Media Fortune Fame & Folly

It was 50 years ago…

Fifty years ago, a young Greek journalist launched an international magazine in the UK. Themis Vokos had wanted to create “The Economist” of the shipping business and recruited an FT journalist as editor. Although his father published an Athens-based shipping publication and Vokos himself had launched a maritime trade show in Greece, he couldn’t have foreseen just how good was the timing of his launch of Seatrade magazine in November 1970.

Over the next two decades, the maritime industry was transformed by the rapid growth of oil tankers, the development of ship-road-rail containers, and specialist banks to finance shipping. Vokos had witnessed the range of UK-based maritime magazines which were largely staffed or owned by former seafarers and marine engineers. His vision had been for a monthly magazine that would appeal as much to the financial and trading communities as to the companies which built and operated ships; commercial not technical.

Seatrade was distinctive with sharp, functional design, an international perspective, and punchy graphic covers – just like The Economist. While he might have under-estimated the strength of the ship financing boom that was to follow, the quietly-spoken Vokos well understood the role of Greek shipowners in London.

The growing community of Greek marine firms in London reflected three 1950s+ trends. First, the shift from coal to oil as the prime energy source, and as a significant maritime cargo. Second, the shift in geopolitical power from the UK to the United States. Third, the use of offshore companies and ‘flags of convenience’ (which Greek shipowners were among the first to adopt) that established a pattern for the creation of global shipping firms not connected to any one nation.

Seatrade was perfectly placed to exploit this changing maritime world. Its first cover story was: “Oil: the bubble that won’t burst”, not a reference to the quadrupling of Middle East oil prices which plunged the western world into recession a few years later, but to the rapid growth in the number and size of oil tankers. Three years after Seatrade’s launch, it packed 1,100 people into the first of its high-priced Money & Ships conferences at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel.

After an initial struggle, the under-capitalised startup’s influential role in global shipping grew almost as fast as its revenue. Seatrade was an ambitious company and its integrated B2B model of magazines, events and information was ahead of its time. It was widely admired, brilliantly connected and great publishing.

In the 1980s, Vokos moved his headquarters to Hong Kong and launched magazines, trade shows and conferences in China and across Asia. Back in the UK, under its most successful editor Chris Hayman, Seatrade launched conventions for the cruise industry, first in Florida and then around the world. In the mid-1990s, Vokos sold a group of exhibitions including Marintec China, Sea Japan and its Seatrade Cruise Convention to UBM which was the start of a long relationship including the 2011 sale of Seatrade’s Hong Kong exhibitions group for some $40m. 

Fast forward to 2014 and Seatrade Communications, then owned by Hayman (with Vokos retired), was acquired by UBM (now part of Informa) for £6.7m, less than its average annual revenue.

In 2021, the once golden B2B media brand is not so special. Even its 50th anniversary was ‘celebrated’ a whole month late on its own web site, featuring the change of the Seatrade brand name to the clunky “Seatrade Maritime”. It has good content but a notable absence of original statistics and data. It’s mostly about events and, defensively, explains its role as “a proud part of a broader Informa Maritime portfolio that includes the Marintec, Sea Japan, and INMEX events, as well as Lloyd’s List within a separate division”.

In an era when the value of information services to ‘connect’ live events has become clear, the separation of the three Informa operations in the maritime market may seem odd. But it is easy to believe that IHS Markit (which is being acquired by S&P Global) may want to divest its own maritime intelligence division when the deal completes. With the Informa operations, it could produce the kind of worldwide shipping information, events and information group that Themis Vokos might once have imagined. That may just be on the agenda for the £8bn Informa. Or, perhaps, for the US-based FreightWaves which is hungry for growth and looks as exciting as Seatrade did in the 1970s.