Building Communities: Interview with Frazer Chesterman

This blog is taken from 1-2-1 series by Event Industry News interviews influencers, leaders and champions within the UK exhibition market and is written by Jim Curry.

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 and is kindly supported by n200 –industry intelligence.

Launching, content and digital platforms

Frazer Chesterman has been in the exhibition game a long time – stretching back to his Brintex days in the nineties.

After leaving Brintex he held the MD position of the trade association, FESPA, which he took on an upward cycle of exhibition growth with an aggressive geo-clone strategy and brand extension before leaving with his business partner Marcus Timson to head up his own organising company, FM Brooks.

The two of them are currently doing what they know best…launching exhibitions and events. I hold massive respect for exhibition launchers and Frazer and Marcus are no different. In this interview we talk about launches, the content you need and the most central part – the communities you serve.

What’s the one big thing that decides a successful launch?

It’s about timing. It’s about being in the right place at the right time. If you get a new idea that works when the market and the bell curve are on the up and you get it in the right place, in the right environment, then it’ll be a success.

My research on you tells me you view launches as more than just exhibitions, right?

Whenever Marcus and I come up with a new idea we build a vision around a developing community and it rarely stands alone as an exhibition. When we find new segments that are really niche we not only organise an exhibition but we undertake research, we broadcast webinars, we publish content and we host conference sessions.

We think as ourselves as the focal point of an evolving and developing community. And we do whatever we can to be at the forefront of that industry in order to move and grow quicker to better serve the community. We want to help the industry develop. No longer can we rely on just those three days when the show is open, at least not when your event is still in its fledgling stages.

With a new event, you are fighting against the fact that people do not really like trying something new. There is always a kind of inertia within any industry. Exhibitors will already have events they attend and feel comfortable with. You are trying to convince them that ‘another exhibition’ is worth attending, even if it is reflecting a growing segment of their industry. It is always going to be tough.

Is that your modus operandi for your most recent exhibition brand – INPRINT?

Yes. We don’t just talk about ‘the show’. 80-90% of our generated content is about the industrial print community and the exhibition is the remainder. The event is the manifestation of the work we all do (and I mean exhibitors too) but the work is 24/7 and virtually every week of the year. 

InPrint Show has successfully established itself as a unique and leading exhibition

InPrint Show has successfully established itself as a unique and leading exhibition

Does that mean you view the 12-month spike engagement of exhibitions as fading?

Yes. I’m sure you would agree that it’s a mistake for any exhibition organiser to think that opening a show for three days is adequate. Of course interest spikes in the run-up, during and shortly after the show. But in order to build your event, strengthen the foundations and distinguish yourself clearly from other events in the market, you must work consistently across all platforms and build solid relationships. So I like to view an exhibition over a 12 month period and see how you engage with the community and the customer over that entire period because this is crucial.

OK with that in mind, what would be the minimum time you would give for launching?

Well we have just launched INPRINT in America and we will have 12 months but we already had an established product in Europe so we were not completely cold to the market. The US is also generally more confident about supporting new ideas, compared with somewhere like Germany who tend to be more cautious. I think you ideally need a minimum of 18 months from the very start but preferably two years would be my comfortable option.

And how does that 24 months break down?

Planning takes a lot of time. I would budget six months for planning, to get to the point where you develop an advisory group or a development team to float the idea. After that, it’s about getting buy-in from the group, community and the press to set you up for the 18 months toward opening.

You seem to be big on community groups as foundations for your exhibitions?

Firstly you really have to enjoy working in your sector and care about it. We both believe the right approach in getting the industry together in the room whether you call it an Advisory Board or a Development Group. It’s a good place to present a concept and to get the information that you want and need. It sounds obvious but if you can get people together and get them to believe in you, it’s a great start. It helped with our US launch and at the end of the first meeting we had twenty-five people wanting to be part of the launch.

But it has to be more than a token gesture or a roundtable, right?

We are both passionate about industrial print and want InPrint to play a role in helping the market develop. So yes in our opinion a token gesture with people who know little about the market and are just going through the motions is not going to cut it.

We continue to run these development groups on a regular basis in the show cycle, they genuinely provide us with insight and we tend to bring in a couple of interesting speakers for the group to hear or share some research we have.

