The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

How I do it: Geoff Dickinson, DMG Events

Geoff Dickinson is CEO of DMG Events, the worldwide exhibitions subsidiary of the UK’s Daily Mail Group (DMGT). The events company has been based in Dubai for 35 years. DMG claims to attract more than 425,000 visitors to its portfolio of 84 exhibitions each year, including in: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, China, Singapore, Canada, Japan, and South Africa. Its major brands include: ADIPEC (energy), The Big 5 (construction), Gastech (LNG), The Hotel Show, Coatings, and Index (interiors).

In pre-pandemic 2019, the company (which employs 300 people) had operating profit of £22mn on revenue of £119mn. Despite falling to just £34mn revenue in 2021, it managed to stay profitable (just). The 2019 result had accounted for 9% of its parent company revenue and 33% of profit. Since then, DMGT has sold-off substantial interests and reverted to private ownership by the founding family. If we assume that the events subsidiary will this year achieve £100m+ revenue, it might now account for at least 12% of the DMGT total, a sign that – for all the parent company’s increased focus on consumer media – exhibitions might become increasingly important.

Dickinson previously managed events for a range of companies – including EMAP, IIR, Haymarket and his own former startup in Dubai – before his appointment by DMGT in 2010. He becomes president of the UFI global exhibitions association in 2024.

“Technology will make us stronger”

What were your earliest ambitions?

My father died when I was just four years old. The family fortunes changed, and we struggled. I wanted more than anything to be a professional footballer or a journalist – I just craved doing something I thought would be exciting and that I was passionate about. My mother wanted nothing other than for me to become a lawyer.

As a teenager at school, I did many part-time jobs to help my family, and enjoyed working at Sainsbury’s supermarkets. Often at an early age, I covered for department managers when they were on holiday. I had a good work ethic in those part-time jobs – but not so much at school where I graded OK but was mainly bored. Despite this, I graduated in law from the University of Birmingham at age 20. But I did not want to be a lawyer and, instead, applied for jobs in journalism. I had written for the university newspaper “Redbrick” and, perhaps, showed early entrepreneurial instinct – and a sense of fun – by launching a student group called “DRIPS” (Drunks, Ravers, Idiots and Posers Society). We showed films, threw parties – and made a profit.

What was your first job in media?

My attempts to get a job in journalism met with zero success. At every interview, I was accused of just flirting with the idea because (the interviewers said) I was clearly going to become a lawyer at some point. I took early jobs in sales with my first real job on EMAP’s PC User magazine. This was the early 1980s and the dawn of the computer age; new magazines were appearing almost every week. I was successful at selling and – when EMAP started an events business – I was asked to help launch the PC User Show, in London. It – and subsequent tech event launches – proved very successful. So began my 40-year career in exhibitions. 

How has the industry changed during the past 40 years? 

Early trade shows were quite basic. You simply sold the stand space, ran media campaigns largely in trade magazines, and went on site and supervised contractors and the build. For a lot of events companies in the 1980s, you did everything as an event manager: selling, marketing and operations, even quite a lot of the accounts. It was like running your own trade show business – particularly as you were launching new events all the time. Adjacent conferences were more product/service oriented, with the help of exhibitors, so not about strategy or thought leadership. The events were very dependent on supporting magazines that had strong reader and advertiser loyalties that helped to drive exhibitor sales and attendee numbers. Now, however, companies have much larger event teams with specialists in sales, marketing, conferences and operations. The quality of the event delivery and the content has improved significantly with the use of tech to create customer data and deliver complex targeted digital and social campaigns. A deeper web presence is often now critical to the success of an event.

How did you become an entrepreneur? 

Having launched events for my employers, I thought many times about starting my own business. In 1998, I finally took the plunge with a like-minded friend and colleague Michael El Nayal. We launched a company called EPOC in 1998 in Dubai because we saw real opportunities in what, even then, was the exciting forward-thinking city of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. We put everything on the line and took about three years to finally create a profitable events business. In 2001, we were finally making a bit of money and had five trade fairs – and were offered $2.5m for one of our events. Then 9/11 happened and the deal fell through. To make matters worse, governments published travel warning about the Arabian Gulf and major national exhibitor groups from all over the world cancelled their participation in all our shows. By December 2001, we were back to being unprofitable with no funds. We even sold our cars and other possessions just to survive.

