In her latest in-depth interview, EN guest editor Ruth Carter speaks to Hugh Jones, who took over as CEO at Reed Exhibitions in February 2020.
Despite Hugh Jones’ long, hard-hitting and impressive corporate career, the last decade being within RELX leading data, compliance and technology-based businesses, it was still a surprise to the exhibition industry when he was appointed chief executive of Reed Exhibitions in February 2020. The industry embraces new, fresh blood that thinks differently, especially those with data and technology roots. But that is usually offset by a deep-seated belief that ‘outsiders’ will not understand the intangibility and uniqueness of exhibitions in a way that a long-serving industry expert will have. So, Jones’ appointment at the helm of one of the biggest and most influential global companies in our sector sent ripples through the community.
But this is no one-dimensional techy data geek. Jones exudes a surprisingly enlightened passion about exhibitions. Far from sounding like someone who only arrived in the industry less than a year ago, he moves effortless between talking about the science behind manipulating and understanding huge sets of data, to waxing lyrically about the theatre and magic of a live show. Jones has quickly developed the exhibition DNA essential to our industry yet balances it with a deep-seated understanding on the new technology and data tools that companies will need going forward.
When Hugh Jones joined Reed Exhibitions in February 2020, he was expecting a very different year from the one that eventually panned out.
“The first month was really great as I got to meet these warm, creative, committed enthusiastic people with a genuine love of their events and the industry those events represented. Those first days were really quite special.
“Going forward, it became more special in a way as I found those initial traits were only the surface of some of the people that I deal with on a daily basis. It’s amazing how adaptable our people are when it comes to putting on great shows and world-class, leading events, come hell or high water. But it shouldn’t have surprised me when I found out that their true superpowers were more along the lines of their adaptability and their resilience in the face of incredible change and challenge.”
“The comradeship and team spirit manifested itself in really incredible feats of collaboration, achieved whilst working remotely. The industry’s ability to adapt under intense pressure has created some of the most incredible innovations and some of the biggest virtual events in our history.”
But the ‘Covid Year’ also allowed Jones to make calls and take new directions that he would probably not have been able to in a ‘normal’ year.
“It was not the year I expected but because we were under incredible Covid pressure, I did have the ability to take some bets that I wouldn’t otherwise have taken. Our customers are more accepting of the bets that I am taking because, if I fail, they say ’well gee-whiz, at least you tried’. The bars were lower, and I could place bets to see what worked. In a way, the year became a perfect laboratory to test something, see whether it worked or not and then test it again and test it again. Over time, if you have enough shows and enough tests, you know a lot more today than you did a year ago.”
While Jones has been with RELX for some years, the world of exhibitions was new to him and this brought many surprises: some refreshing and some presenting opportunity.
“My background prior to joining Reed Exhibitions was running a bunch of companies for RELX – the largest being in the compliance space where we would manage huge datasets to help clients make better decisions, primarily in the anti-money laundering sector. In those sectors, our purpose is very clear and that is to stop criminal behavior and sort out the good guys from the bad guys to make sure that only good guys are in our banking system. As you might expect, my employees came to work every day with a very clear purpose. They understood precisely what their contributions were and why it mattered.
“What I didn’t expect was that, here at Reed Exhibitions, we have the same sense of purpose, but it came to me in a very different way. It came to me once we had to cancel and postpone events at the start of the crisis. For every call I received from a customer begging me to cancel an event, I would receive four calls from customers begging me to keep the event on. Most of those calls came from SMEs who absolutely rely on live trade events for their business, worrying about ‘how am I going to fill my pipeline, how am I going to make my orders, how am I going to pay for my employees’. Being asked not to cancel an event really helped me quickly understand the purpose of the industry. We are the linchpin of hundreds of billions of dollars that make lives better. We fulfill a desperate need in the world, and it is palpable.
