Paul Colston explores the rising career of Mark Brewster (pictured below), CEO and co-founder of UK-based research specialists Explori.
Experienced London-based exhibition organiser Mark Brewster launched Explori 12 years ago with the idea of filling a gap in the market for quality research and benchmarks for the exhibition sector.
He has since gone on to work with most of the top exhibition organisers and industry associations, measuring 7,000 or so events and recently having launched yet another product, Maxbi, into this market.
Already quite a body of work and achievements for us to discuss, but I wanted to know what were the original project ideas, motivations and founding aims at the outset of Explori?
“I had worked for a period at a trade show specific research business and the opportunity with benchmarking was very clear, that it added value to clients and gave critical context for interpretation.”
Having worked on the Body Beautiful show in the UK, Mark launched a patient feedback measurement system for cosmetic surgeons and aestheticians. “I got quite far down the line but ran out of funding and executed badly. Although that particular opportunity didn’t come to fruition, I always believed in the value of benchmarking customer feedback so business can truly understand what good and bad looks like and raise their levels with evidence.”
The traditional boutique agency model may have proved not to be very scalable but Mark knew that software was.
That was back in 2007. Then followed a return to Mash Media running shows in London such as Beyond Boundaries and directing the company’s publishing strategy, including the younger self of this journalist!
By the time Mark was ready to strike out again with a desire to move into SaaS, he had secured the support of Arran Coole, from event technology specialists ASP.
First early success?
“Signing your first clients gives you confidence, of course, and one of my first deals was with Paul Byrom at Upper Street Events (now Immediate Media) who are still a loyal client today. Early adopters like Paul, saw our vision and understood the potential this level of insights and data could bring to their business and the wider exhibition industry.”
To deliver properly meant taking on board a lot of initial feedback and recalibration. More feint-hearted souls may have stalled at the prospect, but Mark Brewster is formidably methodical and, although it is somewhat overused terms these days, a ‘passionate’ advocate for the events industry.
“After the initial launch, we took the decision to rebuild the platform which was unbelievably painful. It took two years to deliver what our exhibition organiser clients needed,” he says.
Arran Coole provided development resource in those early stages, but Mark notes the first angel investor was Richard Armitage of Octanorm, in 2014, who remains a shareholder today. A couple of hundred thousand pounds enabled the business to scale up. “Not a lot of money, but it enabled us to go out and hire more developers and actually do some marketing,” says Mark.
A landmark moment was landing the first enterprise deals. The first international organiser to adopt Explori was ITE, now Hyve. Others followed: Comexposium, Informa Markets, Emerald Expositions and Clarion. “There was a realisation,” says Mark, “that collective intelligence is an incredibly valuable asset.”
He acknowledges that in some sectors it is harder to generate a good research response than others. “Fortunately trade shows are generally highly engaging experiences and lend themselves to achieving a strong survey response,” Mark adds. He identifies a key moment of critical mass in the business when Explori achieved a thousand events on the platform.
Mark recounts a meeting in with UFI CEO Kai Hattendorf where he showed some of the benchmarks and insights Explori was capable of delivering. “He saw it was a fantastic barometer of the health of the industry from the customer perspective,” Mark says. “What UFI wanted to do was better represent the voice of customer at their events and Explori was the perfect partner to help achieve this.”
Evidence of Explori’s dedication to the industry includes its commitment to producing global market research reports for the greater good of the industry.
Explori conducts research with the different stakeholder groups within the industry: organisers, exhibitors and attendees.
The Global Insights series continues to draw on an expanding customer database and more sophisticated benchmarking as well as various one-off industry studies to answer some of the most pressing questions that affect the industry at scale.
Explori had begun to launch into the corporate events world pre-pandemic, but, says Mark, reaching the upper echelons and global heads of events proved a challenge. “There was an absence of community of global heads of events. We had been hearing from individuals how lonely it was at the top, despite some small private groups having formed.”
In response to this feedback, Explori launched the Event Leaders Exchange (ELX) in 2022, which has grown to embrace a membership over 80 global corporate event leaders, delivers community benchmarking, an online community platform and two flagship annual congresses.
“We launched the inaugural global congress for ELX in Chicago, which had 60. While the attendance may seem small, our members steer billions of dollars of event spend,” says Mark, who chairs the business, which is a separate entity from Explori.