Both Michael and I had young children and we were terrified of becoming bankrupt. He was a great business partner and we fought hard together to survive, always paying our staff and all our bills. In 2002, we returned to profitability and sold a stake in the business to Messe Frankfurt with the earnout concluding at the end of 2005.

How easy was it to return to corporate life?

In 2010, DMGT was looking for someone to help reorganise its events. I agreed to join – and DMGT and I probably both believed the relationship would be for 3-4 years. But we have now been together for 13 years, pursuing our strategy to become market leader in sectors including Energy, Construction, Interiors, Coatings, and Hotels/Hospitality. We like long cycle industries that change over a reasonable period of time – unlike, say, tech. As a result, you get time to evolve your event. Energy is changing but it won’t happen overnight so it makes excellent content for thought leadership conferences and the exhibiting of products for today and the future. 

We have a clear strategy, a wonderful team at DMG Events and a passion for innovation and organic growth. I really enjoy my role, I am lucky. I am happy still to be global CEO after many more years than I ever imagined. We regularly launch 6-7 events every year with a high success rate. Our business is incredibly diverse with over 80 nationalities and more women than men. We operate around the globe – but I believe we are now the leading organisers across the Middle East & Africa.

We are always open to joint ventures because sometimes we have the sector knowledge but not the geo knowledge and vice versa. I am very proud of our recent JV with Kaoun International, the international events organiser of Dubai World Trade Centre. They have Gulf Food every year in Dubai and we also have a long-established presence in Saudi Arabia. So, together, we have launched The Saudi Food & Beverage Show and The Saudi Food Manufacturing Show in Riyadh from June 20-22 this year. It sold out in just two months. The Hotel Show Saudi Arabia will be rebranded for September to include the broader hospitality, HORECA and interiors markets. DMG’s’s existing food and hotel events in South Africa will also be managed in the new joint venture.

An important partnership also underpins our energy leadership in the Gulf. Dr Sultan Al Jaber – the UAE Cabinet Member and Minister of Industry & Advanced Technology of the United Arab Emirates, President-Designate COP28 Managing Director and Group CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the Chairman of Masdar, and the United Arab Emirates’ special envoy for climate change – has helped to make ADIPEC one of the world’s leading energy events. 

How does the Gulf compare for trade shows?

The Arabian Gulf is a wonderful place to be based. These countries are changing every day, embracing the use of new technologies, working with diverse labour forces and having enormous ambitions – and the resources to achieve them. The region clearly sees the benefit of trade shows to help drive that change. 

The UAE, in particular, has created a long-established programme of major trade shows that attract visitors from all over the Gulf, Middle east, Africa, Central Asia and the Indian Sub-Continent. It will continue to be an enormously successful regional trade show hub but Saudi Arabia will also offer great opportunity for new and existing shows to fuel the growth of one of the world’s most exciting economies.

How has DMG Events recovered from the pandemic?

For our financial year ending 30 September 2023, we are going to be very close to 2019 levels with a lot of bookings, of course, still missing from China that only came out of lockdown recently. Had China of come out earlier, then we would have beaten 2019 results: many of our larger events recorded higher sales and attendee numbers than in 2019 which very clearly illustrated the desire for a return to face-to-face events. The majority of our events have either returned to or beaten 2019 levels – despite missing Chinese bookings.

What will be the lasting impact of Covid?

Trade fairs have faced all kinds of apparent obstacles over the centuries including bubonic plague, the growth of printing, world wars and – closer to home – the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Interruptions are nothing new but trade shows have tended to bounce back stronger than ever – because human beings crave live in-person experiences like travel, being at sports events, and being with friends in bars and restaurants. These experiences cannot be satisfactorily simulated despite the technological advances. The same applies to effective communications and business at B2B trade fairs. Online events will certainly help us involve customers who can’t get there in-person, but those changes won’t make trade shows extinct – just better.

Even digital entrepreneurs recognise the vital role of in-person connections. Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, says:“Digital communication is completely different from in-person, face-to-face conversations. One gives you surface insights but the other really gives you depth.”

What are the best lessons you have learned?

I have learned not to believe you are invincible. In the 1980s, I launched six computer shows successfully and, then, had a major flop. I learned more from the one failure than from the multiple successes. I have also learned never to be fearful of new technologies in the events industry: history has shown that they will help us create stronger and better events.