Running a global exhibitions business: 10 questions with Hugh Jones


Hugh Jones is Chief Executive Officer of RX Global, part of RELX. In a normal year, our business runs about 500 events, hosting 130,000 exhibitors and about 7m attendees. The events cover 43 industry sectors in almost 30 different countries.

Hugh became Chief Executive Officer on February 1st 2020, and within a month was confronting the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic. RELX recently took a moment to ask him how the exhibitions sector and RX Global were coping with the crisis.

1. What do you think the immediate impact of Covid-19 will be on the exhibitions industry?

There are three stages. The first stage was essentially a lockdown when events were unworkable. So, at RX Global, no events took place between mid-March and early June.

We’re now currently in the second stage when it’s possible to mount some business to business exhibitions in some manner. Each nation will open country by country based upon the milestones achieved in the face of Covid. To run an event, a number of elements will become standard for the foreseeable future. Those could include masks, temperature monitoring, reducing exhibitor density and increasing attendee spacing. In the past a crowded conference was viewed as successful. Now an uncrowded conference will be seen as a safe, successful event. There will also be an increasing digital component. By that I mean, you will be able to match make with exhibitors, whether you are physically on site or not.

The third and final stage will be when the industry can run business to consumer events, as opposed to business to business - think something like a Comic Con. Even then, as we return to a normal, there will still be overhangs from Covid-19.

2. What will be the timing of a return to normal? 

In some parts of the world, things are already beginning to return to normal. Our second-half exhibitions programme has been launched with several events in China and one in Korea having opened successfully, with additional events scheduled in the second half through Asia. The first significant events scheduled to take place in Europe will be in September, and October is the key month for North America. That said, depending on the impact and duration of the restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, further rescheduling or cancelation of events may be necessary. That makes the full year outlook highly uncertain.

3. Do you think that people will still be able to travel to foreign venues?

It’s very important for the first shows that open up that they adhere to the new industry safety standards. We as an industry can maintain significantly safe environments at a trade fair.

The question then is will people be willing to attend shows. My feeling is that our exhibitors and our attendees will send fewer people, but the people they send will have a higher band of authority to create or close deals at a show. So, you have fewer people but more senior people. Also remember that by going to an event you can meet more people on a single trip, rather than flying to customers on many different business trips.

4. What's been the impact of the pandemic on RX Global itself?

Well let's start with our employees. Employee health and well-being is our top priority. We measure that monthly with our engagement scores. Our Net Promoter Score (NPS) during the pandemic has jumped 20 points to record levels. When we were surveying, we also asked about RX Global’ response to Covid-19 and the score was positive 79. So, our employees largely feel they've been well cared for, protected. It's been an ethical response, a humane response, and a patient response. We’ve also been transparent about the decisions we have had to make.

At the same time, the teams have been working really hard, even though we’ve had no shows. Remember that moving a show from one date to another date means essentially you have to start again. You have to negotiate for space, you have to negotiate for new vendors, you have to negotiate with all the exhibitors. Often the floor plans are different, so essentially, you’re putting on a brand-new show.

The revenues for the entire industry have of course been hit, so top line revenue growth is no longer the sector’s focus. Instead, we can put money into things we have not done in the past. For example, there were some shows that had run their life course and weren’t particularly profitable. We can now redeploy talent and resources from those shows and invest in new ones that have a greater opportunity for profitable growth. You also have more time for launches and devising launch plans, especially for domestic shows that don't rely upon international participation.

5. Can you talk through some examples of how you have used technology to help your customers and create virtual events?

We have been able to run entire events digitally, such as MipTV, or, we have been able to provide online matchmaking sessions.  During the first few months, we have had 360,000 people join those shows remotely. We had 206 conference sessions streamed into that population. What's really interesting is there was a 78% satisfaction rate among those who attended in that way. Sure, they may have wished to join face to face. But they felt their objectives had been met.

For shows that did occur, there were people from some countries that couldn't attend - for example a show in Russia that took place and the Chinese participants couldn’t attend - we digitally streamed in matchmaking and translation services so that Chinese exhibitors could meet with the Russian consumers who could examine their value propositions. We did that with 30 different rooms that allowed for these sort of matchmaking sessions. So, these are sort of the first steps of what I mean by digital solutions. This is only the beginning. When I talk about the future, I'm talking about digital augmentation - interactive immersive experiences, digitally enabled and enhanced for one-on-one connections.