“In terms of opportunity, in my prior businesses, where I needed very fancy computing power in order to separate wheat from chaff, you have the opportunity to deal with some pretty sophisticated machine-based learning, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics and they become the oxygen you breathe. I don’t think it’s a shocker to say, but the events business is not as mature as those types of businesses. But that is pretty exciting because it means that there is an opportunity for me to take the business on an almost transformational journey.
“For example, being able to predict how visitors interact with exhibitors; who should interact; how exhibitors are matched with buyers. The possibilities are endless. We see this with the internet, but we don’t really see this in an event. What I love about that is that’s just upside. The idea you would go to one of our large mega events with a pocket full of business cards and a plan to go walk the halls is the 1980s and that is really not the way to do events.
“Events are too big, too sophisticated and every step you take should be in a direction to help efficiently run your business and so we can help you with that. So, for example, we should be saying to a visitor ‘of all the thousands of exhibitors, here are the top 50 we think you should meet, they think they should meet you, they are willing to meet you at this time, do your visits in this order, ask about these things and here’s how to get there in the right way’. With all of those elements, you are leaning upon computer power.
“Another thing that I love about this business is the sense of fun and passion teams feel for the sectors in which they work. They are, after all, putting on a show. To me, on a ‘curtains up day’ it’s as if it’s a Broadway or a West End show – there’s a feeling of magic in the air and I can see why people stay once they get a taste of the exhibitions business and how much fun it is and how much purpose there is and how much joy there is.
“It doesn’t have to be something like a Comic-Con, although you see joy on the faces of those people all the time. But it can also happen with hardware. You can be in Vegas looking at hammers where you see the same sense of coolness and it’s wonderful to be a part of that. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Like every other exhibition company, 2020 was a tough year for Reed and Jones talks openly and candidly about the redundancy programme that he took the company through. Has he finished with the cost-cutting restructure or is there more to come in the UK?
“Nothing set in stone simply as we don’t know what is around the corner. But I think that we have responsibly delivered on our promise to reduce costs and create a leaner and more nimble structure that’s better able to react to changes.
“You can’t cost cut your way to value and if that’s your plan you are not going to deliver an increasing share price year after year after year. You have to always keep efficiency as forefront your mind and you should always be looking for ways to become more efficient. I do that, not because I am simply going to reduce costs, but because I want to take the investment dollars that I was putting in that inefficient category and put them somewhere else. I am going to try to place a bet and grow somewhere else.
“So, it is not about cost cutting but it is more about resource allocation to the hottest, coolest bits. Whether that’s geographical or innovative. You can’t cost cut your way to a higher share price over a long period of time. It does not work, and you will get into a death spiral. You make sure you’re learning and make sure you keep testing so that you allocate resources in place where you’re going to get the greenest shoots popping up through the fertile soil.
“I think that pressure creates diamonds. But we had to reduce our costs along the lines of everyone else. We weren’t running shows, we are a public company, we have shareholders, and we have to responsibly find efficiencies that allow us to get as close to our customers as possible and so we have to allocate resources effectively. That will be a legacy that we and almost every other exhibition company can rely upon. We will be leaner and more efficient. Layers of management have been reduced and spans of control have been increased. So instead of one manager to five people it is probably more like one manager to seven or eight now.
“With that efficiency, we are also able to begin to place bets and innovate in areas where we’re not scared. So, things like virtual trade show platforms; webinars for product launches where the product is shipped ahead the event attendees can open it be guided by an exhibitor; obviously digital meeting technology but also digital product showcases.
“The concept of digital communities is something else that I think 2020 will leave as a legacy. Remember that your purpose is to generate innovation and business throughout the year – not just at the trade show – so a digital community is a community that interacts every day of the year and a couple of times a year there’s a trade show. But there are other elements where they can interact and communicate throughout every day and the trade show is just one element of a much broader community.
“But we need to be hitting the ground running in 2021. No one wants to hear any more trouble from 2020. I want to leave that one with the record books and say, ‘that was an awful year, let’s move on’.
