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Space and time with Rob Sherwood

by Simon Parker

EN guest editor Simon Parker speaks to Rob Sherwood, managing director at Sherwood Event Services Ltd and Hub Exhibitions Ltd

As has been pointed out on numerous occasions event professionals are a resourceful bunch and the industry has always been populated by talented and creative entrepreneurs who continue to experiment, launch, and devise ways to stick two fingers up to adversity. For them a global pandemic is a major disruption and out of chaos comes opportunity. It is no coincidence that many of today’s leading businesses and products were devised in times of economic hardship and this will undoubtedly apply to the latest episode.

This brings me to Rob Sherwood, the subject of this week’s interview. I first met Rob many years ago working at Blenheim, a business renowned for being a hotbed of entrepreneurial talent. But I am keen to establish what he’s been up to in the intervening 20 odd years.

So, Rob, the last time I worked with you was at Blenheim, what’s happened since?

We’re going back a bit now!  I’ll try and be brief!  I left Blenheim, or the latest incarnation of it in 1999, and went to work for Neil Jones and Andy Gibb at Advanstar, working on their Scantech Europe event. Then I took two launch ideas to Richard Hease at Turret Rai, and we launched those, one in the IT space, and one in sport. After that I did some work with our mutual friend Mr Agostini at Expomedia, and then Zinc Events. At Zinc we launched Beyond Boundaries Live, a ‘can do’ event for disabled visitors.   

I spent the next 12 years as the UK and Ireland partner for Messe Frankfurt, managing and growing UK and Irish exhibitor and visitor attendance across their global portfolio, with a team of seven.  During this time, I licensed their Automechanika brand and launched this at the NEC. After eight weeks we’d sold out Hall 9, so expanded into Hall 10, sold this out, then went into hall 11 and sold that out.  Onsite we rebooked over 100% of the space, and the event grew 70% for the next year. It was quite a journey. I sold that business to Messe Frankfurt in 2018, and then the subsequent subsidiary took over the sales agency role in 2020.     

Since then I’ve started Hub Exhibitions, we launched Women in Business Expo in 2019 at Farnborough which launched successfully. We had planned to bring it to Excel and Manchester Central in 2020 but, with the pandemic we went virtual, which went well, the bottom line was good, and we’re virtual again in 2021. The digital nature of it is well suited to the audience of busy women, and we’ve since rebranded it as Karren Brady’s Women in Business and Tech Expo. I also took a launch idea to Farnborough International for a new event focused on the commercial future of space.

It is clear Rob is a serial ‘launcher’ and I am intrigued to find out about the genesis of Space Comm Expo. I ask Rob how it came to be

I’d like to say I had an amazing epiphany, but the truth is that I was probably just alert to new ideas.  I heard a segment on Radio 4 about the UK space sector; its relative newness, and the challenges to the supply chains, and BREXIT and I made a mental note to explore it further. Looking into it, I thought it had all the ingredients for a launch – a growth sector, ambitious government plans, the UK is strong in the space sector, and with BREXIT and the UK’s removal from the Galileo program, the spotlight is increasingly on building our own capacities. It’s also a sector with strong trade associations. Getting these behind the event was key and when I looked at the competitive universe I saw a large successful annual event in Germany, with 400 exhibitors and a smaller space sector than the UK’s, but no dedicated annual trade exhibition in the UK.

Are there other people involved or is this a solo project?

I’ve got my team here at Hub, of course. Christie Day, my right-hand woman is amazing, and we work really well together. Duncan McKenzie and Catherine Acevedo head up sales and marketing respectively. We’re working with Farnborough International as joint venture partners in the project, and their talented, and very experienced team. They bring great contacts and a wealth of experience in the sector, as well as great lines into the associations and government.

Returning to the theme of launching in a downturn, I ask Rob if now is a good time to launch and also what the key ingredients for a successful launch are

It would be hard to say launching the event through the pandemic was positive on the event – I think we’d have a much larger event if it weren’t for Covid-19. However, I also think we’ve got an incredible amount of goodwill from the exhibitors, who’ve supported us when we’ve had to delay the event twice. Being honest and open with communication is vital. The hard slog through the pandemic means we’re also first to market, with a who’s who of exhibitors like Airbus, BAE, Rolls Royce, Leonardo, Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin and many more. With regards to what makes a good launch, I think several factors need to come together.

Timing and appetite. Is the market growing, fast-moving, and not fatigued by exhibitions? Is there a genuine need to meet and bring groups together? Then you need credibility through your supporters, experience and track record, and a format that gives confidence.  Lastly, you need a kick-ass sales team, who believes in the mantra that Christie likes to say to me, “I don’t believe in no!”

I didn’t realise the UK had such a big space focus – how big is the sector, can you tell us a bit about it?

“The UK space sector has trebled since 2000 and is currently valued at £15bn. By 2030, the UK government aims to grow our 5% share of the global market to 10%. The space sector can be seen in two parts – upstream and downstream, with upstream being the manufacturing supply chain of spacecraft systems, propulsion subsystems, mission control systems etc. and downstream being the application and services derived from space, such as broadcasting, communications, and logistics.

There’s currently over 1,000 UK companies operating in the space sector. We’ve also seen a keen interest from international companies to export to the UK, with pavilions from the USA, Italy and Canada joining us in our first year. I see this as a big growth area for us in year two.

The event has already gained some amazing support and is strategically located at Farnborough who has well-documented ties with the aeronautical and aerospace sectors. How does Rob feel this will impact the event?

Yes we have the UK Space Agency, European Space Agency, UKspace, ADS and the Knowledge Transfer Network supporting us, among others. It’s key to ensuring our content is on point, with high-quality senior speakers. KTN, for example, has curated our downstream theatre.  

We chose Farnborough as a venue because the area is a hub for the UK space sector. We’re working with Enterprise M3 in this regard. It’s also a new state-of-the-art venue, with great transport links.  

As a joint venture partner Farnborough International has the experience and contacts with aerospace, not just to the prime exhibitors, but through their association with the ADS Group, to government and the space trade associations and bodies.

I suspect that Rob will not stand still. I ask him about his ambition for the overall business and whether he plans to launch other shows

I’m working on a concept at the moment that will probably need another Joint Venture to leverage some expertise in the sector. With regards to ambitions for the business – I’d like to grow Space-Comm Expo to be a large international event, return Women in Business Expo to a physical event, continue to look at launches when the opportunities arise, and see where it leads us.

As always time with Rob is always interesting and he looks to have hit on a great concept with good partners. He encapsulates the spirit of what sits at the heart of the industry and that has sustained it to date and is what will propel it to great things in the future.

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