EW meets Damion Angus, group managing director at Montgomery Group. Part of the interview is published courtesy of the SISO and mdg Turning Point series, with additional reporting from Paul Colston.
Are there any learnings from past challenges that you think translate to the current situation?
The most recent and most closely comparable challenge we have faced would probably be the emergence of Ebola in West Africa in 2014. This affected a number of our shows in Nigeria and our African business. My biggest takeaway was that you cannot overdo communication with your communities. Keeping exhibitors and visitors updated on what your plans are and really understanding their concerns made all the difference then, and I believe that holds true now.
How has Montgomery Group been approaching scenario planning during the pandemic?
We’ve set up a Business Continuity Team, consisting of the divisional heads across the world, and we “meet” every Monday. There’s also an optional drop-in session on Thursdays, where this group can share ideas. Also, we set up a wider set of working groups involving the next level of leadership in the business. These groups are currently looking at the future of our industry, how Covid-19 will affect our communities and what the longer term view of a return to the office might look like.
Are there any organisational changes that you’ll keep?
This pandemic has forced us to embrace technology to better communicate and streamline our remote working capabilities. This will undoubtedly change how our office is structured, how certain meetings take place and how flexible we become in working from home. I can’t tell you how much I miss the physical meetings round a table and how much can be achieved by sitting together, but I also feel closer to our international teams than ever before.
As a leader, what do you see as your biggest challenge now?
The unknown nature of what we’re dealing with. Most issues that affect the business allow you to make informed decisions based on facts. This gives you the opportunity to put a specific strategy together Time to reiterate value of events and give your teams clarity. With Covid-19, there are so many potential outcomes and the timelines are unknown. It forces a very fluid style of leadership.
Which initiative from the last few months have you been especially proud of?
We implemented the Montgomery Group webinar series to service our communities and to help them navigate the issues that they’re facing. I would never have believed that we would have received such an amazing take up and I feel very proud of the teams.
How are you keeping yourself positive and motivated?
I am predominantly surrounded by positive people who relish a challenge, and as a business, we’re focusing on what we can do coming out of this to make us stronger. I tend to look at the world day by day, and the fact that it’s summer here in the UK and the mornings are light gives me all the motivation I need. Montgomery has survived 125 years with no shortage of hurdles and that provides a certain level of comfort, while also inspiring me to continue building a great business.
How many shows have you had to cancel and postpone and how have you tried to keep the communities together?
We ran our last physical event in the first week of March and we were due to run another 11 shows over the following 10 weeks. These covered eight different sectors and a diverse range of territories across Asia, Africa, and Europe. It really was a case of firefighting whilst trying to get all our team across the world to work from home. There was very little time to launch virtual events and we were at full capacity simply trying to find new tenancies and manage our customers’ expectations.
Since then we have cancelled or postponed a further 23 events and co-locates. Rather than try to replace them with virtual platforms, we have taken our time to really understand what our communities would want from a digital solution and we feel that hybrid rather than fully virtual platforms are the future. In the meantime, we have helped support our communities with a programme of webinars which have been very well received.
Which regions, where you have business, do you see coming back first?
Speed of recovery in a specific territory is predominantly down to reduced infection rates. In China and Taiwan, where we run art and photography fairs, it is encouraging to hear how well they are recovering, albeit with mostly domestic shows. Parts of Asia have undoubtedly learned from the previous challenges of the likes of Avian Flu and SARS. However, as we have seen in Hong Kong this week – where we run another art fair – the situation can change quickly and controls can be re-imposed with little warning.
Speed of recovery is also heavily dictated by government policy as well as their understanding of our industry. In the UK it has been frustrating trying to get a re-start date and I still don’t think the politicians really understand how events can be a catalyst to get economies going again and the value that they bring to destinations. Those countries whose governments have understood that we run ‘organised gatherings’ rather than ‘mass gatherings’ seem to have given an earlier ‘green light’. However, fundamentally a quick recovery is about building the confidence of our exhibitors and visitors and that is down to us all.
It is also interesting to experience the different support schemes being offered. Asia is definitely more proactive and supportive, with Hong Kong offering free tenancies to help the recovery and cushion the risk for all tenancies in 2021.
We have seen Informa Markets, among others, tap the financial markets to ease their cash balance. How has Montgomery handled the financials of the situation?
As a private family business, we have had to rely on our own resources and conventional lines of credit. We have, however, taken advantage of all the government concessions such as the furlough scheme and we have also applied for a CBILS loan in case the recovery is delayed into the second quarter of next year or beyond. In addition, there have been savings, however these have been marginal in comparison to the loss of income.
Which sectors that you are involved in do you expect to return first for tradeshows?
A return for tradeshows is more about general confidence in a market than about the sector served, although some industries have obviously boomed during this crisis and in theory will be happier to re-engage earlier. We have a full programme of events for 2021 starting the year with art fairs across Asia followed by food, drink and hospitality events in the UK, and a doors, windows and glass show which is benefiting from people’s desire to refurbish their houses rather than to move. After several months on Zoom and Microsoft Teams, I believe the desire to meet has never been stronger and we need to re-iterate to our customers with smaller budgets, the value of events over other forms of media.
I fundamentally believe that our future should remain focused around face to face and bringing people physically together. Even before this pandemic, we felt the need to really spend the time developing our data strategy and insight tools to ensure that we fully understand our communities needs and to subsequently ensure they get the best return on their investment.
This strategy has only become more important with the impact of the pandemic.