With Reed Exhibitions’ recently completed significant downsizing of the UK team and with other leading organisers aggressively reviewing their national portfolios, how does Jones feel about the future of the exhibition industry in the UK?
“We are bullish about the UK exhibition market. Full stop. The trade fair market contributes between £8-11bn to the overall economic impact of the economy and it will remain an important driver for development of new cool thought and also expansion of specially SMEs. UK events, in our opinion and backed up by our research, tell us that they will contribute considerably to a proliferation of innovation and new geographies for new business in the future.
“I do not take the short side of it. I do not take a pessimistic view of the UK’s market. You have to understand this about Reed Exhibitions and Hugh Jones. I think the UK’s still a great market.
“I think that it’s going to be a turbulent time in the UK and so there are those who are going to have a rougher time because of their capitalisation or their ability to keep the lights on during times of woe and sadness, like right now. That is of course true but that does not mean that the underlying economies somehow won’t scale.
“Yes we did take some costs out of our business but it does not mean it’s inefficient and does not mean we’re retreating from the market. Absolutely not. I realise that we may well have Brexit coming up and I realize that it will take a while for vaccines to be with us. But our role in this is to strive to help all our industries overcome these impacts and help them do business and we want to be at the forefront of that. So, I will embrace the UK economy with everything I’ve got.
In terms of what the industry can do to ensure it is strong and robust going forward, Jones believes passionately in the importance of organisers working together and setting and adhering to agreed standards.
“We now really have an understanding that we, as an industry, need to work together. We need to come across with one voice. We should be able to go directly to Number 10 Downing Street and have a voice, in the same way that hotels or casinos or cruise ships do – so should we. We were a bit on our back foot when we first started. People understood why a restaurant might be hurt but didn’t understand the difference between going to a rock concert and a professional trade fair. The two are very different. You have to manage them differently from a safety point of view. Lumping them together is not accurate at all.
“As an industry, we have to do better to have one voice and share best practice. If one exhibition organiser runs a lousy, unsafe show, we are all harmed. If you stink up the joint, we will all feel it so we’re all in it together. Which means I have an incentive to pass along any innovation that we can come up with and any guidelines that we think are appropriate. I feel incentivised to help the smaller organiser in the UK. Why wouldn’t I? Because the risk effects all of us. If there is a super spreader event in Leeds, I’m going to feel it here my headquarters in London and I can’t allow that to happen.
“Once the public sees and understands that the event industry is bigger than simply one organiser or one venue and that we really are professional enough to be able to handle events in a safe and thoughtful method going forward, then the collective temperature will come down. Especially if we can band together and say this is a certified safe event- here are the rules and we all play by those rules.”
Looking forward, Jones is bullish about the growth potential of a number of market sectors. He talks with astounding knowledge and passion about old sectors being re-energised by new technologies – house building, auto shows, green tech and mobility to name a few.
“In terms of sectors, RELX is a technology company so of course it wouldn’t be very awkward for me to say that we are very familiar with and comfortable with those types of sectors. Whether they are sophistications within healthcare, biotech, medical device or advanced analytics or looking at those sectors by industry – advanced analytics for aviation, advanced analytics for diagnostics, healthcare-based analytics for cancer drugs design and so on. Or cyber security. Cyber security will be something that we deal with for the rest of our lives and so it’s just pretty obvious that it’s the sort of thing that is changing so quickly that we have an awful lot of purpose there and we need to cascade that innovation. Every four months it changes so we need to be at the forefront of that. So those would be the types of growth sectors that are pretty exciting.
“But I think that it would be disastrous to think that you need to be only on the bleeding edge of tech and create trade fairs that way. I think the better way to look at it is to ask how those innovations of bleeding edge tech transfer themselves into the things we use every day. Nutrition, fitness, well-being, sleep, yoga, breathing techniques – all sorts of things that have to do with aging and living a great life. There’s a lot of opportunity out there.”
Unlike some other organisers, he remains confident about the future of international shows and some of the traditional geographic regions.