The Explori products keep coming. The latest baby to take its first steps is Maxbi – a measurement tool for exhibitors.
“Over many years in the exhibitions industry, I’ve come to understand the huge frustrations trade show organisers have over the performance of their exhibitors,” Mark explains.
“This frustration is mirrored by corporates around the world who struggle to effectively measure their exhibitor activity at trade shows.”
He says there are just two ways to make the trade show industry better: 1) You make shows better by supporting the organiser, and 2) You support the exhibitor to exhibit better. “The latter is the single most overlooked component of our entire industry. Exhibitor performance is at the crux of the organiser business model. In our years of working as a strategic partner to organisers, time and time again, we’ve seen that shows that are run with strong customer-centric culture and processes have enormous growth and resilience advantages over those that don’t,” says Mark.
Exhibiting, he reminds, is an expensive, resource exhaustive undertaking and to be so unmeasurable compared with other marketing channels poses a serious risk to the long-term health of the industry. “It is predictable that pressure to cut carbon emissions will soar, and this leaves trade shows increasingly exposed as probably the most carbon intensive and unmeasurable channel. It’s not that corporates don’t believe in the immense value of face-to-face; to the contrary, they know it’s the most valuable medium. Many corporates love their trade shows even more today than they did pre-pandemic. The challenge we hear time and again from senior corporate leaders is the pressure to cut emissions by shareholders – ultimately all exhibiting companies love their revenue and share price more than their trade shows.”
Most important, says Mark, is to measure Return on Objectives and strategic success, i.e. what inputs are predictive of delivering what outputs
Maxbi, he explains is a planning tool as well as a measuring tool. Fundamental to the product is to help exhibitors to perform better. At the moment it is an enterprise solution for corporates with large exhibit programmes, and Explori is in conversations with many organisers to distribute Maxbi to exhibitors in the near future.
“Return on Objectives is one of the over-arching metrics Maxbi measures,” says Mark, whether they be selling objectives, marketing objectives or other strategic objectives. They can set those objectives and targets in Maxbi, which will report both achieved results and satisfaction against outcomes.
Maxbi looks at budget efficacy, trade show characteristics and captures a variety of critical success metrics. “Exhibitors are not going to get better at exhibiting by accident or by the industry doing more of the same. At the crux of any informed strategy, you need robust data and it is woefully lacking for the vast majority of exhibitors. If, as an industry, we’re serious about helping exhibitors to get the best out of our channel, we have to step up and support their measurement and thus their ability to execute,” he says.
Is he worried that surveys will get eaten up by ChatGPT or facial recognition analysis, I wonder?
“Until somebody can invent a technology that can draw consistent, organised thoughts from your customers’ brains on what they’re going to do next, how they feel, what they understand etc, and put that into a database, the survey is an essential source of intelligence. I don’t think that technology is going to come any time soon.
And he reminds that Qualtrics, the world’s largest survey business, was recently sold from SAP to private equity for $12.5bn, seemingly demonstrating the need for surveys is alive and well, even in a world where we see significant disruption by generative AI.
Exhibitor performance: most overlooked
Mark Brewster is very much a champion of the entire exhibition ecosystem and believes exhibitor performance is the most overlooked, central, performance driving characteristic in the whole business model. “Every trade show organiser should have an exhibitor performance programme,” he says. “Now can we support exhibitors to come to shows with the realistic goals, well-prepared teams and viable engagement strategies so they can achieve their intended outcomes.
“SaaS organisations ensure that as well as a customer service function, they provide a programme focused on customer success. The SaaS industry recognises that their success relies on the experience of the user and the impact of their software on helping users meet their objectives. Unfortunately, in the main, the trade show industry is still too laissez-faire in how we support and de-risk exhibitor performance, as standard.”
What has been most instrumental in your success?
“The luck I have had attracting a talented team and business partners. Left to my own devices, this business would have failed early. I owe a huge amount to Arran Coole, Sophie Holt and many others who have put heart and soul into this business and supported me every step of the way,” says Mark.
Away from the crusading, and Mark Brewster is a family man with a penchant for snooker and one day would like to buy a place in France. Maybe there is a mellowing on the horizon. In that vein, what advice would he give his younger self?
“Talk less, listen more, and be patient.” Now, if only there was a way of measuring that.