And we try to work with all the key research companies in the segments we operate in. That means we have a lot of strategic knowledge with our Mack Brooks partnership in terms of territories which matches the market trends we hold through our research and that helps attract the members to the groups.

Does that give you a level of authenticity?

Yes, and that is one of our cornerstones. You have to be authentic. Marcus and I have been in the print segment for 15 years so we’ve got knowledge and relationships, really strong relationships and have built a knowledge base which is really important in a challenging technology space.

What happens when you have the exhibition experience but not the sector experience?

I think it is difficult to launch into a market where you either do not have credibility or are ignorant of the issues, people and companies. So you will need that cornerstone of authenticity whether it’s an influencer from the industry, a partner or the trade magazine.

With our experience, we know how to launch and run events and build communities, but we don’t necessarily have the key stakeholder relationships in a new segment. If we were looking to launch a new show in a new market, we would be looking to work with a partner who does have these relationships and credibility and this makes it far more effective.

With our partnership with Mack Brooks we were the ‘guys with the ideas’ and have developed the concepts for new events and Mack Brooks was the big name in the exhibitions industry; which has the international credibility and the infrastructure & teams to deliver the shows. We recently helped Stephen to develop a new show idea in a growing industrial segment by bringing in someone who really knows this sector from their previous experience and that we knew was credible and is now based with us in our office in Leatherhead, so he can ‘mirror’ what we have done to build community as well as the exhibition.

Is it OK to make mistakes when launching exhibitions?

Oh yes. I’m a great advocate of fail fast and our investor (Stephen Brooks) understands that and he’s definitely got that mentality. We had a show that we launched with Stephen that didn’t work in its entirety; it worked at some levels but it didn’t work at other levels. It didn’t work as a trade show and so we had quite a tough decision to make which was, ‘Do we carry on doing this or do we stop and move on?’ 

Did that affect you in terms of confidence and self-belief?

Most definitely. We had some very stressful times and we were in a very dark place and of course, you get a bit of self-doubt creeping in. This is part of the journey. When you put your neck on the line, you feel the ups and downs far more than when you are in a normal job. So it affects you but Stephen backed us and asked us for another idea which was INPRINT. We launched it in 2014 and delivered 7,000 good quality visitors for our customers. Now it is part of the tradeshow calendar and we are launching the format in new territories. People like the show, it provides something new and unique, something the industry values and this is why it has been accepted. 

Here’s a question that has been floating around in my head for a while – would you premium charge on a new tradeshow launch?

It depends on the sector. But it would be very bold, though – a brand new market, trying to get people to pay to attend an event that’s never happened before, that’s hard, that’s really hard. That’s a fickle model. I would probably only use that model on a launch that had either a legal commitment or a finance or tech focus; that had a subject you absolutely need to know.

I feel that proprietary events are growing massively and impacting exhibitions, what are your views on them?

They are clever and they are effective because they bring in their audience, they nurture their little community; they do all the right things. They understand about their community, their business segment, they have people who are loyal, they have customers and they bring them all together in the environment. The question whether proprietary events need trade exhibitions?

Well, you could argue that; but then do you need one supermarket or five? And the market says five.

Do you feel exhibitions are getting more niche?

To a large extent they are. The world itself is more fragmented than it was back in the 1990’s. So focused events with focused content give people what they want. On top of that, I think peer to peer is another compelling requirement for today’s events. Peer to peer works because it allows people of similar status in the same industry to share ideas. We’re working on a conference idea with a table top meeting schedule. It has high-value content and high-value visitors…really high-value visitors.

That helps guarantees an audience in a place that traditional exhibitions can’t, right?

Yes. You know that you will get meetings with 20 profiled people who probably don’t go to exhibitions and you get them in an environment that works for the exhibitors. The question may be whether people truly want to have 20 meetings with suppliers. The challenge is to make it valuable for both the supplier and the buyer. If you have 5 relevant meetings and 15 marginal ones, I do not think this a good use of anyone’s time. 

Marcus is your partner in FM Brooks – what’s your history together?

We started working together at Reed Business Publications in the 90’s , then Brintex and then we worked together at FESPA and we left to set up FM Brooks. It’s interesting because both of us went to the same school, not at the same time because I’m ten years older than him; but we both did the same politics degree at university and then we ended up in this really technical environment – the industrial print segment – running events.

Marcus Timson - Frazer Chesterman

Marcus Timson - Frazer Chesterman

What does he bring to the relationship that you don’t?

