With me, it’s very much work hard, play hard

Sallie Coventry, Portfolio Director, ibtm events.

Sallie joined Reed Exhibitions in February 2014 to head up the ibtm events portfolio, having previously held the position of Managing Director of W&O, a London based, full service event management agency. Under her guidance, ibtm events has undergone significant change including a rebrand and the creation of new event formats, whilst preserving focus on the importance of creating connections within the industry.

Sallie strives to promote the value of live events and of face to face communications in today’s business world. Her passion is to work in partnership, with customers and her own team, to create win-win outcomes. She also believes in challenging the status quo and continually striving to raise the standards of operational excellence. 

Quickfire Questions

Name, job title

Sallie Coventry Portfolio Director, ibtm events. 

What’s your most vivid memory?

Being in a school play when I was about 12. Mostly because I’m a bit of a drama queen.

If you could change something about yourself, what would it be?

I’d like to be more patient.

If you could have any other profession, what would it be?

Coaching.

Where’s your favourite place?

The seaside. It doesn’t matter where, just anywhere by the sea.

What do you fear most?

I don’t think I really fear anything.

What do you cherish the most?

My friends and family.

What would you like people to learn from you?

About how amazing our industry is. 

Talk through your journey in the event industry and how you arrived at Reed Exhibitions.

Well, when I first started I didn’t even know the events industry existed, as I think probably a lot of people from my generation didn’t. I did a modern languages degree and I temped for a company in my summer holidays for my year abroad who ran events and thought, ‘Oh my god, you get paid to do this?!’ So that was my first foray into events. I moved around quite a bit when I first joined the industry because I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do, and from then I found a home at W&O working on pharmaceutical events which I really enjoyed, as for me it felt good to be doing something that was potentially chaining the world, in terms of cures or treatments. Then I thought I could bring that experience to Reed from being a buyer at our shows, but also an events organiser. So that’s the quick 20-year summary!

 

You had a lot of success at W&O, share with our readers how you achieved that.

Well I definitely feel it’s a bit of ‘right place, right time’, but that would do injustice to the team we had, running the great events. So it had it’s own life and momentum in that we do a great event and then the word of mouth recommendations would travel to other clients within organisations.

But I think like with any event, you can’t sit on your laurels, you can’t just assume that what you did last year is going to be what the client wants this year, and is going to win you the business back.

You’ve got to keep innovating and keep raising the bar, and obviously coming from an agency background, you always have to think ‘how do you streamline, how do you make more efficiencies, how do you keep your prices key?’ Consequently I think we were never complacent about the business we had, and I think that was part of our success. And also having a great team of likeminded people - to this day it’s the best team I’ve ever worked with. It was magic.

 

Explain to me the role of a Portfolio Director.

So essentially my role is really looking after the brand and the strategy, and certainly when I joined Reed, whilst there were some really good, strong individual shows in their market, there was no umbrella. There was no coherence and I remember doing the research for my interview and realising that we had shows in China - I didn’t even know that! And actually when I was agency side I was increasingly being asked to do more and more work in China, and if I’d have known I could’ve gone to China with ibtm, that would’ve made me so happy because I’d have felt like I was in safe hands. So that was one of my abiding things when I joined, that we’re missing an opportunity to take people around the world, whether they’re suppliers or buyers. One of my colleagues always talks about the McDonald’s analogy - you go in the front door and you know exactly what to expect. It’s that brand assurance, that safe pair of hands.

So I guess that’s been very much my vision - bringing it together in the first instance and then revisiting that agency mentality of raising the bar every show every year and keeping it relevant to the local market. So what we do in the Middle East is different to what we do in China and different to what we do in South America, but there’s that red thread, that commonality across the portfolio so that if you come to any one of our shows there are going to be these things that are a cert, and you will get them wherever you go. So that’s been a big part of my role as Portfolio Director, to answer your question. Now we’re beyond that and we’re looking at ‘what next?’, looking at what the industry is going to need of us in three years time and how we start building that into our portfolio.

How does that work in practice?

Well you’ve also got massive cultural differences in different markets. I run a team of 45 people in 5 countries, but underlying all of that, people are still people. From a management perspective I really hold on to that - there is of course layers of cultural difference, but actually what makes them tick underneath is the same wherever they are.

In terms of management style, with me it’s very much work hard play hard - doing the hard work then going down the pub with everyone afterwards. We do things like ‘Friday biscuit challenge’ because we have a very international team and not everybody in our office had the same upbringing, so each week, somebody on a Friday will bring in a different childhood biscuit and we’ll all have that with our morning tea. And that all started because somebody didn’t know what fig rolls were, but it’s actually become something surprisingly important. We spend a lot of time together and you need to know each other and have fun, whilst at the end of the day dealing with the serious business we’re all here for. It’s important to me to keep that balance.

