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Against the grain: Inspirational exhibition organisers
posted on: 11/6/2012 08:53:13
people meeting
As part of EN’s ongoing efforts to recognise pioneering spirit across the industry and the changing nature of events, we look at five inspiring organisers finding success by doing things differently.

A flair for education

Event: Learning Without Frontiers
Founder and MD: Graham Brown-Martin

Company: CloserStill Media
Launched: 2004

There’s only one way to describe Graham Brown-Martin: He’s not like any other exhibition organiser you’ll ever meet. But his unique blend

of entertainment nous, activist tendencies, passion for improving education and knack for understanding technology’s social influence has earnt him success nonetheless.

Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers, a high-level conference that focuses on transformational change of global education systems through technology and new ways of thinking. The event attracts up to 1,000 delegates annually, each paying about £1,000 to attend, and prides itself on driving the agenda.

Brown-Martin said the conference emerged from an online community committed to structural change in education. “Traditional trade shows are reactive – they are reporting on what is happening and the agenda that has already been set,” he explained. “They’re also about bringing buyers and sellers together and the ones that do that well are successful.

“The other thing you get is trade shows camouflaged as conferences, but often it’s paid-for editorial and again, focused on what’s happening today.

“Our event comes from a global community of people passionate about transformation and reform of the global education system. It’s not just education plus technology, but utilising technology to transform education.”

One of the potential challenges of running such a disruptive programme is attracting commercial sponsors. Brown-Martin said the key is finding brands comfortable in their own skin who want to back a strategic transformation but who appreciate they “can’t buy the speaking slot”. Learning Without Frontiers has excelled on this front, attracting the likes of Apple, Pearson, Nintendo, GSMA, Lego and the BBC as sponsors.

Its speakers programme is also enviable, ranging from celebrity philosopher Noam Chomsky and UK Astronomer Royal Martin Rees to Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.

Brown-Martin doesn’t have an exhibition background but like many in our industry he is an entrepreneur and pioneer, launching and selling multimedia technology companies in his 20s before working in the entertainment and music industries. As well as running Learning Without Frontiers, he is an activist for radical change in education using technology and social media and is a regular speaker on the subject globally.

“We’re more akin to a theatrical production or concert,” Brown-Martin said of Learning Without Frontiers. All sessions for example, are filmed in high-definition and uploaded online immediately, attracting thousands of online viewers and ensuring the event’s dialogue continues long after the three-day physical conference and networking event is over.

Learning Without Frontiers was acquired by CloserStill Media last July and continues to look for ways to push the envelope. For Brown-Martin, it’s imperative that it retains its disruptive edge.

“What we have is authenticity and a profile of leading from the front,” he added. “We have a unique personality. I often compare our events programme to what DJs do – we’re taking people on a journey.”

Mulitple roadshows

Event: Renewables Roadshow
Founder and MD: Dan Caesar
Company: Renewables Roadshow Ltd
Launched: September 2011

Renewables Roadshow founder Dan Caesar entered magazine publishing 12 years ago before switching to the national Gas Safety Watchdog. He claimed the unusual move gave him a unique opportunity to launch a national exhibition and awards. “With a blank canvas it was great fun to be able to create successful shows for four or five years before the inevitable interest and ultimately interference from others,” Caesar said.

His latest venture is the Renewables Roadshow, a series of six exhibitions launched in 2011 that take the latest green technologies to construction professionals. Caesar said each event has about 100 exhibitor stands, making the shows small but very focused. Exhibitors are typically distributors or manufacturers of emergent green technologies such as solar panels and heat pumps.

“We do all six exhibitions in quick succession, travelling from Glasgow to Exeter in the process, so we only have the energy to run the roadshow once a year,” he explained. As a result of this approach, the show is within two hours of 95 per cent of the UK population.

Against the logistical complexity of running six shows in quick succession, Renewables opted to set several ground rules: The shows were sold and marketed simultaneously; exhibitors had to sign-up to all six events; and content was specified by the organiser into five key themes for quality control.

The show exceeded its first-year targets with 4,679 high-quality visitors (up from an estimated 3,000), 80 per cent of which plan to return to the show next year. The organiser also achieved a 93 per cent exhibitor rebooking rate.

“There is no silver bullet really – we’re creative and we work hard, so if I had to sum it up, our success comes down to blood, sweat and ideas,” Caesar said. Visitor quality is the rod underpinning Renewables Roadshow’s success, he continued.

