Conferences, workshops, events, tradeshows. We’ve all attended them, and many of us have held exhibitions there too. But have you ever asked yourself whether or not you’re exhibiting in a way that will actually benefit you, or your company? It’s probably not something you’ve considered before. After all, you just show up and exhibit… right?
Well, it turns out that there’s far, far more to it than that. Anything short of a fully thought-out and professionally presented exhibit will not only be a huge waste of time and money, but also be pretty damaging for your brand.
How do we know this? Well, we’ve spoken to the latest expert under our spotlight.
John Blaskey has found himself within an impressively tight niche, as an expert in the field of Exhibitions. In a nutshell, he coaches businesses on how to hold exhibitions, and measure their success.
He has over 40 years experience in this field, and now runs a strategy company called The Exhibiting Agency, where his years of philosophising on the subject have been combined into a multi-million consulting company.
But how did it all begin, and where is it going? We caught up with long term APCTC member John Blaskey to find out all of those things, and more!
Where did all of it begin? Can you give me a brief overview of your journey?
in 1974 – if anybody can remember as far back as that – I was in the business of manufacturing display panels for people who exhibit at trade shows and one day I was delivering such a system to a client. This was much later on, but they were simply saying to me, if I had this experience in trade shows, would I mind telling their sales reps how to behave on the stand? I obviously said yes, I could help them. What did they want to achieve at the show? The answer I got was, ‘Well, don’t worry about that. We always go. We have to go. What would people think if we don’t go?’ There was no rhyme or reason. There was no strategy, there was no planning, there was no process for their success, and the measurement of that success at trade shows.
From that, I started developing the art, the science, the psychology, of how to generate growth for any organisation, using live marketing – which is trade shows, conferences, congresses, seminars and so on – and spun off a consulting company, which I call The Exhibiting Agency, and that’s led me to selling several million pounds’ worth of consulting in this niche over the years
Who – or what – has been the biggest influence on you?
The biggest influence has been not listening to traditional wisdom. The way that exhibitions are done, everybody thinks that’s the right way to do it, just because everybody else is doing it. The key element in my approach has been: challenge. Challenge every existing convention, every existing habit, shine a spotlight on it and don’t be consumed by traditional thinking, or by traditional habits.
The best factor, the best tool, has really been to not accept what the norm is, and from doing that, we’ve evolved the process, which we guarantee. We have a system, which will work every time, when it’s put in place.
What makes you and your service different?
They would come to us because we guarantee the results. Quite simply, if they listen to what we suggest – and that comes in various formats; we can either do a workshop, we can consult during the whole live-marketing event, the trade show, or whatever; or we can even select a whole programme for them. If they do it our way, and they don’t get the results, they don’t need to pay us. We’re happy to hold their hands and run a maintenance product.
It also applies to the organisers of conferences, trade shows and exhibitions, so they’re hiring us as well, because they need to educate their exhibitors, so they need to know what these processes are. But that’s really the differentiator. We will do the whole lot – that is strategy, the stand-design, and the staff. Put them all together, and guarantee the result, if people do it our way.
This is one of the most wasteful industries in the world, and when you ask people what result did they get: we’ve done surveys. Ninety-four percent don’t know what results they get when they exhibit at a trade show or a conference. Very few people are happy with their results. Now, this speaks volumes for the industry. I see stand behaviour, which is not brand behaviour. People are actually not living their brand – they’re making an exhibition of themselves. You might have a beautifully designed stand, but the human beings absolutely destroy it. They don’t express the brand, which is a very valuable asset of any organisation, however large or small. I’ve seen terrible, terrible abuse of budget, and usually the wrong people on the stands. Not trained, not connected to the objectives or the strategy of the organisation, and it really is disruptive, dysfunctional, and very upsetting.
What have your biggest challenges been?
