Newsletter Issue 6 : August 2014


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Interview with David Gilbertson

David Gilbertson, was Chief Executive of Informa in its high growth years of 1998-2008 and then went on to run EMAP.  David now holds a Non Executive Director (NED) role in a number of  conference and events companies, including World Trade Group, GreenPower Conferences and Tarsus plc. He is also a director of three digital media businesses Gambling Compliance, Mlex and Sigaria Procurement Leaders and is the chairman of Briefing Media.

What is the importance of the role of NED?
David comes on board to help companies think about how to grow their business.  “My role is to help advise on what outcome a business might achieve and what it should prioritise to achieve its aims.” David explains “it enables me to help people who are often extremely busy keep a focus on what really matters, what is truly important to the company’s goal”. The advisory role allows a NED to be emotionally removed from the day-to-day involvement of running a company allowing David a perspective which might be missed when working on the inside.

What are the common challenges you find face conference companies and how can a NED keep an overall calm?
“The core challenge is to create the product of real value” David comments “gone are the days of churning out high volumes of events.  Getting people to spend their time and money to come to your event is more difficult with so many competing calls on their calendars and their budgets. It means a second rate event won’t be successful”.  This is particularly important because the work required to put any event together is always considerable but the result is binary: a winning event pleases everyone, a poor show is not only bad for the organisers but for their attendees too.  David explains that commercial partners and some delegates don’t always know exactly what their objectives are from an event in advance.It is up to conference organisers to help them build, manage and deliver their expectations: to create the conditions for a successful event outcome.

The second most common challenge David faces is ensuring collaboration in the conference team.  Conference companies have many moving parts, ie there are many important and discrete roles in putting an event together from start to finish to ensure a successful conference and making these roles work effectively together is extremely important “You have a group of people with many different skill sets who have to work closely together to deliver a great event and there is a critical need for brilliant communication – collaboration is not always easy”.  Few other businesses require such a dynamic combination of production, marketing, sales and operations as do event businesses. David explains that attention to detail is vital in events, you have to get it all right and getting the inter-relationships functioning in harmony is an important part.  He says “There is no role in conferences for a classic NED -- someone who wants to come to board meetings and look at a set of accounts or is easily impressed by being shown a room full of people seeming to be finding an event useful .  What is important is to understand the real detail and identify where the strengths and the failings are.  To do this you have to know a lot about the conference business and the metrics of best practice. You have to know what good looks like … I firmly believe it’s a science”.  “People who don’t think conference organisation is a science, just don’t know the science”, he says.

How optimistic are you regarding the current market for events?
“I think there is still a big requirement for face-to-face meetings.  The delegate’s need to learn, think, understand, see the future and hear perspectives remains substantial”.  David believes that conferences give time and headspace for senior delegates.  “If a delegate can achieve just one outcome which is actionable in her or his business by attending a conference, that is hugely valuable and it is likely to represent a very high return on their investment of attending.  This is an outcome a conference organiser should be proud of but has to be able to demonstrate if it wants  the event to repeat successfully”.  David is optimistic that the prospects for quality events are good.  “They need to be deeply researched so the real marketplace issues are brought to the surface with important insights gained and big discussions taking place”.  He feels the job of a producer is both hugely important and demanding.  “It requires skill, intellect and the ability to understand complexity and turn it into simplicity.  On top of this, fabulous communication skills are required”.  He explains that a producer has to understand how to find action-oriented information and develop it into a programme which will help the delegate understand where they can make money and where they can lose it”.  “It is absolutely not about sales pitches and still far too many speaker presentations fall into this trap. That does not help anyone: neither the speaker nor the audience. If you want to hear a sales pitch, go to trade show.” Conference producers have to work much more closely with speakers to ensure they deliver what the audience actually wants: real insight into business opportunity and threat in their sector. For this reason David fears a grim outlook for basic stage one events.   By this he means thin programmes that are poorly researched.  “You need to get the product right, this is core and central.  It needs to be high quality and magnetic content which draws the best attendance where high quality networking takes place. “I do believe that a delegate’s decision not to attend is never to do with the price.  If the programme is good, they will pay”. Just make sure you give them that measurable return.

What are the biggest opportunities for events in your view?
“With a large scale event there is total commonality of interest between the customer and organiser.  The delegate can access deep, rich content in a multi stream environment; high delegate attendance makes for better debate and networking connections; the more quality delegates there are there the better the contact opportunities for sponsors and exhibitors. And the organiser makes more money too. It’s a very benign circle. All round happiness of that sort also makes an event easy to repeat and expand. Attendees go away telling everyone who will listen the event was a success and they’re coming back next year. Bigger is just better”.  David explains that is the best formula for creating a conference business that others, including potential purchasers of companies will value highly. “That is how you build equity value in a conference business.  Buyers want to see repeatability and renewability” David adds “acquirers of conference businesses “look for events which have an automatic place in the delegate’s calendar”.

