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The Big Interview: Andrew B Morris

Andrew B. Morris, Leadership Investor in The Event Academy Ltd, talks about his venue management career and leadership challenges ahead

How do you look back on your venue career at NEC, EC&O/Business Design Centre and how does that compare with working on the organiser side?

I fell into the events sector because my dad, Sam, went on a mission to save the Royal Agricultural Hall and turn it into the Business Design Centre and then installed me to run it. I had to learn fast. We assembled a great team and had to make Islington - which was like Outer Mongolia in those days - an attractive place to come. But bravery and ignorance can be huge advantages and, after many long days, we made it work. 

EC&O (Earls Court & Olympia) was a very different story. The challenge was to make our customers love us again, in the face of big new competition from ExCel. Again, a driven team rose to the task and, with investment in facilities and service, we got there. Getting behind Clarion was a great advantage - venues with organising capability remains the best business model. The NEC had to change its culture from council to commercial, which a leadership programme delivered. I was supported by a brilliant chairman in Roger Dickens, who tragically died of cancer during my tenure. Our bold master plan for the site has been skilfully executed under Paul Thandi who led the recent MBO which I tried to pull off but failed due to poor timing and impatience. 

Are larger venues a little spoiled? Do they give good value? 

Despite some great large scale venues in the UK, the country’s largest events do still have a limited choice on where they are hosted, with an even shorter list if they choose to be within the border of Greater London. This gives the biggest spaces in the country a host of guaranteed bookings where they simply can’t be contained elsewhere. 

How do you view the state of the UK’s conference market – as opposed to the exhibition side of the business? 

Many events once considered solely conferences are supported by an ever-increasing exhibition element so the two work well together provided you get the balance right. The ability for conferences to be established with a shorter lead time is seeing current topics being addressed in real time, supported by a host of digital communications that allow attendees to consume content in a way that is in keeping with their lifestyles. Our thirst for learning and desire to meet new people will keep conference organisers healthy forever.

Why did you decide to chair at the Event Academy? 

I have always felt that the sector lacked fresh talent to create real growth and was impressed with the quality of the courses and the lecturers who are all from the industry, not academics. So being part of an organisation that can contribute to a better future in terms of people and training got me excited. We are already No. 1 in the sector and intend to become the ‘Harvard’ of events, so watch this space.

Who was your industry mentor in your early career?  

Probably my dad, who had many bad habits but left me with the good ones. He taught me the human side of business, how to negotiate and the importance of not taking yourself too seriously.

What single piece of advice would you give a young professional starting out keen to work in events? 

While a strong network and good contacts are still important for a career in events, these days it also helps to have an accredited course or training under your belt to be taken seriously. This is exactly what the Event Academy courses are all about. They will make you work-ready, give you confidence and provide a valuable network for your career.

How do you see the future of the industry in the UK, post Brexit? 

The economic situation has already opened the doors allowing the move for international events previously unable to afford to bring their events to London, making the UK as a whole a more attractive and cost-effective destination. The UK may also retain its national event business as opposed to seeing events held abroad. With financial uncertainty there will be companies that choose to cut their spend on ancillary activities such as events. Brexit presents a chance to establish fresh opportunities.

Is the government doing enough to support the events industry? 

No, and it probably never will. One of our strengths is our ability to stand on our own two feet without government support. This imbues more creativity and entrepreneurial spirit than you’ll see anywhere else.

Are our big UK cities (London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow) in danger of losing out to a more powerful, better financed global events industry? 

I don’t think so. The UK has a focused events community attuned to knowledge sharing with great organisations such as the Association of Event Venues (AEV). Birmingham is welcoming back the Commonwealth Games to the UK for the first time since it was held in Manchester in 2002 and the SEC in Glasgow has undergone major investment leading the way in sustainability at venues. Many first class sporting events take place in Cardiff and with nearby Celtic Manor’s Wales ICC, it can’t be discounted as a key event city, too. 

Venues are constantly evolving to address the needs of a changing industry. In London, the BDC has implemented the first bespoke venue exhibitor ordering platform. It has changed the way the business functions and such innovations will ensure UK cities remain firmly on the map for organisers.

Where are the biggest threats to the UK event industry coming from? 

