Where were you born and brought up, and what were your first career ambitions?
I was born and bred in Shropshire and attended boarding school in Derbyshire from age 11. Following school, University, and a year working in London, I came back home to sunny Shropshire. As for career ambitions I’m not sure I had any outside of winning Wimbledon!
I had five great years at Repton, it had amazing facilities which I never fully appreciated at the time. I was a bit of a history geek at school, and I think people in the office would say I still am.
Straight after leaving University I was offered a graduate training position by one of the big four accountancy practices in London, but it didn’t take long to realise that life as an accountant probably wasn’t for me. I certainly fancied myself as some type of Gordon Gekko character but I eventually grew up.
Who and what were your early main influences and mentors?
Certainly my father, who had taken a small manufacturing company in the 1970’s to being the UK market leader in its field by the mid 80’s. I think he made me realise that good business practice transcends all industries.
Best career advice?
Two bits stick out. One I heard at the AEO conference at Telford back in 2002, which is: if you analyse everything too much, you’ll get analysis paralysis and never do anything. Another, from my father, was to make sure you surround yourself with good people, they might actually make you look like you know what you’re doing!
An early impactful memory at work or incident that served you well for the future?
We held a large corporate conference for 1,600 delegates. For lunch they wanted good old bangers and mash. The chef, who was at the time heavily focused on his gross profit, didn’t produce enough mash. Not surprisingly we had to discount the client, but, worse, we didn’t see them back at the venue for 10 years. It taught me that GPs were nowhere near as important as delivering customer satisfaction.
What were your early work challenges?
One was always ‘where’s Telford’? Whenever we had clients coming for the first time, they were always at least half an hour early as they overestimated how long it would take them to get here. We had to spend a lot of time marketing the location and working with the council to develop the destination and it’s great to see it all start to come to fruition.
What, with hindsight, would you have done differently at the outset of your career?
When we first bought the centre it still had a members tennis centre operating which we tried to get to coexist with the venue for a number of years. However, they never sat easily together and I should have ended the tennis earlier to focus all our effort and resources on the events side.
What have been the signal achievements and challenges?
As a member of the family who owns the Southwater Event Group, to show and share my commitment and passion across the whole team here in Telford is a constant aim.
I have worked across all areas of the business at all levels to learn from the bottom up and this has proved invaluable in my role as CEO.
I spent one particular summer in my youth painting the perimeter fences of the venue. A thankless task at the time which was very poorly paid.
What has turned out to be your best business decision?and worst?
Extending the venue at the height of the recession was certainly viewed as risky by some, and it gave me a few sleepless nights, but it turned out to be a good decision. As soon as we opened the doors we started to attract business from market sectors we hadn’t previously seen, as well as increasing market share in sectors where we were already very active.
As for the worst business decision, perhaps at the start of the recession we took a couple of events we might not otherwise have taken but I don’t think I’ve had any real howlers. Again, I think it comes back to having good people around you giving you good advice.
How did you secure the necessary investment to develop the TIC?
From about 2000 onwards we had a series of venue development objectives set against the needs and expectations of our clients, for both now and in the future, which worked alongside a clear financial plan. There has been some deviation in order to meet the changes in market demand but we’ve remained pretty true to the original plan. Albeit ensuring that we remained fully operational throughout the build programmes certainly wasn’t easy and we had a few close shaves.
Almost everything we’ve done has been self-funded but we’ve still got a long way to go, other irons in the fire and opportunities to chase.
What are the new goals at TIC now that the Phase 1 of the construction work on the Southwater Development is complete?
There are certainly two more phases of development to go including residential apartments, more bars and restaurants; in addition to the planning permission we have for another hotel which we want to start construction on in the near future. It’s all part of a joint effort by ourselves and the council to create a ‘national events village’ in the heart of Telford.
What lessons can be learned by other destinations and venues looking to make similar investments and developments?
Never stand still. As soon as we’ve finished a project we’re always looking at the next opportunity, whether it be external or internal improvements, or even sometimes just ways we can improve our customer experience.
How different is today’s MICE market to the one that existed pre-recession?
Quicker paced, procurement-led and more competitive. There was a tentativeness for a while around the networking/after-hours elements of events – but we have seen confidence return to using events for socialising and recognising the importance of face-to-face communications.
Is it harder to be a privately owned venue than one run with public money?
It certainly felt like a very unfair playing field for a number of years as being privately owned we work to commercial parameters which other publicly-funded venues didn’t. We also couldn’t offer subvention and regularly lost out to other destinations because of it.
However, more recently with public-sector cutbacks, it seems to have levelled out somewhat; and as we’ve had a sustained period of success we’ve managed to invest back into the business where some of the publicly owned venues have not been able to.
One advantage is we can make a quick decision if it’s in the interest of the business or the client. On the downside, we don’t have a limitless pot of money which we can throw at uncommercial ventures which historically we had to compete against.
What makes TIC stand out and where is your USP?
I think we maintain the building to a very high standard. Over three years we will have spent more than £4m on refurbishing throughout the Group. If there is something I’m not happy with I want it fixed ASAP. Our USP is in our simplicity – we are a purpose-built venue and services provider with no other business distraction.
Where would you be looking for the venue to be positioned in 10 years time?
I would love to see Telford and Shropshire as an events destination of national stature, with The International Centre at its heart.
Any bugbears in the events business?
I think the proposed HSE CDM regulations are particularly worrying as I don’t see them as workable or needed and certainly will add significant costs. I think that anything that makes exhibiting or using face-to-face meetings more expensive has got to be bad news for the events business.
What should we doing better as an industry in particular?
I think there have already been great strides in improving our industry – particularly the amalgamation of key event industry associations which has streamlined best practice. Anything that gives the industry a stronger presence in the overall marketing mix as well as a stronger lobbying influence with Government has to be encouraged.
How do you switch off and relax outside of work?
Sports are a passion and a hobby – and a perfect day is to combine this with family – a park run to start a Saturday morning, then lunch by the River Severn and a potter around the many independent shops and pubs in Shrewsbury.
Best event ever catered for at TIC?
Well we certainly demand high standards on every event we cater for, though a recent highlight was an event which had a live seven course tasting menu by our own chefs – the feedback was incredible.
Are Wolves coming back to the Premiership any time soon?
Given that we’ve just been thumped by Derby County I think there’s more chance of England winning the World cup again!
Any comments? Email Paul Colston