6. Can you tell me more about that?

When we talk about digital augmentation, what we're really trying to create is better promotion of new types of connections in products and new types of relevant content. You should be able to look down at your smartphone as you're walking down the hall of an exhibition, and you should be able to know the exhibitor that's coming up on your right would be interested in meeting you, because he or she has seen your profile. The phone tells you they have time to meet with you in 20 minutes in person and asks if you would like to take that meeting. The app will then tell you the fastest way to get to the stand. Or, you can click on the app, so the exhibitor receives information about who you are. They provide the information that you wanted without ever having visited the stand.

If you can do that, you have a digital element that delivers value to both types of customers – exhibitors and attendees.

7. Can you give us some examples?

Take an exhibitor who has had many people walk up to their stand and have face to face or digital meetings, or has simply downloaded information on your offering. What we can do is tell an exhibitor what was the share of mind that they received from the visitors, by what level of seniority at the show, and how they did, compared with their competitors. We can tell them which downloaded elements were of most interest to those who interacted with them, whether from those at the show, or those following from outside the venue. We can suggest what they could do better, and how they did, compared with the previous show. So, the customers can actually use this matchmaking technology as an entirely new way of leveraging their participation at the show.

In the past, you might have had a 120,000 square foot show, with 70,000 people attending. You might have some business cards and your job over the next two days was to find the important people, give them your business card, have a conversation, and then wait for them to get back in touch. That’s not enough now. The shows are so big and so complicated that you need to be digitally guided, step by step, on how to leverage those shows most efficiently.

We will help you take notes. We will compile a list of the contacts you made. And on your journey home, we can take all the contacts, and we will make sure that you have it all in a nice little package on your smartphone when you're back home. Now that is a far different way of handling an interaction, using both face to face and digital than has existed in years past.

8. Are those technologies available now or are they in the future?

Everything I've just mentioned is possible. Now, there are always hurdles. For one, you have to be able to geolocate where the person is in a show. Also, you don’t want to track everybody all over the show. Not only that, you have to get their buy-in, from both exhibitor, and attendee. You can't simply start tracking people and send them content, unless they want it. There are hurdles, but they're not technical hurdles, they're new ways of doing business.

9. RX Global is owned by RELX, Europe’s largest media sector company. How does that help RX Global?

Well, in my opinion, we're in an ideal spot. We have a number of advantages that many, not all, but many of our competitors don’t have. First of all, we have a parent company that has only one segment facing the exhibition space. So, there’s no risk to RX Global’ viability. In fact, I have the financial resources to make acquisitions should there be opportunities that fit within our portfolio. If I want to buy something and can prove that it's something worthy of purchase, then I am likely to be able to do so. That financial strength will also allow me to pick up talent as it becomes available from other struggling exhibitions companies. In addition, being part of RELX gives me an advantage with venues. RX Global has more shows at the biggest venues than anyone else and they know that we pay our bills.

Finally, RELX gives me this wonderful ability to use innovation derived from other portions of the business, and borrow it for RX Global. So, for example, part of RELX might use matchmaking technologies for anti-money laundering to try to catch bad guys in a sanctions environment. I can take some of their code, which is essentially matchmaking, and use it to match commercial transactions for our customers. I can use code from other parts of the company, and I don't have to invent everything from a white sheet of paper. I can use HPCC (High Performance Cluster Computing), a big data technology used across RELX, to create significant learnings about how an exhibitor has behaved over the past 20 years at all of our shows. That allows me to go into a meeting with that exhibitor and show them how the path forward might look in order to have an increased return on investment. It gives me an ability that other exhibitions companies don't have.

10. Are there other factors that contribute to RX Global’ strategic success?

The key to strategic success doesn't really have much to do with how we manage the Covid crisis. We will always have these supply shocks to some portion of our portfolio. The fact we are large and are well diversified, that really helps. That means that if any particular geography or sector is hit hard, we can adapt. So, say there’s a tsunami in Japan, we can pivot and put more resources in Brazil. And that's the key to strategic success. The key is to build a company that is increasingly nimble, that always looks at its portfolio of shows, always looks at how to make sure that you make decisions very swiftly.  The question is how fast we can be at making a decision when we don't have all the facts, how we can pivot and make a decision faster than our competitors?