The 1-2-1 series by Event Industry News interviews influencers, leaders and champions within the UK exhibition market. We ask them to deconstruct their views on the current market, disclose the drivers within their own businesses and understand their own personal motivations.

This series is brought to you by exhibition specialist and blogger, Jim Curry.

Kathryn James: The Customer Experience

As Managing Director of The NEC Group for Conventions and Exhibitions Kathryn James has seen untold numbers of exhibitions, organisers, exhibitors and visitors pass through the doors of the national venue.

We sat down for the latest edition of the interview series to talk about the exhibitions world from the vantage point of one of the leading UK venues. We covered things like customer experience, venue security, venue tech and how simple measuring dwell time can be.

We talked about exhibition organisers as well; the trends, the tricks they miss and why small organisers are the perfect fit for a big venue like the NEC.

Kathryn also discusses the importance of mindfulness, being a Super Aunt and the Egyptologist dream.

How are you reading the exhibition industry in 2017 at the moment?

Given the amount of volatility at a global level –  whether that is the financial markets, pricing volatility, security or other macro elements –  I’ve been pleasantly surprised how confident and calm the UK events industry has been despite the changes because we’re not immune as a business sector. Of course, the recent election results do have the ability of changing things!!

At a Group level, all our businesses whether that’s exhibitions, conferencing, arena products, ticketing or catering, everything is on an upward curve. Of course, the gradient of the curve is dependent on the different marketplaces and their different competition dynamics, but we are still seeing positive progression.

Our exhibition partners are also in positive territory in terms of growth and they seem to hold a sort of steeliness of quiet confidence. People are booking events and they are growing. When you walk through the exhibition halls at the NEC you get the impression that stands are looking busier than ever. It’s an optimistic environment which is supported by the interest of financial houses and the VC houses coming into our market.

I get that but on the whole net square space is down and visitors as well, right?

Our experience at the NEC, from a trade show perspective, is we are not seeing square metre reduction, in fact we’re seeing a little bit of square metre growth.

This year we’ll have year on year visitor numbers growth and it’ll be modest in trade but is that actually surprising? Unless a sector is fundamentally growing then actually your community is probably already scaled, the question is, have you got the right people from that community coming to your show?

I would encourage people not to be generalist about exhibitions as a cohort and say you must look at trade events and consumer events separately because they are very different beasts.

How is the world around us changing venues?

From a customer perspective, there’s clearly a continuous drive to improve the customer experience. At the NEC, we focus on the quality of each touch point, so the look and feel of the buildings, the digitalisation within the venues, the amount halls are connectable for the customer and the quality of the catering. It’s a continuous cycle of improvement with all areas pushing to ensure the customer experience gets better and better.

Customer experience then sits against a more sobering backdrop of security. This continues to be a big issue for venues both in the UK and worldwide with major investment in the infrastructure to make them safer against potential threats from all sources, but clearly terrorism is a key focus, especially given the recent very sad events,

We want our visitors to feel safe. And we do respect there is a fine balance between security and customer experience – however, they are also very connected too.

Prioritising security and customer experience…

How do you balance that?

Any place where you have big groups of people gather are now categorised as tier one venues under counter terror measures, this includes airports, shopping malls, football stadiums, arenas and of course exhibition centres. All venues must be appropriately secured to the best of our ability which is a very robust process.

The reality is there is only one way to deliver an absolutely secure building and that is to lock its doors.  As that is not a workable approach we have to continuously think about our security measures  and keep them under constant review.

From an NEC perspective, we are a little bit different as we sit on a 400-acre site so our strategy is as much about the destination of the campus as it is about the physical exhibition centre itself.

The campus is something you guys are focusing on, right?

Yes, we are a ultimately a campus manager and our thoughts are focused on attracting more content, more business and building new things into the campus environment to make our proposition more attractive and in turn make the exhibition centre the best it can possibly be.

