In Conversation With Stephan Murtagh, Managing Director The Exhibition Guy Group

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ES. Please share with us your professional journey. What have been the major milestones and most amazing achievements in your career?
Stephan. Having been in Exhibitions for 25+ years, I still have the same passion and enthusiasm for what we do as an industry…in fact probably even more so now as I continue to see how powerful our industry is to small and big businesses globally. For me, my journey has always been to be a small part of a company’s success when exhibiting…Coaching and training businesses how to get even more from exhibitions and the real power of face to face interaction. I have always been in exhibition sales and training so the obvious thing to do for me was to combine these passions to help other people. Its why we brought The Exhibition Guy to market, to help the industry become a better place. I get to travel around the world talking about exhibitions to amazing people so that in itself is just part of the amazing journey for me. I absolutely love what I do and am passionate about seeing other people succeed, because when they do that is success for me. Some of my big milestones include training over 2,500 companies on the “7 Steps to Exhibition Success” and being shortlisted for the Exhibition News Awards in 2019 and 2020, Launching the first online course for “How to Exhibit – 7 Steps” – To be honest, I have so many more things I want to do. I have had the real pleasure of training in India and your region and would like to do more of this and help more people to get even better results from Exhibitions.

ES. What do you see the roadmap ahead for exhibition industry?
Stephan. We have been through possibly the biggest challenge for businesses all over the globe in the past 6 months and whilst its been a massive challenge, we can either give up or look to the future. For me there is no choice. Its all about staying positive and looking to the opportunities and not the downsides. As an industry CV19 has given us a wake-up call that we need to be better and deliver more for our clients and our industry. As far as a roadmap is concerned, there are no simple answers as there is still so much uncertainty. However, we need to look to what can be done. The roadmap for me will involve us changing the way we sell exhibitions and putting more emphasis and importance on the visitor and not the exhibitor. Improving the visitor experience and not selling events based on the number of people who walk through the door, but rather the value of the people who walk through the door. Its about working with our colleagues in digital to come up with solutions that are not solely based on revenue, but rather delivering a better event for all our clients.

ES. What can be the recovery guide for exhibitions
Stephan. The Exhibition industry is undoubtedly in a tough place but not just for organisers, Exhibitors are also feeling the pain of shows not being run and its time for some straight talking with our clients and ourselves about what will help bring exhibitions back. Organisers need to focus more on their clients and helping them, educating them how to exhibit, assist them in marketing their stands better before shows and give them more tools to ensure that exhibitors succeed. For far too long some Organisers have just taken the exhibitors money and not really cared what happened after that. This is not good enough and we need to collaborate with our exhibitors more and have a more shared goal approach so that everyone wins. When you are in hospital recovering after an operation, the doctors have a plan for you and explain to you how it should work if you do certain things, we need to adopt this more holistic approach to our clients so that they understand how recovery works and their part in that recovery.

This is not a one-sided problem; we all need to work together to make this work as it`s in everyone`s interest. Setting up steering groups or advisory groups between organisers, exhibitors and visitors would be a good start. Everyone is vested in the success, so everyone should be invested in the steps to make it happen.

ES. What is your take on Virtual Exhibitions?
Stephan. To be truthful, I am not a huge fan of virtual, whilst the tech is great, it’s just missing the critical face to face piece which is the real magic of what we do as an industry. People are so accustomed to Zoom and all the other platforms but are also becoming bored of it because it offers lots but falls short on the whole point of Exhibitions – F2F. That real connection you make with someone when you meet them, the real understanding of another person when you are wit them. I am not saying Virtual doesn’t work because it does and has many advantages, but it needs to be a part of the solution because it`s certainly not THE solution. I think we as an industry have been given a warning that we can’t ignore virtual and shouldn’t, but we need to work with virtual and not up against it. If I am honest, I think the virtual bubble is going to burst and not because it doesn’t work, but rather because there are too many virtual platforms coming out every week and are being run by people who quite simply do not understand our industry. They are great at tech but are purely “jumping on the bandwagon” on a revenue grab and not really looking at the longer-term sustainability of it or how it will actually help our industry.