The biggest challenges are changing a mindset. People say they’ve always done it this way, and even when you ask them what results they got, they can’t tell you. They are still very stuck in their own ways. It’s unusual that when it comes to marketing – and I’m principally talking about marketing rather than selling – if you need a good ad campaign, you go to an agency. If you need a good PR campaign, you go to an agency. If you need a good social media campaign, you might go to an agency. When it comes to trade shows, where you’re actually putting your own brand on display, right next to your competitors, in the same room, aiming at the same audience, you tend to do it yourself. It very rarely syncs with your other advertising or promotional activity. This is a real shame.
The biggest challenge is to get people to regard their live marketing as a strategy, in the same way you would have an ad strategy, and that it must be linked up with everything else, holistically. So, getting people to think of this as a strategy, and to do something different – because if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll already got what you’ve always had – that’s the biggest challenge.
Did you ever feel like throwing the towel in and if so, what made you continue?
Yeah, of course. Everybody in business has had that experience. You put a plan together. Maybe you do a workshop, you tell people all the ingredients, you give them all the processes, and that’s fine. They’ve bought that, and that – they think – is enough. They you go and see the stand, and they’ve ignored most of it and you think, ‘Well, they’re going to go back to their old methodology, and still get nothing from it.’
There’s another time when you want to throw the towel in, and that is unfortunately when the organizer of the show does not deliver the audience they promise. Now, that can be a conference, where all the delegates are going into the lectures, but they’re not visiting the exhibition that’s attached. Or it can be an organizer who is promising thousands of visitors, and only gets hundreds, and isn’t really prepared to do anything about it. It’s very frustrating when you get stiff-necked organizers who are not really thinking of their exhibitors, who ultimately are paying the bills. They are paying for the whole thing.
You’ve got two mindsets here: The delegates to the conference want to listen to the lectures. They want to learn. They want to network. The last thing they want to do is to be sold to by exhibitors who are not appropriate. Now, the mindset of the exhibitors is: They’re spending a fortune of money to get at these delegates, in very limited timeslots. Registration, coffee break, lunch break, tea break, and they want to sell – or at least they want to explain or showcase their products.
I’m of the mind that a different model needs to be introduced. It’s a model I’ve seen in America. Should we, for example, be having the lectures in the morning, for the delegates? Maybe finishing at about eleven thirty. Opening the exhibition for two or three hours, finishing it at three o’clock, but you’ve got topic tables over lunch, you’ve got all that interaction, and then resuming the lectures in the evening, which gives everybody a fair crack of the whip. Equally, I don’t know whether you should call it an exhibition? Should you not call it a “showcase”? Should you not call it an “innovation zone”? Because that at least gives the delegates a reason to look at what is new, and relevant, in their marketplace.
What do you think your clients value most about what you offer?
I think it’s about performance. In all the interpretations of the word “performance”. I think it’s turning a stand, which is static, into an experience which is dynamic, and my mantra is: you have to engage, you have to entertain, and you have to educate. If you get all these three things into your stand experience, rather than a “stand-the-experience”, you will stand out as a client.
We measure everything – we have a measurement tool called “Outcomes” – we stand out because, the staff disappear, the stand is dismantled, everything goes, except the data you’ve captured. That is your nugget for growth, so that’s how we stand out. We’re not woolly about anything. We’re about listening, rather than talking. I think trade show stands are about listening, and everything we do is about getting ourselves and our companies to listen to what’s happening in their industry.
What has your experience of APCTC membership been like?
I’m really impressed, and I’m not just saying that! because we’re online. The very fact that I’m talking to you is testament to the fact that you do listen to your members. I was recommended to you by Growth Accelerator, and I’ve already had tremendous value from being a member.
I’ve been able to use my membership of the APCTC as a lever. It’s recognised. I think there’s more we can do, as we’ve discussed, on the top of creating a certificate, if you like, that your consultants – including myself – can offer to their clients, as having the standard of the APCTC. I’ve felt that it’s really good value for money, and that it’s a two-way journey. We can help each other. I’ve worked with other trade associations, and paid to belong, and not had the interaction that I’ve already had with you guys. I’ve mentioned you all over the world. I’ve said, ‘If you’re in anything like training or consulting, you need to belong to the APCTC.’