The campus already had the NEC and Genting Arena, and over the last few years we have considered new ideas that would increase visitor dwell time. In 2015 Resorts World opened on site and it completely fits the bill as it is an integrated complex with shopping outlets, restaurants, bars and a cinema all under one roof. It has also increased hotel rooms with the addition of the 4-star Genting Hotel in the complex and has truly made our campus a 24/7 destination. And it is home to our new convention centre, the Vox.

Exhibitions, whether they are trade or consumer, are a day out and we are adding to the customer experience with the addition of more activities on site. For instance, this summer we will be become the global launch venue for a brand new, immersive show called “Dinosaurs in the Wild”. This will take residence in Hall 2 for nine weeks and is our first ‘long stay’ activity (in terms of hall occupancy).

We have also just announced a deal with the Merlin Group to bring an adventure experience to the campus.

Dinosaurs in the Wild: A new immersive experience at the NEC.

Do you roll out venue tech for insight into dwell times and heat mapping?

We see technology as a very important part of our venue strategy.   We all now live our lives with technology all around us.so, when people come to events they will have the same expectations.  We do use technology today to do audience mapping which is added value for organisers.

What about dwell times?

We already give show organisers average dwell times which can be measured by cars in and out of the carparks. It’s not hugely scientific but it’s accurate enough to be able to talk to an exhibitor about.

How much does venue tech cost for things that are taken for granted like free wifi?

Our Wi-Fi structure cost us £1m to put the system in and there is an approximate five-year refresh in place. These things are not cheap and whenever you push something across the NEC you must consider the scale of the venue & the campus. We have 186,000 square metres of exhibition space and including public circulation areas that totals circa 220,000 square metres of venue space. On top of that we have over 25 car parks, with multiple in and out barriers sitting on 400 acres. To make a tech play in that big space has significant challenges but it is important to remember it’s not always a commercial play.

So operational tech?

Yes. All of our tech projects at the NEC have a strapline called Smarter Venue. When that has an internal lens to it we start looking at being smarter with our own ways of workings – an example of which would be our Site Operations Centre where we deployed a suite of technology to help give us early warning tools in various areas. For instance, we spent half a million pounds on the latest Variable Messaging Signs which have digital directions that we can change at the press of a button – so our roadways are working to their maximum at all times. Traditionally it took 40 minutes to run all over the venue changing the slider signs at which point the road dynamics would have changed.

How does the exhibition part of The NEC Group sit alongside conventions, live events and other activities like the ticketing arm?

We still acknowledge exhibitions are by far the single most important revenue stream we have within the Group and we treat it with the respect it deserves and it is reflected in our organisational structure. but we are seeing some healthy growth in the rest of the business. During the Birmingham City Council sales process to LDC, continued diversification of revenue streams was an important feature in the NEC Group strategy.

In 2015 we opened the Vox, a state of the art conference facility situated in Resorts World, and this meant that our conventions business unit could grow.  It’s a brand new venue but it’s a disrupter brand as the first conference centre to be integrated in to a leisure facility in Europe. It sits alongside its sister venue the ICC, based in Birmingham city centre, and is managed by the same team, so even though it’s a new centre it has 26 years of experience behind it.

Equally our arenas business has seen very interesting changes in recent years. Comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll, and family entertainment is bigger than ever with formats like Disney on Ice, as well as personality-led arena events such as Bear Grylls and Brian Cox who use it to connect directly to their audiences. It shows people are thinking of new ways to use the arena format.

The Ticket Factory is an important part of The NEC Group because it is effectively our data play so it’s where all our data insight is channelled. Ticketing is an extremely competitive marketplace and we view ourselves as a boutique brand with an e-commerce focus in that regard.

Finally, Amadeus, our catering division is key to all of our home venues, but is seeing some very strong success in external venue contracts too.

The NEC: A wide range of event plays.

Could Ticket Factory do exhibition registration?

Yes, we have developed ExpoWare as our registration product.  Originally, this was intended for use within hybrid event where there is some trade content sitting alongside a consumer event.  But its had some encouraging success as a standalone trade product recently.