“We’ve worked in our marketplace for 10 years, and in that time we have cultivated real, meaningful relationships,” he said. “Bigger organisers that are subject to staff turnover struggle to emulate that and we have seen dozens of clones come and go.”

While he saw year-on-year growth opportunities for the Renewables Roadshow and Renewables Awards, the aim is not to over-stretch.

“Fittingly perhaps, we want to be a sustainable business that is still around in 10 years and to do that we need organic growth,” Caesar said. However that doesn’t mean the team is averse to other ideas. Among those proposed are an Energy Efficient Home Show in 2013.

“I just can’t conceive of a time when people won’t want to build relationships, won’t want to touch products, won’t want to have a drink together,” Caesar added. He claimed a shortcoming of the exhibition industry is its obsession with quantity, rather than quality of output.

“Inevitably there are far too many shows in each sector, many of which just muddy the waters,” he claimed. “If I were a big organiser, I would be looking to foster a small business entrepreneurialism within my business.

“Better still, I would be looking to invest in smaller organisers’ ideas – there are some great concepts that simply need a cash injection.

“I needed that help and had to go it alone. It was pretty scary, but it worked out alright.”

Intimate networking

Events: Margin in Voice & Data; Comms Vision Convention
Company: BPL
MD: Michael O’Brien
Launched: 2009 (relaunched); 2006

Michael O’Brien began his exhibition career along traditional lines, securing a role at Montgomery on Interbuild before stints with Turret Group, DMG Worldmedia and a joint venture with Keith Harris called Pearl Media. Following William Reed Business Media’s acquisition of Pearl, he worked as an event director and launched the Baking Industry Exhibition.While claiming to have worked on a host of diverse and exciting projects, things took a dramatic turn for O’Brien in 2008 after he joined BPL, a specialist publishing and events group that runs events and media for the comms and ICT sectors.

O’Brien’s portfolio at BPL today centres around two invite-only events: The 24-hour Margin in Voice and Data event at the Marriott St Pierre Chepstow for communications vendors to engage with 120 MDs and owners of dealers; and Comms Vision Convention, a three-day strategic summit at Gleneagles for networks and vendors to engage with 140 CEO-level delegates across the dealer community. Both events are run annually.

“We take away the real estate of exhibitor stands and focus on meeting the right people,” O’Brien told EN. “I come from a background of orthodox trade shows and culturally, the events here at BPL have a different relationship with sponsors/exhibitors and delegates. It’s all about community.”

According to O’Brien, BPL’s events are distinctive for their intimacy. Sponsors and attendees access delegate data before the event to research suitable organisations and request meetings in advance.

“Our model centres on quality content and top networking with an invited or profiled audience; conferencing with speed dating is probably the simplest explanation,” he explained. “The ‘sell’ needs to be quite different to get our attendees
to commit.”

This is most true with Comms Vision, he said, where CEOs of sizeable and influential companies take three days out of their businesses to participate.

“We must deliver delegates value and benefits that they may not get in the business or from other events – robust and insightful content that enables them to gauge and position their business to remain topical and crucially, grow into the right areas; plus amazing networking with key industry players,” O’Brien said.

As a way of measuring its success, BPL sets itself quality-based targets, such as having certain organisations by name or type attend.

“It’s always great when delegates say we’ve hit some great subjects that stimulate and provide some commercially useful takeaways,” O’Brien continued. “Beyond any measurable KPIs and given the dynamic of our event, success for sponsors is largely anecdotal – many of our sponsors return year-on-year having had a full itinerary of top quality meetings and we’ve received great testimonials from major UK PLCs quoting astonishing pipeline sums built up during conversations at our event.”

Given the intimate nature of BPL’s events and limited capacity, O’Brien is looking at complementary offerings to find long-term growth and launched the Comms Vision Awards this year. Again, the objective is on strengthening communities.

“Our model creates quality contact with a targeted group, which reflects the benefits of using digital and social media but arguably provides a harder ROI – how many meetings did you have, what did you sell,” O’Brien added. “We take the randomness away – it’s as close to re-risking an event as you can get.

“We deal in more upfront tangibles than trade shows. These are a commitment to delivering a profiled invitation audience, fixed price participation and a pre-planned sponsor meetings itinerary.”

Aspirational venue

Event: Scoop International
Founder and MD: Karen Radley
Company: ITE Group (Majority owner)
Launched: February 2011

Karen Radley’s love of exhibitions stems from when her father was the founder of dress label Radley.

