Meeting UFI’s new Mr president

Paul Colston gets new UFI president and CEO of dmg events Geoff Dickinson’s views on the state of the industry and the association’s strategy going into 2024.

How do you assess the recent UFI Congress in Las Vegas, its highlights and the key questions and challenges that arose from the sessions and debates?

It has been an UFI Congress for the history books. With around 500 colleagues from all over the world coming to Vegas, it was one of the biggest Congresses in UFI’s history. With 65 speakers, we had more voices on the stages than ever before. With the launch of the North America Chapter, it leaves a very special legacy.

The programme was built around the five issues that are currently ‘top of mind’ for our industry – the changing customer expectations, staffing and talent, digitisation and AI, sustainability, and geopolitical and economic developments. I personally got great input for my company on each of these issues from the speakers and conversations around. In my view there is a consensus that we must stay united as an industry and keep pushing for faster implementation of carbon reduction measures as per our all ‘Net Zero Carbon Events’ initiative published guidance and best practices. And I am eager to discuss the inputs from this year’s ‘UFI Next Generation Leaders’ on how to update what we offer on and around the show floors.


Is the global exhibition industry truly able to ‘Go Beyond’ now that we are fully open for business again? In which areas do you see the most promise and in where do the key challenges lie in the way of growth?

Yes, I believe the events industry can go beyond. As human beings, we simply achieve more and do better things when they work together. This is when we share new ideas, embrace new technologies, and collaborate on issues to build a better future – such as diversity/inclusion and sustainability.

As an industry we have often been overly margin focussed, and I think we need to think beyond that. Events have an important purpose to deliver thought leadership content and a show floor that delivers the innovations that allow an industry to evolve. For them to do this, we need to invest in more innovative and engaging content to satisfy our customers of today and tomorrow.

We also need to be more sustainable. This may reduce margins but that does not mean profits will go down. A standardised average event offering could have a revenue of $10m and a profit of $5m and a gross margin of 50% – but with better content and more engaged customers, revenues could double to $20m with a reduced margin of 35% but a gross profit of $7m.

So, while better content and investing into customers’ expectations such as diversity/inclusion and sustainability will reduce margins – we will potentially be rewarded for this investment with more customer support and increased revenues and higher profits.

I believe, from the discussions at the Congress, that organisers are seeing the need to evolve and be better and that the industry will deal with the challenges ahead, embrace the opportunities and become stronger and better. The NGL session at the Congress clearly set out the vision of future leaders in our industry for change and the audience fully understood and supported this.


What are your goals for your tenure as UFI president and how do you see the association moving forward and what are the priority areas?

First and foremost, UFI is always there to serve our global membership. We discuss and decide everything through this lens in the leadership. There is continuity in the programmes and services that we run and provide – with a strong call for advocacy on industry issues, a growing ask for UFI run educational programmes, with the world class UFI research, and of course the UFI events around the world.

And I want to empower UFI further to facilitate our industry’s journey towards Net Zero emissions. We cannot do this alone – we need to engage with our suppliers and discuss ways we can achieve this together. During my presidency I want us to reach out to our supply chains such as airlines, hotels, venues, stand contractors to seek solutions to help us on the long journey towards fulfilling a net zero pledge.

At the same time, I will work with the team to always develop UFI as an organisation. We will roll out our new membership fee model under my presidency – something I was deeply involved in from the beginning. It will make things easier both for the members and the UFI tram. And we have a new regional chapter for North America that we want to establish well as a collaborational actor in the region.


What is the one thing you are keenest to change about the industry and, indeed, UFI?

I don’t want to change the industry or UFI. I love this industry, I have a huge regard and respect, and am honoured to serve UFI as its president. We simply need to continue as we have always done: to never be complacent, to constantly evolve and to embrace new technologies to serve our customers better. For this, as I said before, we need to continue to push diversity and equality and be an industry with opportunities for everyone. We need to constantly innovate new and compelling content to adapt to customer demands. And we need to become more sustainable for the good of the planet and to serve our staff and customers.


How do you see AI and its likely effect on the exhibition sector globally?