What trends are you seeing with UK organisers?

We are seeing many of our consumer show organisers spending a lot more time, care and attention on the dynamics between exhibition stands sales and other forms of activation sales. Organisers are now paying more attention to some of the other revenue lines outside of stand sales to make them as strong as they can be. The new dynamic throws up some challenges because it is a completely different proposition to sell stand space in comparison to media or sponsorship sales.

What’s the biggest trick organisers miss when working with venues?

It might be due to the creative hierarchy but for one reason or another organisers do not challenge venues to share their insight and experiences. As a venue, we sit in the wonderfully privileged seat of seeing hundreds of events come through our doors every year meaning we get to see the good, the bad and sometimes, the not so pretty. We have so much insight to give organisers about our venue and how to get the best out of the NEC – it’s what we see every day and we do a lot of clever stuff to make things happen!

How can you guys help smaller organisers or launchers?

We can help in numerous ways. We can help create the concept and thicken it out, we can build their ops and delivery plans, plug in support and give them stability. We can give them our leadership, advice and experience and introduce them to our network of partners. We can work at speed and yet give them reassurance of guidance through CDM and H+S which can be intimidating for any organiser. We are a big venue but we are also geared for the smaller launch organisers.

Could NEC be too cavernous for a small inaugural show?

No I don’t think so. We host plenty of small events, it just comes down to the space and how you want to use it. We have halls that are more than 15,000 square metres, but we obviously don’t use them for the small shows as we have 5,000 sqm halls too. The big advantage of using the NEC for a launch show is our heritage and the halo effect on any show that happens here. Stuff doesn’t go wrong at the NEC, it succeeds.

In your job what’s the metric that you’re addicted to?

I’m addicted to the occupancy and pricing metrics but I have a keen eye for customer feedback scores as it is key metric from our Board’s perspective.

How does that work? Is it NPS?

We do feedback at a visitor level for trade and consumer shows as well as exhibitor feedback and organiser feedback which is split across exhibitions, live events and conferences. We segment the audiences and ask them the relevant questions about the venue. We stopped doing NPS last year because it can be an overly harsh metric and does not always pull out the “so what” for improvement.

We still ask the question but we now calculate what we call a MAT score (Moving Annual Trend) and we have a rolling average which we are always trying to improve upon.

What do you believe to be true about the exhibition business and nobody else does?

I question whether we’ve got an exhibition market at all because I think we are just the front end of many, many markets.

A front end of many markets.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

Balancing the days so that I spend enough time out in the marketplace talking to clients and being in the office leading the teams across two business units – exhibitions and conventions over three venues (the NEC, ICC and Vox)

What would you put into Room 101 from the exhibition industry?

I’d put the re-book board in Room 101 because it kills creativity of floor plans. I just don’t think it helps innovation or change or freshness in an event.

Name a venue headache that existed in 2007 that doesn’t exist today.

Managing my car parks. Ten years ago, I had to put the prices up which made me very unpopular in the industry. Not a great way to introduce myself to a new industry, but it was necessary.  And carpark pricing will always stay a bit of a headache I guess.

What is the best thing that you’ve learnt from your team in the last 12 months?

How much support I have from them. Now my time is split across two businesses and both teams have really stepped up to support me in my ability to do that.

What professional regrets do you have?

When I left the aviation industry I had intended to take a year off to travel. In the end I only had three months off and I regret not telling Paul Thandi (CEO, The NEC Group) that he’d have to wait if he wanted me so that I could go on an adventure.

What advice would you give a young professional starting out in the exhibition industry?

One of the beautiful things about the events industry is the array of roles. It’s not just event management or sales or marketing, there is so much more. Keep your horizons broad and don’t narrow into a specialism. Have a little look around and try and do a bit of everything in the early days to see what actually sparks.

And young females?

