Big interview: Managing Director at GES, Andy Gibb

How did you first get into the events industry and what were your early career moves?

I started at a publishing company called Hamerville Magazines where I joined David Pegler, Richard Pegler, Roger Pellow and Rob Lozowski, who all still work in the industry.

David then joined Blenheim Exhibitions and, over a period of time, he asked us all to join him, which I did in 1991 as an event manager on the Facilities Management Exhibition. The show is still going and now called the Facilities Show. I remained with Blenheim for seven years, going on to become Group Event Director.

When Blenheim became Miller Freeman, I decided it was time for a change and was offered an opportunity to work for IIR out in Dubai. I returned to the UK to work for Advanstar, launching and replicating their North American shows in Europe, South Africa and Hong Kong. I then joined the NEC and, subsequently, Opex, staying there for seven years. After a spell at Ocean Media I am now MD for GES in the UK.
What was the biggest challenge faced in your early career and what were the key turning points?

Arriving at Opex and finding the tied contractor culture. For example, if you wanted to host a show at Earls Court, which was owned by P&O, you had to use their tied contractor. It was challenging as we were probably fourth on the list of the four main contractors in terms of service so we spent a lot of time working on the account management side and service delivery, and working closely with our service partners – a group who can make or break a reputation.

Gradually the market opened up and the industry changed for the better.

Another key change would be the unit price for shell scheme. It was around £25sqm, whereas it is now about £12.50. But over that time the costs also increased. This forced the industry to look into providing more supporting and ancillary services; this could be graphics, logistics or registration and data, for example.

There has been a maturing of the industry; decision-making has moved from being made at an operational level to a more strategic one where agreements are reached across a portfolio of events and even on an international basis. This delivers economies of scale for the clients and a wider base of operations for the contractors. There is now an opportunity to offer a consistent level of service across the board.

The events contracting sector has always been rife with mergers and acquisitions and the odd company falling by the way. How have you survived these changes?

Mainly by being within the acquiring organisation! But, more seriously, within the event contracting market it is difficult to generate similar margins to event organisers, so the key is to seek economies of scale and drive ancillary opportunities across the business. GES in North America and in Europe is a US$900m business and this provides the ability to develop and deliver consistent services. It is likely that this will be the determining factor of success for those who service international clients such as the peripatetic congress market.

Is it difficult going through mergers/rebrandings, as with Melville and GES? 

It’s all about having a long-term plan, we were Melville GES for a considerable time to allow customers to accept and understand the relationship. It started as a strapline, then dual branding and finally we became GES. At the recent Sticky Wicket industry cricket day everyone was identifying us as GES, which shows the transition has been made successfully.

Until this year, GES was known for its exhibition contract work. The new office embedded within Excel London and a 10-year agreement to supply the venue for all new congresses takes the company into new territory. Exciting times?

Very. But, as with all businesses and especially those listed on the NY Stock Exchange, we are always looking for growth and new opportunities.

Once Excel London had invested in the ICC and started to work with London & Partners to attract peripatetic congresses and events into London and Excel, a number of opportunities arose. By definition, they need the services we provide, and we are delivering many similar services to those we deliver for an exhibition. But we are delivering them in a very different way: congress organisers work differently and have different expectations. They want a single point of contact for all services, whereas exhibition organisers generally want a separate contact for each service line. They also want us to have a creative input into the event and be with them on site all of the time because things will change as the event builds.

Congresses are also familiar with the operating procedures in other countries where all of the services are delivered by the venue, so we have embedded our congress team within the Excel event management offices to ensure the organiser receives a seamless service. Already in 2013 the new team delivered seven new major events, including the European Bone Marrow Transplant (EBMT), European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) and European  Society of Cardiology (ESC) events.

What challenges have you set at GES for operations in the conference market?

We learned a lot in the last year. We put the specialist congress team headed by Caroline Henderson and Koreen O’Malley together in September 2012, which was followed by getting the model and the service delivery right. It was essential to make sure our service partners also understood the differences between exhibitions and congresses. Now we will be looking to grow the team and support the congresses wherever they choose to host their next event. We have been approached, following a successful congress, to project manage one association’s next event.

What key developments do you see affecting this market over the next few years?

London 2012 reminded everyone that it is one of the world’s great cities. The Diamond Jubilee and Royal Wedding showed we can put on events of size and significance and with the right venues, accommodation and all supporting services required. London is firmly on the circuit for large congresses, which was not really the case four years ago. Venues such as SECC in Glasgow, ACC Liverpool, The NEC and The ICC mean we can now see congresses returning to the UK on a regular basis.

What about future plans and strategies?

One is supporting events through our registration and data capture services; we can show organisers their levels of attendance, session popularity and allow access to data in real time.

The UK Economic Impact Study says the industry is worth £58bn to the economy. Are we doing enough with this kind of information to champion our sector?

No, but the Mayor understands this. Kevin Murphy (Excel Chairman) is a founding director of London & Partners and David Pegler and James Rees are out there flying the flag and opening international markets and if we can help them in some small way then hopefully we’ll all be successful.

What advice would you give a raw recruit starting out in this industry?

Work hard, listen and learn and the opportunities will present themselves.

One wish for the industry?

There are three elements to this sector: venues, organisers and contractors and I’ve
worked for all three. My wish would be that within each part there was a greater understanding of each other’s challenges.

Best piece of advice received?

“Treat others as you’d want to be treated yourself” and that was from my Mum.

This was first published in the September issue of CN. Any comments? E-mail

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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