What new and exciting plans do you have for this year?
We’ve decided to partner up with a very strong professional staff agency, and a couple of really good stand-design people who get our methodology, so we’re now in a position to actually not just do a workshop of consultancy, but take the whole implementation away, so you could say to us, ‘Okay, just run my stand’, or, ‘Run my programme’, and then we will hand you back the results. We’re repositioning ourselves as an implementer at every level. That’s number one.
Number two, a really exciting development, is: we seem to be speaking at last to the organisers and the trade associations connected with countries, who are trying to promote their own economies. At the end of last year, and I’ve got some more this year, some very exciting keynote speaking slots in Dubai, in Malaysia, in Bangkok, in Hong Kong, and in China. We’re trying to show people how to do it better.
I do feel that I’m going to leave a legacy this way. I’m going to be able to share forty years of experience with a lot more people, because if you get to these trade associations and organisers, and then transmit that learning on to their exhibitors and their clients, you feel that at least best practice is being pursued and shared.
APCTC members like to aspire to those that are considered experts in their field. Can you share how well you’re doing in terms of:
Client feedback and emotional rewards
This is a good tip, which I’ve given to other consultants. Every single talk we do, and some we have to almost give away for just expenses, rather than charging, but we insist that at every talk that we give (we do it in a nice way, obviously) we put out a feedback form on everybody’s seat, and we always ask questions that are relevant to the topic on which we’re speaking, and to the experience of the audience.
Monetary success and business growth
Up to now, I’ve run the business more or less for myself, for a lifestyle business, if you like. I employ only one person. She’s invaluable to me. She’s my business manager, and I’ve now made her a shareholder in the business, but we’ve done it on a capacity basis for, if you like, me and a very small team. Recently we’ve taken in partners – an excellent company called Shirlaw’s Coaching. Shirlaw’s are now helping us to scale the business up, and they’re asking us the sort of questions that we would ask our clients and they’re putting us on the spot.
In terms of financial performance, we’ve done all right for the last few years. Nothing spectacular, but we’ve lived very nicely. The next couple of years are going to be really interesting, because we’re now looking at licensing our IP in its various formats, and scaling it up so that we can leave a much broader legacy, so that we can get more people in touch with this way of working, and that’s going to be global. We want to do that through all sorts of channels, but watch this space.
Your work-life balance
Probably, I don’t, and my passion takes over. So, for example, in November I was in thirty degrees in Dubai for four days, and next week I’m in Helsinki at minus twenty degrees, and a wind chill factor of ten. So this business really blows hot and cold! Having said that, when I stop enjoying it, I will stop doing it. What I want to do next is really share this stuff, and get a better work-life balance. I do want to work a little less now, and train the trainers, if you like. You may have some consultants in your association who might literally want to adopt this approach, and might even be interested in these techniques. So it’s all open to them.
Do you have a final message for anyone who aspires to you?
Well, the interesting thing about what you provide, and what we are, revolves around this word “consultant”, and very often, I hear almost a sigh when I say, ‘We are consultants’, and whilst we are consultants, I’m looking for other words.
I actually use the word “strategist”. Rather than saying “marketing consultant”, I use the word “strategist”, because I do believe that what most consultants really are is strategists. They bring strategy, and process, and planning, where there is none. At least that’s my experience, and I’m open to challenge on that. I think we need to actually improve the perception of what a consultant is and does. I think that would be enormously helpful in the fast-moving days of social media.
So, my challenge to my fellow members would be:
What can we be if we’re not consultants? Or, what is the perception that would really illustrate the added value that we provide?
We are absolutely thrilled to hear that John Blaskey has found APCTC membership helpful for the development and growth of his unique business! If you would like to see what’s it’s like, why not sign up for a free 30 day trial? You can cancel at any time and it’s just £27 a month (inc. VAT!) if you decide to stick around. Easy!