 

How do you see expanding your portfolio, is it all geographic expansion?

We get approached regularly, and I think my mandate at the moment is make what we’ve got the best it could be and then we’ll worry about new markets. I think what differentiates us from all the other competition in terms of trade show organisers is our global reach. We have more shows in more countries than anyone else, and we are on a continual journey of improvement. I think I’m probably more interested in sustaining what we’ve got currently than copying that into more geographies.

You need to know each other and have fun, whilst at the end of the day dealing with the serious business we’re all here for

How do you see expanding your portfolio, is it all geographic expansion?

We get approached regularly, and I think my mandate at the moment is make what we’ve got the best it could be and then we’ll worry about new markets. I think what differentiates us from all the other competition in terms of trade show organisers is our global reach. We have more shows in more countries than anyone else, and we are on a continual journey of improvement. I think I’m probably more interested in sustaining what we’ve got currently than copying that into more geographies.

 

Tradeshows have become a hybrid between show floor and education, do you see lots of areas for innovation in the space?

What’s interesting is we changed the format of our shows in the Middle East and the US for the first time last year, to what we’ve called a ‘Pod format’. This is essentially a one-to-one ratio of buyers and suppliers and we pre construct the ‘pod’, but what’s important is everybody’s under one roof, so it’s still got the signature of Reed and trade shows and the professionalism with which that’s done, but it’s that community and experience. For instance we were in Nashville this year for our US show and they were fabulous hosts, and one of the most effective parts was the Discovery Day where delegates could experience and learn about the city. And some of the best business I’ve ever done is in the bar in the evening afterwards, it’s not over the table at the event. So it’s about finding more ways to bring that to life, and I definitely think the role and format of trade shows is evolving to accommodate that. And you see that increasingly across not just our portfolio, but all of Reed Exhibitions.

Looking at the live events market we’ve seen growth of over £12 billion in revenues in the last four years, how do you explain the growing importance of live events?

We have to stop looking within and talking amongst ourselves, and communicate in a credible business manner about the value of what we’re doing to people at the C-suite around the boardroom table. Because events are going on in every organisation all of the time, it’s just not labelled as such. And 9 times out of 10 an event is taking place because they’re trying to change something, change behaviour, change thinking - that requires a different kind of language than talking about day delegate rates, and projection. We have the capability, and it’s almost like we now have to give ourselves permission to think and talk about ourselves differently. But it is gathering momentum for that support and it’s really exciting for our industry.

 

What are your views on technology within the events industry?

It’s essential, but it also has to be effective.

It saddens me when I see organisations spend a lot of money on technology because it looks good, without really getting the best benefit.

And I think that colours their opinion - they spend thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands and it was just to have a really fancy screen. So it’s got to have a purpose. And I think technology is a great way to extend the life of an event beyond the two or three days, and actually really checking in on what we were setting out to do, and did we do it? 

And that’s where we’ve got to become better consultants to our clients, our stakeholders, and say, ‘that’s great, but why don’t we spend that money on doing X Y Z?’, and certainly when I was agency side, we’d always take it back to ‘what is the real reason here? is it education, awareness, whatever?’. Then everything gets judged on whether it’s going to deliver on that or not. So you don’t do it just because it’s some whizz bang thing.

 

Do you think there’s an opportunity for the event person to be in the Plc boardroom instead of just the agency boardroom?

You know, I’m an optimist at heart and I’d love to say yes, but I think we’re a long way off. Certainly having joined a big company from a smaller agency, I see so many other things which take priority - HR get’s a seat at the table, Marketing, Sales - and events kind of cross all that really. I aspire to it but I think it’s a long way off. And only when we start changing the way we talk about ourselves and the way we promote ourselves externally, will that change.

 

And that starts with some sort of measurement. How do Reed handle that?

There is no one size fits all answer. When we look at our exhibitors, they can have vastly different ways of measuring ROI so it can be something as simple as more appointments at a trade show, other people look at business generated etc, there’s no cookie cutter approach. What we value is that ‘people buy people’ at the end of the day and even in events it’s that collaboration and doing business with likeminded people and that’s a very hard thing to measure. But I remember reading a quite from Simon Snick’s book ‘Start with Why’ and it’s ‘Happy People, Happy Customers, Happy Shareholders’, and I always come back to that. I think that’s one of my greatest priorities as a leader, to create that atmosphere of transparency, openness and positivity that makes people want to come to work, feel like they can talk to us if they’ve had a bad day, and ultimately just create a sense of purpose about what we do.

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