ES. What will be the fate of large exhibition venues who have invested billions into their infrastructure?
Stephan. It is realistically going to be some time before we see large venues full and smaller more niche shows are going to become more prevalent. Yes I would hope over time that the small shows become big ones but this is going to be a challenge in the short term because as an industry it is getting harder to get the big companies to spend big in exhibition terms and the limitations of air travel for corporate executives is also going to limit things. I think for the bigger venues, they will have to become more patient and wait for big shows to come back. I don’t think you can force through a solution on something like this. Maybe the bigger venues will need to diversify and look at other things they can use their venues for in the shorter term. As their venues have fixed costs, any revenue is better than no revenue.

ES. What do you see as the upcoming emerging trends going forward?
Stephan. As much as I do have some negatives towards Virtual, I am also a realist and my first objective is to see the industry become a better place and some level of virtual or hybrid is realistically the way forward right now. But these virtual/hybrid events must be focussed on value and not just revenue. I also think that our industry will move to different pricing models that are not based on Sq. Metres. I think more visitor exhibitor matchmaking will become more relevant and more important in the future. I see Organisers working closer with exhibitors and not just offering value for the 3 days of the show but delivering value across the whole year via live plus digital. These are good things and will help us build back up our credibility as the industry that cares about their clients and delivers value.

ES. What is the silver lining of this pandemic?
Stephan. The silver lining is that we have been forced into a corner to adapt our businesses so that we deliver better value for our clients, this is a good thing and may cost us more initially but will be worth it in the longer run. One silver lining for me is that I believe people and businesses will be more caring post CV19 and more understanding that nobody is immune to something like this. There is a real togetherness globally and think that will help all our businesses and lives in the longer term.

ES. What do you suggest to entrepreneurs who are facing stress in these times. Please share with us your personal assessment of the situation?
Stephan. CV19 has been incredibly stressful for peoples lives and businesses all over the world. However, panicking about it and hiding away from problems is not the solution either as it just pushes the problem away to another time. We need to be resilient and be honest with ourselves, look at what was not working before the pandemic and how we can change our approach to be more successful. As hard as it is, having a cool calm head is what sees people through stress. Taking time off, more time with family, walks, listening to music, taking up a new hobby or simply talking to other people. Everyone in the world has been affected by this in some way. An old expression which I really like is “You can`t really enjoy the good times, until you have experienced the tough ones” – We certainly have had some tough ones. Its time for us to start enjoying what we have not what we don’t!

ES. How badly has your region been affected? What has been the impact of this pandemic on your domestic industry?
Stephan. Like every other country we have had our industry decimated here and don’t realistically expect to see much activity here until at least q4 this year although more realistically 2021. To be honest, just accepting that makes it easier to deal with and this does give us the opportunity to come back even better when it’s all “over”.

ES. Your 3 takes on how to cope these times?
Stephan. 1. Make a realistic plan of what you can achieve in next 3 months
2. Help your clients with things and expect nothing in return 3. Use this time to be a better person and a better business

ES. What will be the future of business tourism? Europe is opening. How do you see tourism gradually opening and what are your suggestions in this regard?
Stephan. This is hard to say but borders are beginning to open up across the globe and this in principle is good but as we also continue to see spikes in some countries, this may be a volatile situation and may be reversed. Business tourism is a key driver in the global economy and unfortunately some airlines will not survive with the restrictions and the lower occupancy load on their planes. I think we may see more domestic air travel initially with a longer term opening of the international travel routes.

ES. Your message to the industry?
Stephan. My message to industry is that yes we have had and will continue to have massive challenges in the Exhibition industry but we also have clients who know, understand and want to go back to Live events because they know that this is where the real business is done and will become even more important in the future as business and life needs to go on and trade within economies help to make that happen. Ultimately for me it`s #ExhibitionsHuman2HumanNotComputer2Human