Just bring passion and energy to the table. I am not a supporter of gender quotas as I think the best person should be in the job; male or female. However, I do find that females undershoot and talk down their capabilities so my advice is don’t talk yourself down, be proud of what you can do and what you have achieved.

What do you do when you’re in a rut?

Go to the gym. Go to spin classes.

What floats your boat outside of work?

Health and well-being.  Sport and activity is very important to me in my day to day life.

You riding on the mindfulness bus?

Yes about four years ago, off the back of Pilates and Yoga. I struggled at the beginning as I had a traditional view of exercise which involved going all out and if I didn’t come off the training park vomiting it wasn’t a workout. I’ve still got a healthy respect for that type of workout which is why I do spin classes, but doing yoga is completely different kind of experience. I am also into nutrition and study it in my spare time. I am a firm believer in the mind, body and soul being one package.

You’re wearing a fit bit – how many steps have you done?

I don’t know today but it will easily be over 10,000 because I’ve walked the NEC and this venue (ICC). I got the cheapest version because I already have a watch which is important to me and don’t want to wear two watches.

Why is the watch important?

It’s years old now and it’s an old clunky Rolex but I’d never give it up. I bought it when I worked in aviation and I smashed my numbers. I got a bonus and bought this as a treat. I also have a pair of diamond earrings that are important to me because the Luton Airport team bought them for me when I left. I was touched that they bought me such an amazing gift. It’s more about what they mean and less about the value.

That’s a lot of Luton jewellery, sounds like NEC need to up their game. So, what’s your next personal adventure?
Once a year in September I go to a place called The Body Holiday in St Lucia which is a mind, body, soul and wellbeing complex.  It is an amazing place and the strap line is ‘give us your body and we’ll give you back your mind’ and before that, in the summer, I am planning a week with my niece being Super Aunt.

What does Super Aunt entail?

A huge amount of effort – I love doing unusual activities with her. A couple of years ago we slept in log cabins at Whipsnade Zoo overnight. We were in a compound next to the wolves’ enclosure. It was a fantastic experience hearing the wolves howl at night and this year I am hoping to get dates for London Zoo who have created a new similar concept called the Lion’s Den as well as the DinoSnores experience at the Natural History Museum.

Outside of exhibitions what would be your dream job?

I would have loved to have been an Egyptologist – digging things up in a foreign land. Discovering Pharaohs, mummies and looking at tombs.

A dream job.

What was the name of the last article, book or podcast you recommended?

It was a webinar by Rare Insight on what are the real drivers of loyalty. It centred on customer service and experience.

What’s your commute like?

I drive, it’s 25 minutes, I tend to put classical music on in the car. I have been listening to classical since my 20s and it’s not unheard of for the team to walk into my office when I have monks chanting.

Do you have a long memory?

I do but not on everything. I am really good with people’s faces but shocking with names. I can declutter my brain super-fast but maybe a bit too fast with names. So, sometimes yes, sometimes no.

What charities you support?

I have a real passion for animals and fighting animal cruelty so I support charities like WWF and RSPCA.  Ultimately how people treat the animal kingdom says a lot about humanity and it’s very easy to extrapolate why there is so much conflict in the world from the way we treat animals. I’m a vegetarian as well.

What apps on your phone do you use the most?

Chiltern Railways, London Underground, my gym booking app and Twitter.

What bad habits you have?

It’s not a bad habit, but I have been genetically tested and I have a bonkersly high pain threshold which means I can over train and injure myself which is why I have got knackered Achilles.

Who would you interview next and why?

I think I’d interview Stewart Johnson from Ascential because he is new to the industry and hasn’t gone native yet. I think his view into how data and insight savvy we are as an industry (or not) would be really interesting because he comes from a data background.

Professionally on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being 100% content, how content are you?

Probably about 7. I am just getting the balance right between the two NEC Group businesses and I am still learning the conventions side and getting underneath the skin. In the next 12-18 months, we are working on a couple of projects which will give me a lot of professional pleasure. They will push me up to an 8 or a 9.

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