“The fast lane says that you should go to a geography that can put on an event with a large domestic population as you don’t need international participation and you will make a return. But that’s a short-term goal. I wouldn’t purchase a series of events if that was the driver. I believe that the international community will come back and that we have a purpose to make our events as innovative it’s possible. To do that you need international participation in just about every single event that you do.
“I take a longer view when I think about putting investment dollars into a space. I don’t think ‘how am I going to make money in a year’. I think ‘how am I going to make a franchise that lasts for decades’. If I buy something, how am I the natural home for that? Why can I own that particular solution set or exhibition better than anybody else.
“We have had a great experience in China so I would certainly not walk away from there. It does pay to have great partners there though. If you are an organisation that likes to go it alone then that region may be a tougher goal for you. For us though, we like China very much.
“Countries that that had negative or falling GDP rates are generally countries where innovation and investment are harder to justify as somewhere that you would go in deep. It is easier to make the argument that if I am going to make an investment, I am going to make investment in an infrastructure that is growing. I think that is ‘Ecom 101’! Those countries that have strong and rapidly increasing GDPs are the ones we are interested in. That doesn’t necessarily mean just looking at the big hubs like China, UK, France and the USA. There are lots of regional markets that, because of that characteristic of an increasing middle class with disposable income, they can make for some wonderful regional shows. There are emerging markets in Latin America, on the periphery of China and in Africa that have an incredible pent-up demand.”
Jones clearly sees the dynamic and effective use of big data as a key solution for driving the exhibition industry forward – even down to its ability to create manufactured serendipity.
“A computer can tell what a customer does from the data you have fed it and from their interactions and how they fill out a reg form, who they want to meet. From that, the computer can determine whether or not there’s a chance of probability that you would also want to meet this other person or other company for their skill set or products. The computer takes the ‘I know what you know’ and the ‘I know what you do’ and adds in ‘but I also know what you don’t know’. Once you give the computer feedback about those elements you can keep going and introduce customers to bigger worlds. This is not wizardry and it is done all the time in other industries.
“We are absolutely looking at using data scientists to drive this. We’re really blessed that at Reed Exhibitions, because we are part of RELX, they have hundreds of data scientists who are a centre of excellence resource that we can tap into any time. The best thing for a data scientist is a ton of data. The more data you have the better their predictions can be and the cleaner the data you have the better their predictions can be.”
But what about the future for Reed? Reed Exhibitions is regular a source of media speculation regarding its long-term future within the RELX Group and it being a possible disposal, but Jones batted that away politely but decisively.
“It is a conversation that comes up every now and again but I don’t pay much attention to it. So that should tell you a great deal. In my opinion, as CEO, it would not be a wise decision to divest Reed Exhibitions.”
Jones remains confident, not only about the long-term future of Reed and the exhibition industry overall, but also about the prospects for 2021. A recent press release from Reed stated that they would be able to get back to 90% of their 2019 revenues in 2021. But is that still achievable?
“I do think this is achievable. There are many moving parts to the forecast, and it has a wide range obviously. Countries to go on and off the restriction list and we are hopeful about vaccines being adopted and effective. But should things play out the way we are expecting then we believe we can get back in action in the way you mentioned. So yes, right now it is looking achievable.”
Many exhibition organisers are putting more emphasis on content-based events, whether traditional conferences and confexes or through digital events. Jones was clear that Reed was no different.
“Conferences are easier to convert into digital than trade fairs. With a conference, if I am at a plenary and want to talk about new innovation in a particular sector where scientists or doctors or lawyers are going to show up, it is actually easier to do that sort of thing on a virtual platform than it is to put a trade fair on a virtual platform. So as people become more willing to speak to consider a hybridisation of a platform, that means conferences become more interesting.
“For Reed Exhibitions, we are guided by our customers. If our customers feel that we can deliver growth and innovation in a conference, then we would take a look at it and we would not simply reject it out of hand.
