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Interview with David Audrain, Executive Director of SISO

I’ve known David Audrain, Executive Director of SISO, for many years now. We’ve often met at industry events to debate the future of the exhibition sector. David’s background and experience have given him a great insight into the international exhibition world – spanning borders, continents and cultures. This makes him the perfect person to interview about the future of our business in these uncertain times of economic and environmental change. I spoke to David about what 2020 might bring and how we should prepare for the future.

Interview:

Tesi: David, we all know you as Executive Director of SISO, a leading event organiser. However, please tell us a bit more about your background and what you do at work day-to-day.

David: I have been in the exhibition industry for more than 26 years now, previously I lived in Europe (I grew up in the island of Jersey off the French coast) where I was in the financial software industry and built a small specialized software company which I sold before moving to the USA in 1989.  Like many in the industry I came to show management by accident, I took on a role managing member sales for the Texas Restaurant Assn and got the opportunity within a couple of years to take over the management of their Top-200 Exhibition.  From there I was head-hunted to join Miller Freeman to run a division of manufacturing shows, which was followed by senior leadership positions at Hanley-Wood Exhibitions, Advanstar, ConvExx, and finally brought in as CEO of Messe Frankfurt North America.  It was at Messe Frankfurt that my partner Stephanie Everett and I first worked together, and in January 2012 we left and started our company, Exposition Development Company Inc (ExpoDevCo). Our business today comprises 14 events, a mix between traditional Exhibitions, Confexes and Conferences, and also a mix between events we wholly own, several we have joint-venture partners on, and some we management under contract to the associations or companies that own them. My partner, Stephanie, runs the majority of the day-to-day operations of our events, and I spend a little more than half my time running SISO and its events, along with focusing on business development, partner relations, and the financial management of ExpoDevCo.

Tesi: Over the years, countries in the Western world have traded more with each other as borders have become more and more open. We all thought that globalisation would make everything better for businesses. However, suddenly we have entered a time of trade wars and broken alliances. What’s gone wrong?

David: The simple response is that we have some poor political leadership currently, however unfortunately that is not an adequate answer… We need to look at the situation from both the Exhibition industry perspective and from the perspective of the industries our events serve.  For Exhibition organizers I believe that it is fair to say that the last decade since the end of the global recession has been one of global growth for the industry, with the statistics showing that the industry is now larger than it was before the recession.  Much of this global growth has been assisted by the more open borders and growing global trade around the world, and much also by the growth of the emerging markets such as China and India.

The exhibition industry unfortunately cannot direct or build international trade between countries, it mostly reflects the trade opportunities that countries open up, so we are to the most part reliant on the good leadership of governments around the world. We have already seen shows suffering losses of buyers and exhibitors due to the trade wars and trade barriers currently in place and growing, and we are likely to see more of this if the situation continues to get worse.

What organizers can do is bring the industry sectors together which they serve and assist them as they try to work with their respective governments, by showcasing the size and value of the markets our events serve, to the government leaders that have the power to open or close those trading doors.

Personally, I am quite despondent at the negative nationalistic leanings of many of the key countries responsible for trade, but I am hopeful that this trend will be short lived.

Tesi: “The exhibition industry relies on the free movement of goods, people and ideas” is something we hear quite a lot. However, this seems to be in danger at the moment. Should we be worried?

David: I am concerned that in the short-term we will continue to see some declines in events particularly affected by the international trade and sourcing that requires open borders and free trade. But for the long-term I remain very positive about the future of the exhibition and events industry as face-to-face events remain the most valuable tool for companies to grow their business!

Tesi: Whether things are getting worse or not is debateable. However, one thing we can’t deny is that times are changing and the environment we do business in is changing faster than ever. What new skills do we need in our industry to face this new reality compared to 10 years ago?

David: What we have seen continue to grow over the last decade I believe is the need and demand from our customers for greater ROI from their investment in our shows and events. Exhibitors need to be able to justify their substantial investment with direct revenue and new customer growth, and attendees have limited time and budgets and need to justify the expense of both. So this creates opportunities for creative organizers to do more than just arrange the event, we should be providing better ways for our customers to interact and do business together, we need to do better jobs of curating our events to ensure that it is the best and the newest and the most innovative products and services that are on display, and that we are making it easy for attendees to find them and understand the opportunities they provide their businesses. The growth of the “Confex” model over the last decade has also shown where smaller more interactive and educational events provide significant value for both buyers/users and suppliers.

Tesi: I do apologise for the next question but as a German I have to ask this! As an American who worked for a German exhibition organiser, what do you think is the best and worst thing about the Germans?

David: Ha! It was a great opportunity for me to take over the CEO position for Messe Frankfurt North America, and my predecessor was a German, so it was a pretty big change for them, and I suspect I was a little more aggressive in my management style and risk-taking then they were used to!

I found and still find the Messe businesses extremely competent and logical in their business management and growth. They are however very risk-adverse, they will typically pass on many new opportunities if the success potential is not virtually guaranteed, this gives their global competitors an advantage which can be seen often by the very distinct difference in the volume of acquisitions made by the German Messe compared to the rest of the industry.

But at no time should the Germans ever be underestimated, they are smart, talented and resourceful, and they don’t often give up. And they possess many of the leading exhibition brands in the world!

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