Hugh Jones breathed a sigh of relief as he opened the doors to find 40,000 people dressed as their favourite superheroes.
“I looked at all these wonderful Spider-Men and Wonder Women. And that’s when I said: wow, we’re back,” said Jones, who is head of the exhibitions division of UK analytics business Relx. It counts the annual New York Comic Con fan convention held every October, which attracts as many as 200,000 visitors, among the many events it manages.
“I started running the [cash] register because we had so much demand that the lines were getting crazy. I knew if people are willing to go to restaurants or Comic Con, business [events], that’s easy.”
For Relx and other UK-listed rivals such as Informa and Ascential, the business of corporate conferences had not been easy for some time. In a normal year, Jones runs about 500 events, hosting roughly 7mn attendees in almost 30 different countries.
During the coronavirus pandemic, many of these events were cancelled because of the global lockdown. Categorised as “Covid losers”, analysts wondered whether people would ever want to be shoulder to shoulder in crowded halls as online alternatives — and their providers — proliferated and prospered.
“The public discourse was: no one is ever going to meet anyone ever again. That the value of the business is going to disappear,” said Stephen Carter, chief executive of Informa, which was forced to raise £1bn early in the pandemic.
“We of course said that isn’t what’s going to happen because these products aren’t just conferences and events,” he added. “They’re fundamental to the way in which markets transact and connect buyers and sellers.”
Phil Thomas, who oversees Cannes Lions and Money20/20 as head of Ascential’s events business, said: “We didn’t know if [the recovery in events] was going to happen. We hoped so and ultimately it did . . . we can’t see why human beings will not want to spend time together.”
This argument was not widely accepted for some time because of the pandemic. But now conference providers from Relx to Clarion Events say people are eager to return.
Relx said on Thursday that sales at its exhibitions business rose more than 27 per cent in the first half of 2023 to £545mn, with average like-for-like revenue running ahead of pre-pandemic levels.
Informa said revenues for the first half year grew 53 per cent to £1.5bn, with pre-tax profit rising almost eight-fold compared with the previous year.
“We spent the last three years with people asking us the question: is this business ever going to go back to 2019? We’re actually now beyond 2019,” said Carter. “You’re seeing strong growth in every one of our major markets.”
Revenues in Informa’s business events operations are expected to top £3bn this year, according to a consensus of 10 analyst forecasts, higher than 2019. Informa’s biggest shows include Arab Health, which generates more than £40mn and hosts 70,000 people, and the China Beauty Expo, which makes more than £25mn in revenues and attracts more than 100,000 attendees.
Customers are “really hungry” for events, Carter said. “No one has done face-to-face business development for two and a half years.”
Lisa Hannant, chief executive of Clarion, the Blackstone-backed UK-based events business, said the industry was in better shape now than before the pandemic. “Some events are 20 per cent larger now. There is a real need to do things in person.”
Thomas said that Ascential revenues had grown by a fifth between 2019 and 2022. “There has been a significant bounce back,” he said. “You’re providing a business development opportunity; to create networks and learn. People really miss it.”
The rebound in corporate events has been helped by the attempts of many cities to encourage the return of overseas travellers. Many places that host large events are controlled by the city or local government, which see events as a boost to their economies.
“They view it as a magnet to draw business tourism,” said Carter. “So therefore, their primary driver in many places is not to maximise the venue price.”
Some locations — including Hong Kong — are even offering significant subsidies for event organisers to bring back lucrative business audiences.
China — one of the last to exit Covid lockdowns — is now powering growth, albeit often based on strong local demand rather than international travellers.
“The speed with which they have turned the lights back on was a living embodiment of fast China,” said Carter. “The China economy is back. It’s open, it’s trading, it’s transacting, it’s buying, it’s selling, it’s distributing. It’s bringing new products to market; supply chains are refilling.”
Jones agreed there has “been a great deal of pent-up demand in China . . . they very much would like to recapture that share of mind on the world stage when they have products and services to sell”.
Organisers say that visitor numbers may take time to rebound for all events, however. Jones said that companies may be less inclined to send large groups of executives overseas simply as business “tourists” given the cost and the environmental impact of travel.
But he added that “visitors who do come generally have the authority, [and are] more senior people. You don’t clutter up the exhibitors’ stand with visitors that are not going to buy.”
He cited the tens of thousands of people who visit yacht shows. “If you are trying to sell yachts, it’s one thing to have thousands of people go in front of your boat, that’s lovely. But you really want to talk to people who are actually in the boat market to buy.”
Business events have evolved since the days of cramped booths in vast halls offering free mints and branded pens. Both Informa and Relx talk up the data potential of their operations, using the details of attendees to match meetings and offer extra services.
“All of this is really designed so that buyers can meet sellers more efficiently, more accurately, more productively, in order to create more dynamic and more efficient markets,” said Carter.
Informa was also spurred by the pandemic into investing more into the technology of its events.
“When the whole world closed down, we had to invest at scale and quickly in our technology to be able to stay in touch with our customers, to improve our data, to improve our data collection.”
For Jones, this has changed the experience for Relx’s customers, such as compiling meeting lists before the show and then a digital log of who you have met and their details that will avoid the traditional glut of business cards.
Using artificial intelligence, Relx can suggest to customers what they might like to see or who to visit based on their preferences. “We can begin to use digital technology to make every step you take as efficient as possible,” he said. “People who go to the shows are really very focused and make sure every moment matters.”