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A chat with Simon Foster

1. Tesi: Simon, you were CEO of UBM EMEA and you’re about to start your new role as CEO of Comexposium. Tell me a little bit about how you started out and how you found your way into the exhibition industry?

Simon: I never planned to have a career in the exhibition world; I just sort of stumbled into it by chance. My first job in the industry was working in a trade association selling memberships. I had recently moved back to the UK from travelling in the USA after university, where I worked odd jobs and spent all my free time skiing. I learnt many things that still serve me well in the trade association arena, such as what ‘ROI’ meant, why we had to deliver it to our customers, and what was involved in event management. It was also where I first saw how powerful bringing a community together could be through the association’s sponsorship of IFSEC, the UBM event.

In 1997, I moved to London to join the old Blenheim business, which would transform and eventually become part of UBM. Paul Thandi offered me a position as Marketing Manager working initially on IFSEC. I took pride in the fact that I also knew how to sell – marketing people all too often distance themselves from the sales process, which is a mistake in my opinion. Just like today, we had technological challenges. We were worried if email campaigns would be as effective as physical direct-mailing campaigns. How times have changed – now we are talking about the pros and cons of less email and more social (Simon laughs).

When I joined Blenheim, the business was still a mix of publishing and events. Obviously after initial success, the publishing business came under enormous pressure, and I learnt what change management is all about and how important it is to execute it well and with transparency and confidence.
What really got me hooked on the exhibition industry was the fact that I was part of an energetic and open-minded team at Blenheim (then Miller Feeman) in the late 1990s. I was lucky to work with people who have become very successful in the UK exhibition industry: Nigel Nathan (MD of Kensington Olympia), David Pegler (CEO of ExCeL London), Steve Monnington (CEO of MMS), Jane Risby-Rose (Global EVP at UBM Events) and many more. The working atmosphere was very flexible, creative and occasionally rather silly in a good way! We had a great “can do” mentality, which kept me passionate about our industry and I’m really grateful for the changes my life went through during that time.

2. Tesi: Looking back at your time at UBM, what achievement are you most proud of and what will you never forget?

Simon: There are many achievements and moments I will remember for the rest of my life. You know when you have a good team and you know when you are on the road to success. If I had to say one thing, then I’d say it was the way we internationalised UBM’s business over the years. We opened so many offices, and launched, geo-adapted and brought so many events into the business – events that went on to become commercially successful exhibition businesses and that gained true industry respect in their markets. We started from scratch in Brazil together with Joris Van Wijk and now the office runs many shows with a turnover of tens of millions. We also had great success in Turkey and Mexico where UBM now runs a wide range of shows. UBM is a great company, and I can confidently say it is one of the best and most forward-thinking exhibition organisers in the world. I’m really proud of how we executed and managed the internationalisation process – something that was only possible because we had great people who worked together as a successful team.

3. Tesi: Gardening leave always sounds nice, but for many senior managers, it’s not easy to spend time mowing the lawn or cutting back trees! How did you spend your time on gardening leave?

Simon: (laughs out loud) I was extremely busy! No seriously, first I didn’t know what to do with myself or how to fill the day. I missed the hectic pace and stress of a budget phase or show launch. It took until Christmas – a few months after I resigned – to get to grips with my new situation and then I became ill, which I think is connected to the lack of adrenalin that came with not running a business. After Christmas, I finally managed to get into gear and started to enjoy the normal things in life. I spent a lot of time with my daughter, picked her up from school, and spent time with my family. I also reconnected with old friends, looked after my house and garden, and of course worked on my French as well.
I ended up being very busy again, just with totally different things. In that sense, gardening leave was a great phase for me as it gave me chance to reflect and refresh.

4. Tesi: Looking forward, you’ll soon start your new job at Comexposium – a French organiser with great brands! What do you want to achieve for your new company?

Simon: Comexposium is one of the top show organisers in the world, and is already the fifth largest (in terms of revenue). It has a strong reputation in France but my sense is that the company needs greater recognition on a global level. In the future, I want the company’s business and shows to set best practices for the whole exhibition industry. To this end, the focus will be on the following two areas:

– We will expand internationally. At the moment, over 75% of the business is on French soil. We will, of course, keep this business, but we will also push new growth through geo-adaptations, launching new shows and acquiring when and where it makes sense.
– We will push the company’s performance to reach truly international standards when it comes to sales approach, data and marketing, show content and customer satisfaction levels.
My goal is to lead the Comexposium team so that the company’s great reputation in France will be recognised on a global scale, too.

5. Tesi: Organising shows means you always have to manage the unexpected. Tell me about an unusual or even funny situation in your trade show career you’ll never forget.

Simon: Oh there were lots of those! In the show industry, you’re more surprised when the expected happens as you’re so used to dealing with the unexpected. I do remember one situation at CPhI in Brussels a long time ago. The day the show opened, we found out that the carpet supplier had forgotten to lay the carpet where around 20,000 people were due to enter. The problem was that we only realised this half an hour before the show opened and while thousands of visitors were already queuing up in the registration hall.
Somehow we managed to organise a decent carpet and the entire team dressed in their suits were on their hands and knees in the corridor laying the carpet in place. We could hear the visitors, journalists, and officials on the other side of the door and were aware it could swing open at any time!
We managed to finish just as the door to the registration hall opened. I kicked the last few tools behind a flowerpot and the team stood there all smiles to welcome the visitors as if nothing had happened. Nobody had a clue what we were up to just seconds before. That’s a moment I’ll never forget!

6. Tesi: Everybody knows the professional side of Simon Foster from press releases and official meetings. But what about the private side of Simon Foster? Tell me one detail about yourself that people might not know or expect.

Simon: Well earlier on, I told you how I travelled and lived in a ski resort when I was younger – you could even have called me a ski bum! I guess I could have continued that life if I had not ended up in the exhibition industry. I like to think that a part of that ‘Simon’ is still in me. I’m extremely thankful for the life I live now, but I also enjoy just being down to earth and being surrounded by relaxed people who just appreciate me for being me. Sometimes I miss that easy-going lifestyle. That’s a side of me many people in the industry don’t know.

Thank you very much for your time,

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