Lack of talent to efficiently execute new ideas. I hope the merger of UBM and Informa [see p.15 - ed] brings about a new investment in training using their huge resources to raise standards and innovation.

I fell into the events sector because my dad, Sam, went on a mission to save the Royal Agricultural Hall and turn it into the Business Design Centre and then installed me to run it. I had to learn fast. We assembled a great team and had to make Islington - which was like Outer Mongolia in those days - an attractive place to come. But bravery and ignorance can be huge advantages and, after many long days, we made it work. 

EC&O (Earls Court & Olympia) was a very different story. The challenge was to make our customers love us again, in the face of big new competition from ExCel. Again, a driven team rose to the task and, with investment in facilities and service, we got there. Getting behind Clarion was a great advantage - venues with organising capability remains the best business model. The NEC had to change its culture from council to commercial, which a leadership programme delivered. I was supported by a brilliant chairman in Roger Dickens, who tragically died of cancer during my tenure. Our bold master plan for the site has been skilfully executed under Paul Thandi who led the recent MBO which I tried to pull off but failed due to poor timing and impatience. 

Are larger venues a little spoiled? Do they give good value? 

Despite some great large scale venues in the UK, the country’s largest events do still have a limited choice on where they are hosted, with an even shorter list if they choose to be within the border of Greater London. This gives the biggest spaces in the country a host of guaranteed bookings where they simply can’t be contained elsewhere. 

How do you view the state of the UK’s conference market – as opposed to the exhibition side of the business? 

Many events once considered solely conferences are supported by an ever-increasing exhibition element so the two work well together provided you get the balance right. The ability for conferences to be established with a shorter lead time is seeing current topics being addressed in real time, supported by a host of digital communications that allow attendees to consume content in a way that is in keeping with their lifestyles. Our thirst for learning and desire to meet new people will keep conference organisers healthy forever.

Why did you decide to chair at the Event Academy? 

I have always felt that the sector lacked fresh talent to create real growth and was impressed with the quality of the courses and the lecturers who are all from the industry, not academics. So being part of an organisation that can contribute to a better future in terms of people and training got me excited. We are already No. 1 in the sector and intend to become the ‘Harvard’ of events, so watch this space.

Who was your industry mentor in your early career?  

Probably my dad, who had many bad habits but left me with the good ones. He taught me the human side of business, how to negotiate and the importance of not taking yourself too seriously.

What single piece of advice would you give a young professional starting out keen to work in events? 

While a strong network and good contacts are still important for a career in events, these days it also helps to have an accredited course or training under your belt to be taken seriously. This is exactly what the Event Academy courses are all about. They will make you work-ready, give you confidence and provide a valuable network for your career.

How do you see the future of the industry in the UK, post Brexit? 

The economic situation has already opened the doors allowing the move for international events previously unable to afford to bring their events to London, making the UK as a whole a more attractive and cost-effective destination. The UK may also retain its national event business as opposed to seeing events held abroad. With financial uncertainty there will be companies that choose to cut their spend on ancillary activities such as events. Brexit presents a chance to establish fresh opportunities.

Is the government doing enough to support the events industry? 

No, and it probably never will. One of our strengths is our ability to stand on our own two feet without government support. This imbues more creativity and entrepreneurial spirit than you’ll see anywhere else.

Are our big UK cities (London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow) in danger of losing out to a more powerful, better financed global events industry? 

I don’t think so. The UK has a focused events community attuned to knowledge sharing with great organisations such as the Association of Event Venues (AEV). Birmingham is welcoming back the Commonwealth Games to the UK for the first time since it was held in Manchester in 2002 and the SEC in Glasgow has undergone major investment leading the way in sustainability at venues. Many first class sporting events take place in Cardiff and with nearby Celtic Manor’s Wales ICC, it can’t be discounted as a key event city, too. 

Venues are constantly evolving to address the needs of a changing industry. In London, the BDC has implemented the first bespoke venue exhibitor ordering platform. It has changed the way the business functions and such innovations will ensure UK cities remain firmly on the map for organisers.

Where are the biggest threats to the UK event industry coming from? 

Lack of talent to efficiently execute new ideas. I hope the merger of UBM and Informa [see p.15 - ed] brings about a new investment in training using their huge resources to raise standards and innovation.