Starting his exhibitions career from the back of his garage, former CloserStill MD Nick Orton has come a long way. He speaks to EN about his concerns for the industry, and shares his advice for newcomers.
How did you get into the exhibition industry?
In the early Nineties I did sales and marketing in the pharmaceutical industry for a company that is now called AstraZeneca.
The NHS was going through a lot of changes and I joined a team to look at the strategic changes for AstraZeneca. I made a really good group of contacts with pharmaceutical advisors. When I got to know them I thought I could leave and start a consultancy group, so I effectively started organising sponsored meetings for pharmaceutical professionals at hotels around the country.
As they got more and more popular I thought ‘OK, I think I can put this on a bigger scale’, and that led to the launch of my first show. I went to the NEC and started The Pharmacy Show. It’s now the biggest pharmacy specific show in Europe.
How did you learn the exhibition organiser’s trade?
It was on the job really. I had no exhibition experience at all. It was a process of going to other shows, seeing what they did well and copying them. From a sales point of view I was strong but from an operational point of view I was weak.
I improved through trial and error. I learnt a lot from Linda Richie, operations at the NEC. I didn’t have any experience with risk assessment, health and safety documents, public liability insurance, floor plans etc.
She was very strict and demanding but at the same time she wanted the event to work.
What were some of the most important lessons you learned?
The biggest was about cost and cash flow. While I made a lot of mistakes, most were ironed out before my first show. It’s absolutely essential that anybody running a new event gets costs under control and has a good grip on their cash flow before and, critically, after their event has taken place, or they may have trouble getting to year two.
One of the biggest things that you must do when launching an event is find a balance between producing a show that is an absolutely phenomenal experience for the visitor and something that is just passable.
You could spend £30,000 on features and that might be enough to get 80 per cent of your visitors to come back. Or you could spend £60,000 and have only 90 per cent come back – double the investment in feature spend for ten per cent more visitors – in other words, investment is not directly proportional to the response from visitors.
The trick is finding the amount to spend that will do the job. There is a very fine balancing act with cost control on a launch event, so the trick is to spend just enough to give your visitors a good enough experience to come back the following year, rather than going over the top on wonderfully-decorated and designed features.
If you improve the features each year, the visitors will love it, but you don’t have to start off with the very best.
Why do organisers tend to stick with either consumer or trade shows?
There is a general feeling among organisers that they are very different, but I disagree, although they have different financial models. People go for the easy win and easy money and trade shows are easy wins, relatively, so who can blame them?
Consumer shows do give you an incredible high though – you can’t beat a massive queue of visitors waiting in line for the show to open, I love that! There is the potential to make a lot from the gate alone at consumer shows, whereas with trade shows the money you make is more predictable because it comes from the exhibitors in advance.
Why are there so few show launches these days?
The financial climate is partly to blame, but my observation is that launching events is very hard work and very risky. I mean it’s really, really tough.
If you look at the lifetime of an event as 100 per cent, the launch in terms of effort is probably 50 per cent of the entire effort over the lifetime of the show. I don’t think people have got the stomach for it.
We have to do something about the lack of launches, by making it easier to take the jump to launch. There is still a pot of gold for those that launch successful shows but I think that there should be more help.
What is your biggest bugbear about the industry?
I don’t think there is much cross pollination of ideas from different organisers. Everyone keeps their ideas to themselves, which is a very old-fashioned approach to business.
It’s not a healthy industry when nobody helps each other and let’s face it, we need to look at developing the industry. We have very few new launches, a generally decreasing uptake of space and a general view from the wider business community that exhibitions aren’t that important in the marketing mix.
Do you prefer hiring staff from inside or outside the industry?
It doesn’t really matter. The right person is the right person. A good exhibition sales person can learn about a market and vice versa.
However, it is cheaper to recruit from outside the industry, because the recruitment fees are significantly lower.
How important is social media and new online forms of marketing?
Essential. With Body Power Expo we have got something like 5,000 people on FaceBook and Twitter and it’s growing fast. It’s a really easy way to communicate with your visitors all year round.
I think it also opens up new revenue streams. Our trade shows also have large social media groups and linked in is becoming a good way to communicate to trade professionals.
Interestingly, I think it may be time to increase the use of printed material again. There has been such a large reduction in its use, I think that the impact of receiving printed material must be significantly higher again.
Having left CloserStill, Orton hopes to enjoy some free time before embarking on his yet-to-be announced future plans.
Nick Orton - Fast Facts
Birthday: March 22 1969
Marital Status: Married, two children
Years in the industry: 15
Shows launched: 18
Shows bought: 1 (Sportscar Show)
Shows sold: 8
Drives: Porsche 911 and Toyota IQ
Enjoys: Sports, fitness, cars
Supports: Aston Villa