Exhibitions. After two years of intensifying M&A, another of the world’s leading exhibitions groups, the Brussels-based Easyfairs, is believed to be up for sale. The private company owns 218 events in 18 countries across Europe, the UK, China, Russia, UAE, and the US. It is estimated to have revenues of some €180m and EBITDA of €35m. In addition to its trade shows, it operates 10 exhibition venues (totalling 225k sq m) in Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden which host up to 500 events for other organisers. The 22-year-old company, which has trebled profits in the past five years, is among the world’s 10 largest independent exhibitions groups with B2B events in the energy, packaging, logistics, transport and healthcare sectors; it’s the 18th largest organiser overall, and employs some 800 people. The founder and owner is Eric Everard, a prominent Belgian entrepreneur who was once a director of Reed Exhibitions, responsible for the Cannes-based Mipcom and MipTV. He founded Artexis (venues) in 1997 and launched the European Student Fair a year later. Sixteen years on, he formed Easyfairs International to launch exhibitions, and merged the two companies in 2014. Easyfairs executives claim that 80% of the group’s profits have been reinvested in launching and buying shows and that the company has, therefore, been able to grow by an average of 13% throughout the past 20 years as it became progressively more international. It has been particularly successful in geo-cloning its packaging and storage exhibitions. But the step-change came with the 2016 acquisition of the Dutch group Evenementenhal which organises more than 70 B2B trade shows in agriculture, transport, logistics, automotive, shipping and construction. It also operates three venues in the Netherlands. The deal largely accounted for a 39% increase in revenues and catapulted Easyfairs into AMR’s global top 20 of exhibition organisers. Perfect timing. It is believed that many of the leading exhibitions groups and a long list of private equity firms are now interested in acquiring the company. In so many ways, it has the type of solid profitability, growth prospects and sector-leading portfolio that made Mack Brooks (with 30 exhibitions in 14 countries) such an attraction when it was auctioned late last year. But there are differences. Industry insiders reckon Easyfairs is heavily dependant on its hands-on founder who is still both CEO and chairman; and the venue management business (10% of Easyfairs) would be non-core for many exhibitions organisers – but, not of course, for the large city/state-owned exhibition hall owners in Europe and Asia. Those factors may make private equity firms the favourites to pay a possible €550m for Easyfairs. It seems unlikely that Reed Exhibitions will seek to acquire Easyfairs so soon after paying some €230m for Mack Brooks in the deal which completed this week. But it may be a prime target for the UK’s cashed-up Daily Mail Group (DMGT) which was last year outbid by Clarion Events for the $300m Penwell. The voracious Clarion will be in the frame again (its Blackstone private equity parent owns exhibition venues too). But will DMGT be hungrier this time for an acquisition which would almost double its exhibitions portfolio – and fit well with its energy and construction events, especially in the Middle East? It is assumed that Informa, still digesting UBM, will not be bidding for Easyfairs, and neither will the Paris-based Comexposium which is undergoing a change of shareholders. One of the wilder scenarios could see the merger of Easyfairs into Reed Exhibitions in order to IPO, which could be a neat result for the Everard family – and for the RELX parent for which Reed remains a strong but distinctly non-core asset. Maybe. But it’s sure to be another hot auction in a global exhibitions market where (in the latest survey by trade body UFI) up to 40% of companies said 2018 profits were 10% up on the previous year. No wonder private equity loves exhibitions.
Why are trade shows so hot? At the Digital Media Strategies 2019 conference in London on 2-3 April, Philip Soar, Chairman of exhibitions group CloserStill, will examine the enduring appeal of B2B trade shows and the role of digital technology now and in the future.