It is very early to truly assess the impact that generative AI like ChatGPT will have for our business. UFI will list AI as one of our ‘5 trends to watch in 2024’, and we will cover developments regularly throughout the year.

I see some good potential for ‘wins’ for our industry: In a secure data space, we can use AI with general visitor customer information to build more relevant conference and exhibition floor content for our customers. We can use AI to target more effectively the right audience for our exhibitors and sponsors, and to identify potential exhibitors, sponsors, speakers. Also, AI can help source content for websites or event community sites to present up to the minute information year-round for customers and to source market data and stats.


Talent and recruitment are often seen as key challenges now as organisers and suppliers seek to bring in the best staff available. How can we widen the net for recruitment and let the wider world know about opportunities in our businesses?

The new staffing narrative that the UFI NGL group developed is great, and we have adapted that into a much-discussed White Paper for the industry. For me, a key message in this guidance is that we should be positive about our unique ability to bring in people from literally every other industry and with all different backgrounds and career experiences.

In the 80’s and 90’s most people who went into events came from magazine publishing because they could imagine advertisers as exhibitors and readers as visitors and they often came from the same sector e.g., from a construction magazine to a construction event.

So, we should be open minded about recruitment and think what types of people from other industries could work well in events we operate and how we can attract them. The attractiveness comes back to the sense of purpose – if we can deliver fantastic content, and exciting, engaging events that help industries evolve for a better future and we achieve this – then there is a huge sense of job satisfaction.


How do you assess the recent failings of much hyped virtual event platforms? What role do expect virtual events to play in the near future?

They will be embedded into and around the physical, face to face events. Exhibitions in some form or other have been around for thousands of years and have seen huge advances in technology which have all ended up being not a threat but a benefit. Technology has often been viewed as a threat when in reality it has helped events grow and develop.

Virtual platforms were incredibly valuable during Covid, helping organisers to maintain customer connections and to serve the industries they represent with valuable information.

Having virtual options now gives organisers the opportunity to deliver some of the key content from the conference or the exhibitor floor to people who could not attend in person. This extends the events reach and its customer service and is therefore highly beneficial. Our industry learnings about virtual events during the pandemic will help us to make our physical events reach more customers and serve our industries better.


How is the industry progressing in terms of meeting the sustainability goals set by the UN and adopted by UFI? How do you expect to lead on this issue and what is the feedback on this big issue in general from members?

We’re all in this together, and I am very happy that UFI continues to drive many of the core developments within the Net Zero Carbon Events Initiative. Trade Shows and exhibitions make up between 25% and 33% of the total event industry globally, depending on the numbers you are using – so we are a vital part of the whole global events industry, and are keen to do our part in moving the whole sector towards Net Zero.

It is breath-taking and encouraging to see how much had been accomplished there in just two years, and the onus will be on us all going forward to ensure we implement properly what the initiative advised us on, as all their recommendations are based on many of the best and brightest of our industry putting their heads together on this.


What can you say on UFI’s new move into North America with the setting up of a chapter there?

It is not a “new move”, it is simply an organisational response to growing member needs. UFI has been a part of the industry ecosystem there for a long time already.

UFI runs chapters in global regions where we have a relevant share of members of at least 5% of our global membership. And our membership numbers rise constantly across North America. Right now, 7% of all UFI members are from North America, and more than 25% of our members have subsidiaries or relevant business there, even if their headquarters are based elsewhere.

Through the North America chapter, we will be able to make better connections for UFI members from the region. And we can better assist and support members from other parts of the world in finding contacts and business partners in North America. 


What new issues are likely to be bubbling up for future discussions at UFI forums in the near future?

As every year, we will release UFI’s ‘5 trends to watch’ in December, listing the themes that are driving board room discussions around the industry. And we will programme the content for the regional conferences in the coming months around these.

How are you approaching Global Exhibitions Day and what are the messages we should be promoting collectively there this year?

In 2024, GED will take place on 5 June. Traditionally, UFI will serve as the project office for this global awareneness and advocacy day. The 2024 theme is currently being discussed in calls with a working group of industry associations. It will be announced soon!