Media Fortune Fame & Folly

Trade shows? It’s complicated.

Nobody knows the answer to the question everyone in exhibitions is asking: what will the industry look like in, say, five years? But most agree on two things:

  1. The pandemic has disrupted trade shows which – while they had proved to be a highly effective connection between buyers and sellers – had suffered from chronic unpopularity among exhibitors themselves. The evidence may be those consistently low ‘net promoter scores’ and perhaps also the 50% no-shows of registered visitors to many exhibitions
  2. Covid and the rapid rise of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues have combined to popularise virtual events. These have a significant potential role complementing in-person exhibitions which alone offer ‘serendipity’ and unexpected opportunity

Those conclusions should drive B2B exhibition organisers to adopt strategies that:

  • Demonstrate a 365-day involvement in, and deep knowledge of, vertical sectors
  • Give customers the choice and flexibility to attend events in person and/or digitally
  • Develop high-value data to enhance the experience of exhibitors and visitors

So far, so good.

But that’s where the consensus breaks down. There is varying opinion among organisers about the ways and means of achieving those strategies. There is, at the very least, the choice of whether to organise trade shows as part of integrated industry groups that embrace information services paid-for by reader-visitors or merely as added value services for exhibitors. Whether organisers should be “media agnostic” or not might just depend on where you start.

There’s also the choice between building the year-round loyalty of customers by providing, say, news digests and information. Or creating original data and research that cannot be found anywhere else, for which customers would be prepared to pay – whether or not you want to charge them. In most vertical markets, there are B2B providers of paid-for information. But there are often wide-open opportunities for exhibition organisers to create high-value statistical indicators around industry ‘traffic’, deals, costs and revenue.

The central issue is whether trade show organisers should seek to ‘captivate’ their markets ‘simply’ in order to maximise the success of the core event(s). Or whether these businesses will be more durable and responsive to customer needs if they are ‘media agnostic’ and do not depend exclusively on the exhibitions with which they started.

The encouragement to think afresh about being ‘media agnostic’ may come from B2B publishers which have been able to morph into digital information providers rather than stick, for example, with the declining influence and revenue of their original magazines. Exhibition organisers may be encouraged to consider, for example, that the widely-touted skills of digital matchmaking have clear applications beyond events, whether virtual or in-person. But there are also publishers for which magazines remain a highly profitable channel alongside digital media, events and consulting. It all depends on the market and on any one company’s responsiveness to customer needs.

In considering the options, trade show companies have to recognise that – for all the fact that the world has been rocked by a unique medical emergency – the events industry itself has been disrupted in a fundamental way. Just like publishing was when the internet took hold. Some companies accept this more than others.

Take Questex, the 16-year-old US company which aims to be “a world-class information services company‚Ķ(with) events that create meaningful connections. Insights that help people do their jobs better. And data that tells a story.” Nice copy but this is an organiser of live and virtual events which aims also to be an information service provider in its markets.

The best illustration is its Hospitality Insights website. It is a pretty serious digital B2B magazine which – while it has details and video of Questex’s largest event, the $8m-revenue International Hospitality Investment Forum – is informative and can expect to build a regular readership on its own. It’s not unique, of course, but most trade show web sites – like many of their newsletters – are little more than promotional material for the exhibitions themselves. This is a digital resource that can exist and thrive on its own, albeit in a market in which Questex has major events.

Promotion is vital, of course, but capturing the attention and loyalty of customers with information they value is something else. For the outlay of few hundred thousand dollars and expected breakeven within two years, Hospitality Insights looks like a good deal. It’s not an accident, of course that the Questex CEO Paul Miller is a former publisher who has worked in print and digital nearly as long as in exhibitions (via UBM, Penton, Reed, and Informa).

Questex was formed in 2005 by ex Reed trade show veteran Kerry Gumas and a group of fellow Advanstar executives who acquired five industry groups from their employer. It provided the new company with a launchpad of 21 trade shows, 25 conferences and 73 web sites and publications. Its complementary publishing activity was magnified by the 2008 acquisition of Fierce Markets with digital media in the telecom, life sciences, healthcare, IT and finance.

Questex went bust in the recession of 2009 and was taken over by its lenders. It was acquired by Shamrock Capital in 2015 before being bought three years later by MidOcean Partners private equity. The price was rumoured to be around $180m – 1.8 x revenue. Paul Miller succeeded Gumas as CEO and ex Penton CEO David Kieselstein (who had negotiated the deal for MidOcean) became chair of Questex. Penton had been a MidOcean portfolio company, led by Kieselstein, until late 2016 when it was sold to Informa for $1.6bn.

The Questex portfolio is neatly divided between markets that, in Miller’s words, “help you live longer” (pharma, life sciences and medical) and those that “help you live better” (travel, hospitality and health). But the company came to understand its appetite for non-traditional information businesses – but also the difficulty of buying them – when it was outbid for STR (providing revenue analyics on hotel bookings) which was sold for $450m – 10 x revenue. However, Questex is determined to acquire both information business and events, including in Europe where it has been generating 15-20% of its revenue.

The CEO has been able to transform his company’s operations by breaking down silo operations and centralising much of the management, which is one way. Only time will tell whether that approach will help (or hinder) the attempt to develop deep ‘media agnostic’ relationships with the industries served by individual events. One part of the future might be the rise of global event-data verticals either as specialist companies or as semi-independent operations in larger groups, like Informa’s grouping of Technology information and events.

You can sense the potential issues of how best to manage events and information together. But there will be many ways of winning. And it’s easy to be impressed by the invitation-only ‘executive summits’ of the California-based Quartz, which was acquired by Clarion Events last year. They’ve found that, in some sectors, companies are prepared to pay as much for matchmaking digitally as for in-person contact. It’s all about using the data to make the connection, well, valuable.

It’s just beginning.