When Hugh Jones took over as CEO of Reed Exhibitions, now RX , in February 2020, the cards were stacked against him. But he tells Emily Wallin he has the ace in the hole by creating a culture of making big bets.
Hugh Jones has no regrets over taking on the post of CEO of RX just weeks before exhibitions worldwide were put on hold by Covid-19.
In fact, he believes the pandemic gave him the perfect opportunity to streamline and rebuild the business even better than before.
Having led RX back to profitability by Q2 of 2021, Jones is convinced the future is bright for exhibitions.
Despite his background in data, compliance and technology-based businesses, he still sees face-to-face events as the core of the business, and is a committed believer in the magic of live, albeit with a digital package to boost the value of products and keep exhibitors and visitors engaged.
“I can say hand on heart that this industry is full of tactical wizards, who are incredibly resilient,” says Jones.
“They can pivot faster than other executives in other industries. You can’t change the date but the show must go on. Because of that teams come together to go far and above to exceed expectations. When they do that, it never fails to astonish me.
“I believe I was incredibly blessed. I came into it at a time when we were able to investigate every nook a cranny of this business and find out what really matters, and invest in what matters.”
With the pandemic ebbing and most world markets reopening, Jones is even more optimistic about the future, with a definite ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ attitude.
“We delivered strong revenue growth in 2021,” he says. “The business has been profitable since Q2 of last year and that’s pretty incredible. As a major exhibition firm with the business profitable, I rest my hat on that. I’d say we’ve done a pretty good job.
“We moved so many shows into Q3 and Q4, so we had to deliver all those shows with a reduced cost base and fewer people, and we did it profitably. Now going into 2022 we can go into our regular programming. It gives me a great sense of security. If you got through Q3 and Q4 of 2021 there’s nothing you can’t do.”
The question for all organisers coming out of the pandemic, is how much of the digital pivot will be kept moving forward?
“One of the concerns of our industry is if you make the virtual experience too great, then will it affect the physical event?” Jones asks. “The [lifting of] restrictions imposed by governments, for so long, in so many countries, has debunked that notion.
“To me, the data suggests and what I see is the pent-up demand to meet business partners face to face, to go to business events in person, is immense. Our research suggests people will return to in person events just as quickly as they can.
“People come to events not just to do business and broaden their network, they also come to learn and for inspiration. If they can’t get there for some reason they do want to be present digitally. That continues, there is still a home for digital solutions to help.”
RX launched their Digital Centre of Excellence in 2021 and created a new role for a chief digital product officer, to implement a broader approach to unifying the technology available to 400 shows in 22 countries.
Describing their digital shift, Jones says: “We were able to impose more disciplined and repeatable approach to digital product development. So not every little show doing many things, but an oversight globally on how we are going to do this.
“We now work across multiple events all the time for every one of our digital products. We don’t want silos, we want huge platforms. That’s a dramatic shift. We take a look at the tech out there and say ‘we think this is a good bet, everyone on board please.’
RX launched its own registration processor Mercury and developed smartphone app Emperia to capture visitors’ interests. Its exhibitor dashboard allows businesses to benchmark themselves against competitors and see the ROI of attending shows.
“It’s seizing a digital solution to the trade show experience,” Jones says.
As a business, Jones says RX remains acquisitive. “We’re hungry. We have our chequebooks open,” he says. But he’s only interested in innovative and forward-thinking markets.
“We are certain there is growth potential in a number of new market sectors, but there’s also plenty of opportunity in old sectors re-energised by new tech, housebuilding, auto shows, green tech, mobility, healthcare just to name a few.”
In January they acquired BigData LDN, which he says “fits beautifully into what we think is a growth sector”.
In April 2021 Reed Sinopharm Exhibitions, the joint venture between RX and the Sinopharm Group, acquired a majority stake in the China Hospital Construction Conference.
“Buying that in the middle of Covid-19 made great sense,” says Jones. “From how you paint the walls with anti-microbial paint, to how you lay out a hospital now that we have learned so much about how diseases transmit from one ward to another. We thought it was very timely and we’re very proud to have that.”
So, what has Jones learned in his two rather unconventional years at the helm of RX?
“I think the pandemic taught us what our clients really value, they do need to be face to face and will come rushing back to events,” he says.
“It’s important to test and learn. Your exhibitors and visitors will forgive you if the test fails but they won’t forgive you if you keep the same show year after year, they will eventually yawn and move away.
“In this game we all know that you can’t rest on your laurels, even if it’s a big show. So what we encourage at RX is keep it fresh, place big bets. It’s important to experience failure and cherish the learnings that come from it. Not all your bets work, but where people can get themselves tied up is not placing the bets.”
Jones does not see the industry ever returning to pre-pandemic normal, but says that is progress.
“I don’t think the exhibitions world will ever look like it did in 2019,” he says. “It will look different because we’re engaging with exhibitors in new ways. It will never go back.
“Our exhibitors rightly demand more than just a stand. They want an exchange of information, connected marketplaces, 365-day a year branding, they want a multifaceted platform to reach buyers. That will never go back to 2019.”
As the virus ebbs, he says, the industry will “fill the void for the live events that the world cries out for” with “incredible face-to-face events” but the value will be expanded by being part of a digital marketplace.
“The number of people walking the hall? I don’t know whether it will go back to the same levels. It’s no longer a metric that has much value. It’s not about filling your show with a whole bunch of people, it’s about the right people who can make important business decisions,” he says.
“Not just at RX, but I would like the industry to place bigger bets. Look outside the box, speak out about ideas and look outside the industries we work in.”
Jones says sustainability is one area where the exhibitions industry must work together for positive change. RX created a new role for a sustainability director in January. (Read more from RX sustainability director Helen Sheppard here) .
The issue of sustainability “is going to be a lot more than carpets,” says Jones.
“The exhibitions industry can work together on this. If one of my competitors develops a great idea, I’m sure they would share it with me, and I would do the same with them.
“If someone doesn’t do it, it kind of stinks up the joint for the rest of us, whether it’s compliance, safety in times of Covid-19, sustainability or diversity and inclusivity. If anyone in the chain doesn’t behave to the highest level, it doesn’t just hurt them, it hurts us as an industry. We need it to be known that the exhibitions community, globally, is on this.”
There is one thing however he would like to see return – the office.
“We are in a creative business. We create magic. It’s the kind of stuff we can do on Teams and Zoom, but you’re not able to create your best effort unless you have people in a room. In a creative business like the exhibitions industry, we do need to come back to the office – I’m not saying five days a week, I think a hybrid model is fine. But if you’re on a show team, I suspect you will create more value and have more fun if you have your team by your side.”