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Mark Shashoua: passion for disruption

by Martin Fullard

In her latest feature as guest editor, Ruth Carter talks to Mark Shashoua, chief executive at Hyve Group, on his fiery passion for disruption

Speaking with Mark Shashoua, chief executive of Hyve Group plc, leaves you in no doubt that he is a man on a mission. He draws you in with fiery, but utterly convincing talk of disruptors and accelerated pace of change. But he comfortably punctuates that with talk about the romanticism and emotion of being back at the helm of the business originally launched by his family. His message and vision are compelling and you are left with an overwhelming desire to become a card-carry member of whatever party it is that he is leading.

We started our conversation by talking about the role of digital events, especially in light of Hyve’s recent acquisitions in that space. Shashoua is very clear that the future for Hyve lies in an omnichannel approach.

“Covid has accelerated trends that would have happened eventually anyway. From the beginning, it felt clear that the inherent behaviour of people would fundamentally shift post-Covid and that our use of Zoom-type technology would become ingrained. It is not just going to stop once everyone is back it out in the open.

“Some people reacted by simply accelerating their use of digital webinar-led events. But we saw the opportunity to take a different tack at Hyve and adopted an omnichannel approach. In order to make an omnichannel strategy successful you need a deep clarity and understanding about exactly what you do and what you have to offer. We have ultimately simplified that understanding down to being clear that we service three fundamental customer needs: we bring people together to trade, to learn and to network.

“Of course, many people in our industry have been doing this for decades through in-person events. But there are now many different and new channels in which we can help bring people together to achieve these three needs.

“Virtual replicas of events fail because, while providing online content (i.e. the ‘learn’ part of an event) is relatively simple and terrific for engagement and data, it is therefore hard to monetise, and the network and trade parts have proved difficult to replicate through an online channel. This is because they are totally different businesses to what exhibition organisers have been doing in the past and have a completely different commercial proposition.

“One of the reasons we bought the original Shoptalk last year was for the onsite facilitated meeting capability and software. It was something that I had not seen on this scale or automation levels. It wasn’t just because it was the major event of its kind in the world but because it had a technology process and a scale that was second to none and filled that ‘network’ need that we have to offer our customers onsite.”

Omni-risk?

We have seen many organisers turning their hands to digital events in 2020 with varying success. Existing resource has been ‘repurposed’ into become digital experts. Shashoua talks about how, as soon as they had set out along the omnichannel path, they investigated whether this was something they could do with their existing skill sets but decided, very quickly, that this was not the route for them.

“Yes, we could have done that but you are talking an enormous risk. To do it properly and to make it commercially interesting would mean investing multiple millions and we felt that this was a risk too far.

“How many people have actually succeeded in making serious money from digital? Not many. We have at Hyve but only because we had to buy something. So we teamed up with a proven outstanding entrepreneur who has built many platforms in other industry sectors, to create a product and a commercial proposition that would then give us the capability and learning that we can use to create other opportunities for different industry sectors.”

Many companies make acquisitions of product, expertise and capability that they plan to expand into other sectors, but this rarely works out. Shashoua feels that the centralised operating model that they have created is the key to Hyve’s success.

“We completely turned this company around, away from a decentralised, geographic-led business into one where everybody operates the same way, regardless of geography, sector, or industry.

“We have a way to buy and embed that is now ingrained in this business. If one thing works well in one place and we see best practice then, using our centralised operating model, that can be rolled out everywhere across the world.

“Changing the entire structure of the business was a very, very hard thing to do. But it was the reason why I took this role in the first place. Not because of the romanticism of going back to the company that my family had started but because it was the right size: small enough to be able to affect this type of change but big enough to be able to afford it.

“Unfortunately, there had to be a lot of changes, largely at the top level. In order to get everybody aligned to the idea of a centralised operating model, you have to have everyone wanting it, especially the people at the top of an organisation. Without them embracing the changes, it will not happen.”

Core skills

The Hyve of today looks very different, in terms of the leadership team, from the old ITE. Shashoua has made many changes to that line up. The potential for criticism that he has moved too far away from the core skills sets needed for an exhibition business is not one that concerns him.

“We now have a broad range of skills all built around ‘product first’ where we have to consider what is right for the quality of the product on a long-term basis. Just because skills sets or processes were right five years ago, it doesn’t mean that they are going to work for the next five years. It doesn’t mean that the old way was bad though. Quite the opposite. But the time has changed and so has the culture. So what you are seeing at Hyve is a fundamental shift of culture.

