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It’s already been a little over a year since the Informa management team first walked through the doors at UBM to kick start talks about how to merge these two major players into the new industry giant known as Informa Markets. I had the pleasure and privilege of working as a consultant at the UBM Amsterdam office during this exciting period. I was managing the Food Ingredients portfolio at the time and working together with Informa to discover all of the opportunities for the portfolio brought about by the merger is something I will never forget. However, now that this “honey moon phase” is over, I think it’s a good time to speak to Jason Brown (Chief Digital Officer of Advance at  Informa Markets) to see how the company is doing in the digital space.

Tesi: Jason, two powerhouse exhibition companies merged to become Informa Markets. It was the first time a merger of this scale had ever happened in the exhibition industry. When you look back over the company’s first year, what is your main observation? (I’m guessing it’s not that you weren’t busy enough!)

Jason: It’s been clear from the get-go that this was a great opportunity to bring together two amazing event businesses with hundreds of events, but my biggest observation is really how we’ve successfully leveraged the scale of the combined company to drive forward with both traditional events (of which many complement each other) and some digitally and data-driven non-booth sales programs.

Tesi: When two companies come together, their cultures also come together. Is there anything specific that you’ve learnt from combining these two cultures?

Jason: The events industry in general has a very similar, high-performance, high-energy culture. There were of course unique aspects to each legacy business, but the cultures and people are very similar.  The events world, as large as it is, has a lot of people (myself included) who have moved from one event company to another. As a result, from day one there was a culture of “bringing us together”. We also found both companies had incredible success in creating great events that connect industries, specialist markets and communities to trade, grow and engage. We were able to share some additional value, as we’ve been committed to using digital solutions and platforms to drive attendance andgenerate additional revenue.

Tesi: Ok, now let’s talk digital. Traditionally, the exhibitions industry isn’t always at the forefront when it comes to digital products and services. What has changed within Informa with regards to new or improved digital and data platforms as a result of the integration?

Jason: In 2015, Informa launched something called GAP, this program (Growth Acceleration Program) spanned two years and was tasked with completely changing the digital and technology platforms we used to enable the marketing teams to have intelligent conversations with our customers – attendees and exhibitors.

Using GAP as a guide and learning process, we’re now in the midst of a world-wide platform upgrade and normalization project – bringing together the best of former platforms and products and marrying them to our progressive digital & data model.  This involves creating and migrating event platforms, directories, and content management systems, along with marketing tools and sales processing platforms. Our goal with these internal programs is to truly make us the easiest exhibitions company to do business with, and leverage our digital and data resources to help buyers and sellers connect, not just at our shows, but 365 days a year.

Tesi: Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning – these technologies are rapidly transforming the way our business develops. How will trade shows be impacted by this in 10 years and what will organizers need to do to keep up with these changes?

Jason: Without a doubt, AI and ML are going to be cornerstone technologies of every business. Utilizing ML to better understand both our customers, and our customer’s needs, will drive attendance to events and help buyers and sellers come together, at the event and online all year-round.

AI used to be the stuff of science fiction, think Blade Runner or Blake’s Seven, however, as consumers, we’ve already surrounded ourselves with AI without really knowing it: think Siri, Google and Amazon applications.  These three companies, to name a few, have done a great job in introducing AI as a tool to help customers make decisions, and to learn about the habits of customers, all in a friendly package.

Event teams are already beginning to take advantage of similar (but less intrusive) tools with mobile apps.  The problem with technology at many event locations has been with connectivity, but we’re seeing more and more convention centers install superfast Wi-Fi, catering to thousands of simulations connections.  So, what does that mean to the events world?  Think mobile applications which can give answers to visitors questions live on the floor; think AR capabilities so visitors can see the products and services in a “real-world” setting; think location-based mapping and the ability for exhibitors to recognize you… You name it, if it improves the customer experience, we’ll be doing it as soon as we’re able to.

Tesi: And my final question – why do you think our industry wasn’t as quick to adopt digital opportunities compared to other industries? And how could we change this in future?

Jason: I’ve worked at quite a few event companies, and I’ve lived through and helped drive digital transformation at each organization.  Many event companies have media divisions to promote their events, but all of the businesses I’ve worked for—all of whom are now part of Informa—have been quick to take advantage of digital platforms – and to create digital revenue.  However, most event companies didn’t feel the urgency to transition, or the pain of media companies having their advertising revenue disappear to the web.

I’m now seeing many, if not all event directors, drive their events forward using the digital tools available.  Far from being seen as a worry (will visitors really attend if they can find the info online?), digital platforms, such as Informa Markets’ MarkitMakr product directory, connects visitors and exhibitors year-round and helps foster the relationship before and after the event.  With the data we’re generating from these platforms, we’re able to create smart marketing campaigns, understand buyer intent and generate new sources of digital revenue, all while enhancing the experience for buyers and sellers alike.

If you’re interested in digital and want to explore some great low and no cost tools to help make business decisions, go check out Google’s Data Studio –—it’s a very cool product. And, for a simple and fun way to see AR in action and make your own demo, try the HP Reveal app in the Apple and Google Play stores.

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