Our similarities are that we are both creative and have similar views and values. But Marcus is a more marketing-focused individual and I am more sales focused. So you can guess that I have a more extrovert personality and he is more introvert, he is a better writer and I am a better networker etc. If we are doing a presentation together I do the big picture stuff and he does the analytics in the sense of ‘Thanks Frazer. That’s a good idea, but let’s look at the facts’.

So how does the personality dynamic work between you both?

The reality of any leader is that they’ve never got all the skills you need to truly lead. Marcus and I have different personalities and that holds a balance for us in business. We bounce off each other and share all the time. I believe that the sum of the two gives us an improved performance and much better than if either of us were doing it solo.

I have seen your timelines and it’s good to see senior people in the exhibition industry blogging. What’s your preferred format?

Well, we’ll do interviews on the phone, visit customers and depending on how interesting the content is we will write 500 to 2000 words and put it into the blog (industrialprintblog.com). These days you have such a powerful tool with the internet in order to build your network and share content. We profile companies, report on news, interview leaders and announce show developments. We use MailChimp and every time we write a blog it emails out to our database – it’s quite a good system. It’s really simple but in terms of building the community, it’s great. Of course, social media is also used to share our insight and helps connect us with new people all of the time. This is important with an evolving technology sector such as industrial print and we get excellent feedback about the blog all of the time.

Does the technical element of industrial print mean you can’t blag the blogs?

Yes, certainly you can’t write something without having the correct facts. It is a complex sector with a mix of engineering and chemistry making it challenging, to say the least. We see our role take the complexity out of the story to some extent and focus on the commercial angle. The reality is we have to go a lot deeper than the basics because we write a blog on a weekly basis, two or three articles, about our customers. It’s information that you can’t make up and by collaborating with our exhibitors we are able to get the stories right.

I find blogging a great platform to get conversations going.

It’s dynamic, isn’t it? But it’s a different dynamic in terms that anyone can write, comment and talk about things. It also helps you to gauge a market and test the popularity of any particular subject.

It adds to the accessibility of information that exhibitions, by their nature, can’t provide.

The way we live now means we’re about immediacy and a different pattern of behaviour, aren’t we? We are absolutely wanting more information all the time. I know that is true for me and for our market. Everyone is searching for the next big thing, and a tool such as the internet that has the immediacy and the ability to measure easily is extremely useful.

Do you think we could be utilising digital platforms better as organisers?

Yes, I think we could embrace it more and espouse it in the way that you could enhance our offerings. It is never enough. The internet is in constant development and things are happening all of the time. Whatever we do we try to be inspiring, interesting and authentic.

I’ve yet to enter the vlogging world – but you guys have given it a go right?

Yes, we do it all the time. It can be hit and miss but it doesn’t matter. It is about stickiness and giving someone a reason to contact you. We are just trying to capture mindshare and attention. It’s a reminder about us.

OK onto the personal round of questions, what’s your most used app on your phone?

The Booking.com app – with my travel it gets used and lot and it is just so easy.

What charities do you support?

I support various charities with financial donations and they are personal ones that are close to me but I prefer to do hands on charity work. That could be a local community project or supporting an event or helping paint a wall or driving people around.

What sort of exercise do you do?

I have only just stopped playing football which at the age of 52 isn’t a bad effort. It got to the point where I just couldn’t keep playing and I had my testimonial the other week, I just felt my knees couldn’t cope with 90 minutes anymore. So that aside, I will run, swim and play the occasional 5’a side, but not with any regularity.

So, do you have plans to keep busy now that football has been knocked on the head?

Well, I have a Vespa scooter. Nothing too outrageous. But there is a scooter club which does day trips that I will get involved in, they are all 50 years plus ex-mods, I’ve always been a bit retro, but riding in a big group of scooters is just brilliant!

Meditation. No time for that or an essential?

I can see the benefits of it but I don’t think I am the type of person that can do it. My mind can’t slow down to get to that level.

Do you hold grudges?

No. Well, I try not to. There is nothing positive that can come from them so I try to let them go.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being 100% content how happy are you?

I would say about an 8. I am in a good place at the moment and have been for the last couple of years. I hope that continues! And I just watched my football team AFC Wimbledon just got promoted to League 1 at Wembley with my three sons, so life just got any better!