Thirty years is a long time in events.
In the late 1980s, events were a low priority element of the marketing mix. Designs generally came from advertising agencies, feedback was generally on the “good show” level, and a provider like Rapiergroup was chiefly seen as a stand-building concern. Client relationships were long term; contracts were awarded for international shows on a three to eight-year timetable.
The 1992 recession changed everything. The biggest companies, who were used to huge profits and long-term security, didn’t have the agility to adapt to new questions about return on investment.
We did. We pioneered an expansive, internationalist approach that took us into new spaces and subsectors, acquiring agencies who worked with specific kinds of events or in specific sectors.
Managing Director Helen Seaman, Director Rob Brazier and Operations Director Chris Whittaker have stepped up to share their memories, insights and experiences on the best of the last 30 years - not to mention how far we’ve come.
Helen: My earliest memory dates back to May 1995, when I joined the company and the offices were then in St. John Street, London, before it became a hip place to be! Back in the day there were only twelve staff, and apart from our receptionist I was the only woman – how things have changed. We had designers who worked on ‘the boards’ and we had a couple of brand new computers that had to be shared amongst the project managers - the designers never got near them. We used to have ‘job bags’ - brown bags that had a copy of all the financial paperwork for each project in them, with all the details and profitability of the jobs written on the front of the bag. On big jobs it would take three people most of a day to reconcile a project!
Rob: I actually experienced the work of Rapiergroup before even knowing they existed! I was working at the London Motor Show at Earls Court in 1999. It was only on day three, after the initial excitement and hectic days of interacting with thousands of visitors, that I stopped to think how all these double deck structures, working restaurants and hundreds of cars all got inside the exhibition hall. While in the hotel bar that night I started chatting with the Rapiergroup stand manager, who explained how the entire project came together after nearly a year of design, project management and production. At that point a light bulb moment happened: I finally knew what I wanted to do as a career.
Chris: The first project I was assigned when joining Rapiergroup was De la Rue in CEBIT 98. It was a large double deck exhibition build in Hanover, and I was working with two lead clients; one in the UK and one in Germany. I remember spending hours colour-matching a huge arch feature over the staircase, the German client measuring every component constructed against our working drawings, lots of additional logo’s being delivered and fitted hours before the show opening, a stand member melting their jacket on the sunken floor lights…despite that, I think the show was a great success!
Helen: Rapiergroup itself changed a great deal on my watch. The first thing on my to-do list as Financial Controller was to move the company from London to Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire after finalising the purchase of the new HQ. That was quite daunting, given that I had never even moved house before, let alone moved a whole company!
Our previous Managing Director and founder Nick de Bois suggested that I visit the offices and told me that ‘I would need to have some imagination’ as it was a Grade-2-listed building and some work needed to be carried out. He wasn’t lying - the fireplaces had been stolen and the building was in a terrible mess. It took the best part of a year to find replacements. I think at least one of them was a stolen original that we bought back.
I’ve seen more women come into the industry, particularly on the exhibits side. I used to walk on site during an exhibition build up and there were hardly any. Today there is much more of a balance, although I still don’t see many female stand builders.
Procurement coming into the buying process has been a big change too. In the early years, the marketing departments could appoint who they wanted with very little due diligence on suppliers. Today the RFP processes are vigorous: they ensure the supplier can deliver, and provide good value and sit with the values of the client, adhering to all legislation.
Rob: I started in 2001 without a laptop, and a basic mobile with no email or internet built in. The majority of communication was done via the phone or face to face, with hard copy project files called ‘job bags’. When you went to the site for the build there was limited communication - until you got back to your hotel room to find a pile of faxes pushed under your door.
Big data has had a big impact. Back in 2001, recording attendee information was limited apart from brochure requests, competitions, product enquiries, etc. - and of course all of this was paper based and manually counted, segmented and posted. We can now call upon technology to provide true analytics into attendee behaviour from iBeacons, apps, smart badges, e-detailing and AI, and we integrate all of that into our design process.
Event life expectancy has grown too. Through the introduction of social media, I have seen the delivery of exhibitions and events merge into one entity. Facebook and Twitter wasn’t even a consideration when I joined Rapiergroup in 2001. No longer is a project live for 4 event days - it continues to provide information, education and brand amplification for 365 days a year.
Chris: The way in which we communicate and how the world has opened up is probably the biggest improvement. I remember telex, handwritten faxes, memos, being tannoyed at the NEC and Earls Court, turning up with a pocket full of 10 pence pieces… that gave way to a BT Phonecard, and then a shared company mobile phone - then my own personal company phone. We’ve gone from sharing a PC to having one in our pocket, from going through the business pages to Google. There’s so much specialist support software and so many broad general platforms like Whatsapp. It’s become a lot easier to reach people.
Chris: The major change for me is that we now do it all safely. We start thinking about how we can build something safely from the initial design, at the same time as we ask the practical questions like how long we have to build it, the order in which we build, how we construct components and whether elements can actually be installed. Then, with a solid Health and Safety plan that’s communicated well, the site is a much safer place to be. Companies now think about how components will be moved around, we use towers (not ladders) and eye protection, there are clean site policies, and above all - no more all-night shifts!
Helen: The speed of delivery has certainly increased as technology has allowed communication to flow faster. Clients and colleagues can leave things much later than they used to, but that in itself can cause its own issues - particularly when events are being delivered internationally and shipping deadlines need to be met.
Rob: The biggest improvement has to be flexible working, technology and communication, increased work-life balance and the transport network. All of these elements have ensured that the project can be managed efficiently in terms of time and money, but also almost at any location.
What hasn’t changed
Rob: The feeling of comradery. From my very first day where I was guided through my first onsite and through my time at Rapiergroup, there has always been a friendship and loyalty that we share among the team. It is that approach that has got us through 44-hour shifts, guiding VIPs through the West End in the middle of Gay Pride, and shattering a Formula 1 car by following the factory rep’s lifting instructions to the letter…
Chris: At heart I’m an exhibition guy, and I’ve been building exhibition stands for 30 years. Over the years I’ve seen many changes - lots of money, no money, delivery strategies, introduction of procurement, fads and trends, ideas recycled, the thinking behind a design, new products, new material - but I feel the basic principles have remained.
What do you miss?
Rob: The Birmingham International Motor Show – not only was this motor show the first exhibition I went to as a child with my dad, but it was the first million pound project I led as a project manager.
Chris: The same as Rob. I spent a long time delivering on the motor circuit and my favourite was always the Birmingham Motor Show - such a shame it had to end.
Helen: I don’t miss anything from the past, except the people that I have had the great fortune to work with over the years, as clients, colleagues and suppliers. Change is good - moving forward keeps everything exciting and fresh.
For a glimpse into what Helen, Chris and Rob have been working on for all these years, take a look at our case studies.