and aids you in that process then great, but it shouldn’t take over the whole shooting match. Technology is an aid, it’s not the solution.”
Allen is very clear that publishing and exhibitions go hand and hand within the company.
“We pride ourselves as magazine publishing company and an events company,” he says
When it comes to growth, Allen is open-minded and in his own words “opportunistic” without any hard and fast parameters of sectors beyond their remit.
He says: “If there’s something we like, that has value, that we feel we can do something with, then we’re interested. In most markets, in the business-to-business-side in particular, we would be interested in, then we provide different synergies.
“We have seven or eight different music magazines. We bought one music magazine, because I happen to be interested in jazz, from that we then developed a synergy around it.
“We are looking opportunistically but if they fit within our existing sectors and add strength then that is a key point. But I wouldn’t rule out anything.
“Some people might criticise us for that, but the reason why we have been so successful in the past two years is because of the range of sectors we are involved in. If one sector is feeling the pinch, then other sectors within our group likely to be doing well. It’s been incredibly helpful for the group as
Looking forward there are some potential hurdles on the horizon for exhibitions, Allen says.
“The main problem for the exhibitions industry is we are living in very uncertain times,” he says. “We’ve got the pandemic still raging in China, a lot of people and businesses don’t want to travel to certain areas. The war in Ukraine is obviously of huge concern and spilling over to other parts of the universe. We have great pressures like the cost of living crisis and all those different factors are going to have an effect on events sooner or later, somewhere down the line people are going to be looking at purse strings and deciding whether to sponsor or attend an event. That is going to have an impact.
“Hopefully, most companies will be able to come through, but they are enormous challenges.
“It’s almost harder this year to predict the future than it was at the onset of the pandemic because there are so many different things going on there.”
Despite the difficulties of the past two years, Allen says the pause of events gave them the chance to slow down and reflect on where to make improvements.
He says: “What’s happened over course past two years is best companies have got stronger.
“We’ve done really well. The ones with the most problems are going to fail. That will go on for the next few years and a number more companies will go to the wall. The best will survive and get better, but some won’t.
“You can’t suddenly shift the axis of the world by yourself. What you can do is try to be as creative as you possibly can and see if there are opportunities in a murky world.
“There’s always things you can do in controlling your costs. On the exhibition side, we want to be in the greatest venues and have the nicest furnishings and for everything to look really good, but sometimes you have to think whether- without putting the event in jeopardy-there are things you can do to save
“Don’t throw out the content or quality but there may be things we can do which the punters coming to events won’t notice.
“We have always done well in a crisis. When there’s been recessions and difficulties we’ve done well. We’ve got a really superb team who have grown with us – very creative thinkers with can-do spirit and they think outside the box and those people I have tremendous admiration and confidence in.
“You have to come into work and think ‘how can we improve our performance?’ That’s where you can score points and make a difference to the final outcome.”