Niche business, by design
CN meets Business Design Centre’s CEO Dominic Jones to find out what’s new in the Islington set.
What has the year to date brought BDC in terms of events business and what have been the highlights and the challenges?
So far this year we have welcomed a record number of new shows to the venue. The conference team are seeing more multi-day events and the technology sector is definitely making up a large part of this.
Has there been any new business strategy or change of emphasis and targets over the year?
The event’s industry is well versed when it comes to the main exhibition space at the venue; the grandeur of the main hall is the backdrop to many great events. Our conference centre, however, is still a relatively hidden gem and that’s the story we have been telling this year. Focusing on building strong relationships with businesses that really get it has proven to be the key to growth.
What investments have been made at the venue?
We have recently invested heavily in the fabric of the building both to the front façade and access as well as implementing a new look for the brand. Technologically, the upgrades we have made to the conference centre will provide faster internet for the events.
A listed building is an amazing space to be able to hold events and run a business from but it’s important to remember you are a custodian of its history and maintaining the venue is integral to preserving its future.
What trends have you been seeing in the conference and events market?
There has been a shift in recent years in the experience you get from events. Whether B2B or B2C, we are definitely seeing a move towards ensuring that the events are engaging and offer the visitor an experience that they wouldn’t otherwise get.
This can be seen at some of our B2B shows, such as the Aviation Festival – the event is complex in nature but the experience as well as the quality of the exchanges that delegates can take away is unparalleled. Companies like Terrapinn are really pushing business events to the next level, where the experience is akin to a consumer model.
Are there certain event profiles/sectors that you feel the venue is best suited to or that you pursue above others?
The venue was conceived as a hybrid of office and showroom space, partnered with events of a similar design nature. Although the initial concept of design has diversified, our core trade caters for those doing business. We welcome all sectors but there is a great synergy between the great brands that call the venue home and the calendar of events that we host.
How does the sourcing of meetings and events break down, in terms of direct bookings, online enquiries, agency bookings, own events?
We’re lucky to have some great returning events throughout the year, some have been coming back for decades now, but our team are really proactive and get out to meet face to face as much as possible. We have a mix of direct and agency bookings. It would appear that some agency models are changing to try and promote a better client-venue relationship.
What are the advantages of a fairly central London venue and what are the specific challenges?
Access is obviously key. In two and a half hours you can get to the venue from the north of England, even Paris or Berlin. London is one of the most well connected cities in the world and we are on the doorstep of services such as the Eurostar. The challenge with London is space. You can’t just build an extra hall onto the venue and unfortunately this means events will sometimes outgrow us.
However, we’ve benefitted massively from the growing demand for high quality niche events in an area that provides both visitors and exhibitors the opportunity to get out and socialise.
How does the venue differentiate itself from the competition?
We pride ourselves on the level of service we offer, from the front desk to the open door of the management office. We work very hard on integrating our people into our culture to create a warm atmosphere within which we encourage people to thrive.
What are the issues that keep you awake at night? Is Brexit or recruiting staff among them?
The decision to Brexit and its consequences is an unnecessary and, in my view, a retrograde step, but having three young daughters keeps me awake at night.
What sustainability initiatives are you working on?
Plastic. It’s on the forefront of the agenda and should be for everyone. We worked hard over recent years, reducing waste, reducing energy consumption, lowering our footprint and have been operating as a carbon neutral venue for almost 10 years. Sending zero waste to landfill was one of the best initiatives but now we’re refocusing. We are working closely to make sure that our partners are on the same page; providing reusables as well as installing free water points are two currently in progress but there’s not a point where we should stop. In events some waste is still inevitable, but putting effective practices in place and continuing to take the lead is something that we need to hold as a high priority.
How did you come to begin a career in the event industry?
A friend introduced me to Andrew and Jack Morris and to Chris Hughes (Brand Events) and I was immediately enthused at the chance of working with them and in a young, start-up venue like the BDC.
Who was an early influencer/mentor in your career and what career advice do you remember well?
I’ve had the privilege of working with some really talented people such as the guys above. Both Jack and Andrew Morris have been great influencers on my career and I still have the pleasure of their wisdom today. In terms of career advice someone said to me when I took over as CEO of the BDC, ‘Just be yourself and you’ll be fine’ – 19 years on that advice has stood me in good stead.
What of your time at Upper Street Events? What were the highlights and challenges there and how did it prepare you for the venue role later?
I loved my time at Upper Street, both in its very early years (when it was BDC events) and then latterly when we created Upper Street Events and I had (main BDC Group) board responsibility for its success. We ran some great shows many of which are still going today (London Art fair, the Country Living fairs, New Designers, Cycle) and I had a variety of roles from sales to marketing across all our events. I learned a huge amount in that time but none more so than how critical your people are and how, if you look after and nurture them, they will give their all for you. We sold it however at exactly the right time from our perspective and that of the USE management.
What would you say to a young event professional starting out in their career?
The same as I say to my kids: talent will get you so far but there’s no substitute for really hard work, the right attitude and being brave when required.
What would you have done differently in your career?
I’ve had the most fantastic career, worked with some brilliant people and in an ever changing building and sector I love. The grass is rarely greener and I’m very grateful for the career I have.
One thing the industry could do better and/or needs to change?
The industry needs to punch above its weight through its various trade associations and be taken more seriously by government as a major source of revenue for the British economy, especially post Brexit.