What is the role of the boards in small / medium / large conference companies?
Governance issues; to offer advice on the conduct of the business; to subject the business to the right degree of scrutiny; to help ensure the right allocation of resources. “You can easily get a conference business wrong, there are so many moving parts.  The board role keeps the team focussed, refreshed and reminded of their goals and the critical indicators of performance. Sometimes it is easier for someone to do this who is not involved in the office all the time.  The perspective can sometimes get lost with such a lot of urgent things to do in an event business”.  David also explains that the training of staff is crucial.  “Each role should have metrics which people can guide by. These aren’t things that you can expect people to guess”. How many research calls should a producer expect to make in putting an event together?, How many effective sales calls will a top delegate sales person make in a day? How many marketing touchpoints do there need to be to how many people in what timelines to optimise attendance? You are not going to know any of this by instinct. He repeats the philosophy that the science of a conference is critical. 

David invests his own money in the companies he works with as he feels it both shows his commitment and allows you to have skin in a game.  “I don’t have to invest but I generally do.  I look at the combination of people and product. I need to like both before I get involved” David continues “Businesses have to have a ruthlessly clear strategic direction”.  He explains that clarity of purpose is essential and this has to be regularly communicated.  This can involve big changes of behaviour and that is of course often met with resistance. ”The second hardest job in the world is to get people to start doing something new”, he says.  “The hardest job in the world is to get them to STOP doing things they shouldn’t be!” 

When asked what proportion of women there are on boards of conference companies, David laughs and says
"I think there should be more women than men on the board!”  Without wishing to make a sweeping generalisation David feels in general, women’s attention to detail is greater; they are comfortable dealing with multiple tasks and they are less cavalier about outcomes. They also have a tendency towards perfectionism – an important trait.  “Finer details are observed that men often don’t see. The best in the industry are never satisfied with an event, even when it is a storming success. They always want better. It isn’t a coincidence that many of the longest standing and most successful operators in this industry are female and the best share a relentless passion for improvement. I feel a strong female presence in the leadership and management of a conference business is really necessary”.  He points out that when he left both Informa and EMAP, they both had a good 50% female representation on the board and in senior management.

Any top tips for the success of a conference company?
“Success is to do with quality but TIME is essential to achieve this”.  You can’t rush a product out and it will not succeed if you don’t allow enough time to research it properly or give it the lead time it needs to market and sell it.  “The old mantra holds absolutely true for conferences”, he says:” If you fail to prepare, be prepared to fail.”


Informa has announced an organic revenue growth of 1.9% for the first half of 2014. The increasingly important global events section of the business focused on its expansion of international event and this saw an 8.5% organic growth to £70 million.  The Business Intelligence division is currently seeing a loss.

Informa also announced recently that it will restructure its business into four divisions – Global Exhibitions, Business Intelligence, Knowledge and Networking and Academic Publishing.  The Global Exhibitions division will be part of a Global Events (GE) section of the company which also incorporates the Knowledge and Networking division and brings together all content-driven events and will be run by Chief Executive Andrew Mullis who is moving from The Evening Standard Group

Reed Elsevier and DMGT have both announced that they are now focusing less on consumer publishing and more on B2B.  They are finding that their audiences are more inclined to spend their money on content and events than publications.

Top Right Group’s organic growth was 9% in 2013 as it continues with its strategy to provide more high quality content to international markets and less reliance on the ad model for its publishing section, EMAP. As well as retaining high quality, Top Right is focusing on customer retention. Top Right’s Event business (i2i and Lions Festivals) is providing most of the company’s growth – its most recent organic growth recording being 13%.


Head of Content – Education Shows (maternity cover) - up to £60K base pro rata plus profit share, London

Sponsorship Sales Manager – Retail Shows – Up to 40K base £80K OTE, London

Head of Sales – Events and Media - up to £50K base plus commission, London

Portfolio Manager – Global Energy Summits - up to £40K base plus profit share, London

Conference & Content Manager – up to £35K plus profit share, London

Head of Operations – International LSEs - £40K plus bonus, London

Event Project Director – Spanish Speaking – up to £45K base plus profit share, London


Conference Golf Cup - Thursday 25 September 2014, New Zealand Golf Club, Surrey

Awards Roundtable – 30th September, The Brewery
We are hosting an evening roundtable discussion for senior people involved in designing and running awards programmes. If you are keen to attend then please contact

The Event Marketing Summit – Friday 3rd October, The Mermaid, London

The 4th Annual Conference Summit 2014 – Friday 5th December, etc.venues, Bishopsgate