Nick de Bois’ CV is… impressive. Conservative MP for Enfield North from 2010 to 2015, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Events Industry, author of Confessions of a Recovering MP – and co-founder of Rapiergroup.
Nick spent a little time with us, discussing the past, present and future of Rapiergroup – and the events industry as a whole.
RG: Before we get into the events space as a whole, you were one of the founding partners of Rapiergroup. Can you give us a quick potted history of the group, from your perspective? How it came to be, the principles on which it was founded?
Nick de Bois: Well, Rapier, as a name, goes back to 1958. It was founded alongside the first ‘technical publications advertising agency’ by two people called Rolls and Parker. They had one client – Plessey Electronics, a defence electronics and telecommunications company – who asked them to handle international exhibitions as well as advertising, so they formed a separate company using the initials of their names – RAP, a small step to RAPier, you see?
That company was acquired by the Charles Barker Group in about 1982. I joined in 1984, as a very young, very naive, utterly inadequate project manager. By 1986, Charles Barker sold Rapier to the then management team led by a chap called Paddy Murray, who gave me a small stake in Rapier Design which was the exhibition and exhibition graphics brand. We also had companies specialising in events, which, can you believe, we called “industrial theatre” at the time!
By 1988 I demerged Rapier Design once again from the then Rapier group of companies known as Rapier Associates. We moved from Lamb’s Conduit Street in Holborn to the nearby St. John Street in Clerkenwell with about eight people. The idea was to have a bit of fun – we were all young, somewhat financially irresponsible and didn’t really think about it as a business so long as we were delivering great projects and had enough money to pay the staff. Rapier Design as you now know it was born, and I began one of the most amazing journeys you can imagine.
We had to grow up very quickly, though. We went independent without much more than a credit card – no money, no backing as such – and within three months we’d lost Plessey, who were still our biggest client before they were taken over. Faced with losing our turnover – about £800,000 at the start – we first had to replace that, and then look to grow. Within two years we returned to the £800,000 turnover, in fact exceeded it at £1 million, and then secured a huge account that took us into the £2-3 million league. In 1994 we started to diversify the business, and that’s when we rebranded as Rapiergroup.
As part of that growing up process we made an accountant one of our first hires. Initially it was a part-time position, but Helen Seaman joined the company full time just before we moved to Hoddesdon, and went on to take over as Managing Director in 2010. Somehow, despite a weak balance sheet and the prospect of a reduction in her pay, she was persuaded to sign on with us. To this day I am still not sure what made her take that risk.
RG: What was the events space like 30 years ago, and what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in that time?
NDB: Back then, exhibitions were seen as an add-on to public relations, and to be honest, they were quite low in the marketing mix. Our senior clients at the time were often company PR managers. Exhibitions as a marketing tool were not talked about in the boardroom – the very best you might hear from a main board director was “great show, by the way.”
As a provider we were seen as builders, putting stands together for events like the Farnborough Air Show or Paris Air Show. Many of the design briefs were led strategically by advertising agencies – which was frustrating and limiting for us, because what works in a 2D space will not necessarily work in a 3D space. Today, Rapiergroup champions strategic communications. They lead rather than follow, and of course they collaborate more often than not on equal terms with other agencies. That’s a huge shift in their favour, and one clients benefit from.
Despite that lack of importance of events in the marketing mix at the time, there were nevertheless huge amounts of money in the exhibition sector. There was no hint of procurement – contracts were being awarded for international shows that ran for three to eight years, and breaking in to win new clients was difficult. Worse, in the early eighties corruption existed to a significant level and I would often walk away from a bid when it became clear that something on the side was expected. Although this evaporated in the nineties, there were lingering reputational issues over our sector for some time. Thankfully, that has all changed.
In part this was down to the 1992 economic recession. People started to ask about the value for money of an exhibition; how did you prove return on investment? Suddenly the bigger companies, who were used to huge profits and long-term security, couldn’t adapt, whereas Rapiergroup, who in some respects had our backs to the wall, began to win business because we were lean, hungry, flexible and competitive. I think that still applies today if you want to win.
At the same time, though, we were in a kind of glass house when it came to expanding our skill sets into conferences as opposed to exhibitions. We knew we had to diversify, and it should have been a small leap from managing exhibition projects to managing conferences. However, it was almost as if there was a sign on the door that said “you’re an exhibition design house, and nobody will touch you for anything else” – so we had to break out of that and show we had the logistical and creative skill to deliver more than our core business. Our continued growth demanded that because the events space was changing.
To help achieve that we did quite a few things differently: we didn’t buy contractors, we didn’t integrate our supply chain and bury ourselves further into the exhibitions sector. Alright, that’s not strictly true, we tried that and it didn’t work. Instead, we diversified left and right. When we bought companies they were always agencies doing related things, not part of our core business.
When we bought Opus in 2007, that’s what really took us into the events space, into conferences and car launches, incentive meetings and product launches. It was new, it was exciting and the present day company benefits from that ambition as we are more diversified than ever. For example, pharma work – a mainstay of the company – came about because of the acquisition of a company called Jacobs & Parrott that specialised in that sector.