“Some people have loved it and those people are still here. Some people genuinely do not like it at all. They don’t want that type of change and they don’t want to work that way. You have to respect that and they will move on to somewhere that does match their skill set where they can do brilliantly.

“I think we’ve been very clear since I came here, explaining the direction that we were going and being very transparent. I believe in taking everybody on the journey but at the same time we’re very open if this doesn’t work.”

Prior to 2020, Hyve have seen their top 10 shows deliver double-digit, like-for-like organic growth over the last three years. Shashoua feels that the culture and structure changes have been fundamental in achieving those successes.

“It’s not because we are special. It is just because we changed and our culture changed. We brought in that centralised operating model so that we had a singular view, from every aspect, of what best practice looks like. Coupled with that, we have people that wanted to embrace that. And when they embrace it, the results follow and speak for themselves.”

No talent left behind

With the UK having some of the best talent in the exhibition world, does Shashoua feel that these people will get left behind? Not at all. He talks energetically about the in-person exhibition industry and the rich skill sets that we have. But only for the market leading shows.

“No matter what happens, there will always be a place for in-person events. Digital may offer a different channel for customers to interact through, but in-person will always be needed because digital cannot offer what in-person can. In-person events will always be a critical part of an omnichannel strategy, just not the only part.

“And as for those ‘traditional’ skill sets, those people will do incredibly well as long as they are working on top tier shows. I think it will suck if you are in a third-tier event for example. It is all about the market leading shows going forward.

“The days of third and fourth-tier shows are long gone. The entire marketing line that companies would usually allocate against exhibitions has come out. Nobody has spent any money on events over the last 12 months, so now they are going to have to justify why they are putting it back in. This will suddenly make people say ‘actually, why am I doing this? Why am I doing this small, parochial show’.”

Returning to the company founded by his family must bring a level of romanticism and emotion with it. But Shashoua has also faced criticism for allowing that romanticism to affect his decision-making process when buying the Ascential brands that he had previously led. With his usual style, Shashoua bats this back.

“Of course there’s romanticism, but at the same time you can’t be held back by that. On the contrary, it drives you forward because it gives you enormous amounts of energy and it means that you care. It makes you care more than you ever would normally and I care very deeply about evolving the business into one that’s a market leader.

“With regards to the portfolio we bought, we obviously knew those assets very, very well. Not just the Spring and Autumn Fairs but also Bett and Coil Winding. These events were ones I had previously invested in quite significantly and had been performing unbelievably well.

“With everything in life though, when it is core and gets investment, it grows but once it becomes non-core, it starts to plateau and drift down. This was clearly what was happening at Ascential as they were very public about the business plan to invest in digital and other different types of business, but not events. These were now non-core for them.

“So when they came up for sale, we naturally wanted to get our hands on them because we knew we could turn them around. They were great assets and a perfect move for our company as they helped position us as a global player.”

Anti-preneur?

Despite the changes and advances that Shashoua has led over the years, he does not see himself as an entrepreneur in the true sense of the word.

“I am not an entrepreneur in the same way that my father was. He literally created things from nothing and that was his skill set. My skill set is disruption. Taking something that has been created already and driving it to another level.

“But I am not someone who worries about what people think. If we obsessed about what people think about us, then that means we aspire to be the same as them. It means that we don’t aspire to disrupt. I aspire to disrupt, to make mistakes, adapt, learn and evolve. You have to respect the past as well as respect the fact that things change. So that is why I don’t spend too much time worrying about what people think.”

Shashoua is genuinely excited about what the future brings for Hyve, omnichannel and the exhibition industry as a whole and feels it is imperative that we continue to look forward.

“When people are faced with incredible crisis, they very much live in the present and find it hard to see beyond that. But you must not get sucked into that because the goal is moving so rapidly. January 2020 was a whole year ago but it gone by so quickly and January 2022 is going to be upon us in a flash.

“It is easy to be inundated with the waves of bad news that are being pushed out but the future is starting to look genuinely positive. The vaccine roll out in this country is happening far faster than we could have ever hoped. We did some modelling last summer that built in a vaccine not being ready until April 2022 and yet here it is already. That is fantastic for the country and fantastic for our industry.

“I am deeply excited about omnichannel but I also see a great future for exhibitions. Saying that exhibitions ‘will’ come back is wrong. They are already coming back. For those market leading, world-class shows, the future is genuinely positive.”

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