“Do I have to be in the room when a physician tells me whether or not something is going to pass the Phase Three trial, or what the mechanism of action is? Do I have to actually physically be in the room to understand that insight? My suspicion is no, I don’t physically have to be in the room. I do need to hear it, I need to understand the detail, but I don’t need to physically be in the room.
“That is very different though than a trade fair when I am walking round trying to find innovation through serendipity. That needs a whole different solution.”
Looking at the growth potential, do Reed remain active on the acquisition front and would they be divesting any of their portfolio? Jones showed that Reed were as hungry for acquisitive growth as they have always been, proactively inviting potential partners to get in touch.
“We always look at balancing our portfolio with an eye for growth and pleasing our customer base. So, of course you always see us making acquisitions as well as moving away from shows that no longer fulfill the purpose that they used to. So that won’t change. My view is that if you’re interested in working with a bunch of courageous, humour-filled, fun-filled people then give me a call because for sure I’m interested.
“We are acquisitive where we think it makes sense and where we think we can be a natural home for whatever it is we’re trying to put on. If we are to joint venture or buy something, we don’t think of it in terms of a year or two years. We think about in terms of forever. Reed Elsevier has been around for centuries and if we are going to make an acquisition, we want it to be successful for all parties for decades and we do that by making deals that make sense, not over one or two or five years, but ten or twenty or fifty years.”
Speaking with Jones gives a real insight into how the new breed of exhibition leaders must look, with one foot in the showmanship of Broadway and the other in the analytical world of data science. These must go hand in hand if we are to prosper and evolve as an industry. But the passion, ownership and excitement about the future of Reed Exhibitions and the exhibition industry overall simply flows from every Jones pore.
“Take my hometown of Chicago. We had the Chicago fire and now look at that bright, gleaming city by the lake. We have 100-year floods, they do exist. Black swans do exist. We are in one right now and to get thought it you have to be nimble. You have to be able to pivot. You can’t be bogged down by bureaucracy. You have to be courageous. You have to be able to place bets. You have to learn from your mistakes and not beat yourself up about them but say ‘I won’t do that again, I’m a better executive today than I was yesterday because of that bet’s spectacular failure’. If you can do that and you can think through many scenarios good and bad, you will come out of this stronger.
“Covid has changed the shape of my organisation and our industry permanently. Digital is transforming our business. It is transforming it faster and deeper than we perhaps imagined two years ago. So, build on it, own it, embrace it and be the best in the world that you can be at it to produce value, data-driven events.
“I think that widespread vaccines will be a game changer for us in the future. We can debate when they will happen, but they are just in the future. As the world rebounds, my advice is to keep in mind a couple things. There is a great deal of pent up demand out there. A pent-up demand for people to get out of their houses and travel; a pent-up demand to go on holiday. People want to meet face-to-face rather than on a screen. There is pent up demand to go to a show and see innovation and serendipity, sell your product, shake a person’s hand and meet people in your industry, not on a Zoom call, but over dinner. That pent up demand will be exciting to ride and it will come. This low time will pass. It will be like riding a wave.
“I want you to close your eyes and I want you to think about how much fun you are going to have in this industry as economies come back to life and the pent-up demand you will see when you open up those shows and watch the joy on the faces as they walk through a show. It will be incredible, and you will understand your purpose and why you got into this business in the first place.
“I think that our customers are forgiving as long as we try and we try transparently. We can place bets and we can learn from our failures and our successes. So, don’t be afraid to fail. Place the bets, be courageous and laugh at yourself when they don’t work out and learn from yourself when do – it’ll be fine. Make our industry move ahead at the pace of other industries by embracing things that you may have thought were disruptive in the past but could just save us in the future.
“So, for me, I think there’s a brightness going ahead. I think the lethargy will evaporate quickly because we have an awful lot to do in the second half of this year. We all pushed shows in the second half, so we’ve got more to do and with fewer staff. Well, let’s get going. “It will be a sense of action – time matters. Let’s find our purpose and let’s move forward together.”