“I grew up in the fashion industry and love the buzz and excitement of trade shows,” she told EN. “I took part in my first show in Copenhagen during what was supposed to be a year out before university, but like so many I got bitten by the bug and never looked back. 

“Each season I’d travel to Dusseldorf, Munich, Paris and New York where, as well as the main shows, there were niche events taking place in hotels and alternative venues. For the type of design-led collections we were selling, these were often the most interesting.”

After taking a break from fashion, Radley returned to the industry as an agent. She quickly realised there wasn’t an event in London that catered for the design-led brands and launched Scoop International in 2011.

Scoop is a biannual fashion and lifestyle trade show that brings together premium UK and international buyers and emerging and establish contemporary designer labels from the UK and overseas. A major differentiation point is the blend of designer fashion with arts venue: The Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea.

“Scoop curates fashion and art within a beautiful and aspirational space,” Radley said. “We take an organic approach. Each year the format changes, encompassing not only the exhibitors at Scoop but also the fabulous works of art at the Saatchi Gallery.

“This sets Scoop apart from your more traditional trade shows. The concept is very clear: We are far more interested in having the right brands and attracting the right retailers than we are in doubling our size.”

Despite this, Scoop has grown from 45 to nearly 200 exhibitors for its next edition in July. The show also attracted the eye of global show organiser ITE Group, which purchased a majority stake in the event last September.

Radley emphasised the need to carefully choose each brand every edition. “Exhibitions work best when they are staged from within their trade sector and are run by the people who live and breathe  their industry,” she added.

“By connectivity and interaction with our buyers and consumers we offer new, fresh and emerging talent mixed in with more established brands to assist in the discovery of fashion within the international market place.”

Children and charity

Event: The Big Bang Fair
Director: Jeremy Buckle
Company: EngineeringUK
Launched: 2009

Jeremy Buckle’s events resume extends across three continents and incorporates a host of live formats, theme parks and television. He claims his big break came when he convinced The Jerry Springer Show to do five pay per view episodes of the TV programme live in Australia during a singles dating event on Valentine’s Day.

“It was the ultimate love gone wrong headline act that took the dating website global,” he claimed.

Buckle is now the driving force behind The Big Bang Fair, an event started by a collection of professional institutions led by EngineeringUK that aims to inspire young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The annual event debuted in March 2009 as part of the National Science and Engineering Week and now includes 12 regional events held in June/July across the UK.

Buckle was instrumental in overhauling the format and experience, launching The Big Bang Fair successfully to 23,500 people in Manchester in 2010.

“In 2011 we came to Excel London with 29,500 people and in Birmingham this year we took The Fair to over 56,000 people,” he said. “We have support from a large array of engineering and technology firms including BAE Systems, Shell, Siemens and Rolls-Royce.”

As an event specialist, Buckle said he faced an uphill battle convincing a group of not-for-profit organisations to become event-enabled and focused on delivery. At the same time, the digital era and social media enabled the events team behind The Big Bang Fair to bring in different elements to make a more interactive event.

“This has meant rewriting the way it is delivered, and making a system and a process that works for our organisation,” Buckle explained. “We ask ourselves what is the ultimate outcome and then challenge why that really won’t work. The end result is the realisation that anything is possible, especially in a challenging marketplace where everyone from suppliers to clients and venues are all hungry for business and looking at things differently to be competitive.

“We have not followed templates or formulae from the event industry. My previous experience in television and theme parks has enabled me to bring elements that work in those formats to engage young people through The Big Bang Fair.”

For Buckle, success comes down to an independent evaluation of impact to the learner, and retention of key messages.

“Did we change their perspectives on STEM and are they changing their subject choices to STEM? That’s our real driver,” he said. To this end, The Big Bang Fair has begun expanding its regional fairs portfolio to accommodate smaller local fairs.

“This expansion of our nationwide series of fairs ‘near me’ is central to my vision that by 2020 every secondary school student in the UK will be directly engaged or know someone who is engaged in The Big Bang programme,” Buckled continued.

Ultimately, The Big Bang Fair is unique because it’s doing something no one else does, he claimed.

“We recognise the old rules don’t apply, so we make them up as we go along,” Buckle added. “Adaptability to the changing landscape, understanding our target audiences and a dynamic cross platform brand are key.”

This feature was published in the May edition of Exhibition News. Any comments? Email

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