We understood the need to innovate constantly to maintain our competitiveness. From our early days we pioneered the internationalist approach to event management and exhibitions. In 1990 only 5% of our turnover came from international clients. Today that figure has increased to 60%.
RG: So, that’s the past. How about the future? Where do you see the event sector heading in the next five to 10 years?
NDB: Event professionals can be consumed by technology. We talk about all the devices for social media, and how you can present something brilliantly on a stand or at a live event, but it’s really easy to forget that the audience is changing too.
There’s a huge demographic shift going on. The people, like me, who grew up adjusting to technology are heading out of the decision-making process, and the people who have known nothing different are coming in. They have very different positions on how to deploy communications to their contemporaries with the buying power and responsibility. They’re Millennial and post-Millennial. They deal with sophisticated communication tools on a daily basis, and agencies today have to cut through that and engage with them. That’s a huge but exciting challenge for the creative minds of today.
In the 1990s we all talked about experiential marketing and thought we were practising it, now it is vital to embrace this at a time of great change in audience and technology. It’s about giving people a sensory, visual and audio experience, but it has to be done by people who are in the right age group themselves, who are able to talk to these audiences in a language they understand. Rapiergroup have that talent in abundance.
But the company has done something even more impressive that is worth reflecting on for a moment. The fact is, Rapiergroup beat the biggest financial crises in peace time living memory. Think about that for a moment. The company has produced growth, widened its client base, carefully expanded its activities and in some years even delivered bonuses. Everyone, and I mean every member of the company, should be extremely proud of that. I know I am, and I don’t work there anymore.
RG: Talking more about your political role with the All Party Parliamentary Group for the UK events industry – how important is the events sector to the UK economy?
NDB: We formed the APPG because the sector was not seen as of any national significance. We weren’t at the policy table. The government didn’t understand the sector at all, or recognise that the sector offered £40 billion in value and employed 500,000 people. If you spoke to an MP or minister and said “did you go to this motor show” they’d say “oh yes, it’s great”, but that’s all – they’d see the event, but not the industry or the sector behind it.
If you’re not understood by the government, you’re not heard in policy making. I wanted to change that, because when I was elected in 2010, Britain was desperate to do business. We had to export, we had to sell, we had to win inward investment, and the case I made to the government was based on that. The events sector is the champion of UK exports and UK business, because it’s the platform from which people showcase their products and their knowledge.
London has just won the hosting for the biggest European cardiology society event. 32,000 cardiologists are going to descend on London. That’s great for the local economy, but it also means we have a huge influence. People working in life science and health sectors will be here and paying attention, so it’s our chance to showcase Britain as a place to inwardly invest. Because it’s about knowledge sharing, our universities are involved. Because it’s about pharmaceuticals, our big science parks are involved. It’s an opportunity for us to say “we’ve got the knowledge, we’ve got the skills, we’ve got the people and we’ve got low tax – invest here!”
The government has now woken up to that – they’ve realised that if they get behind the export shows market, it’s a win-win for Britain. We’ve won that argument – now we need the industry to step up to the mark, and we need the UK to be a more competitive place in which to do business.
RG: How do we do that?
NDB: It starts with infrastructure. It’s all very well us winning when we bid for shows and events, but if we don’t have the capacity to host them and house people and move them around, that’s a problem.
For instance – when it comes to meetings and welcomes for delegates at airports, we have exactly one top twenty performer, and that’s Heathrow. Our other airports are way behind. That’s crazy for a country that’s trying to say “we’re open for business.”
Issues like that are the focus for the APPG board. It’s very late in the day for the events industry to be recognised, but it’s a great time to be recognised – now the sector and the government have to pull their weight.
RG: At the Business of Events Senior Leadership Forum you talked about the Event Support Programme – which can help the UK win new events, but also internationalise existing events that have ambition to grow and drive more international delegates to these shores. Is Brexit a barrier to internationalising?
NDB: If you’re trading anywhere around the world except Europe, you have barriers to trade – import and export documents, duties and so on. Despite that, we’re still trading with all those places. Many of our shows are on other continents and in countries that don’t have trade agreements like the EEC. A huge amount of event sector business is already done this way, which gives us a different perspective on Brexit.
The idea of the trade talks is to eliminate barriers to trade. I don’t think there will be many practical barriers – issues like customs will be sorted out. At worst, you’ll find we have to do exactly what we do when we go to the USA or Dubai or South Africa. We’ll be competing as we do in the rest of the world. It will be annoying, but we’ll still be the fifth biggest market in the world, and our trading partners won’t want to lose that.
The key thing is making it clear that the UK isn’t turning its back on the world. It’s actually us saying “we want bigger, wider free trade agreements with the rest of the world. We want to build on the 50% of our business that we do outside Europe, and we want to align ourselves with a bigger marketplace.”
Rapiergroup thanks Nick for joining us to share his insight on how UK event hosting has developed – and on where it needs to go. Follow up with our vision for the next five years, or our Brexit archive.