08th August 2006

In conversation with…Matthew Benyon

Matthew Benyon, Montgomery International’s managing director, tells John Spain about running exhibitions overseas

TSNN: Montgomery International has been building a strong business and reputation over the last few years, what countries are you working in at the moment?

Benyon: We’re in Russia, India, America, Hungary, Poland and Ireland. However, I must point out that Montgomery has actually been working overseas for a very long time. The seventies and eighties were the years when the company spread its wings into overseas markets such as Malaysia, China, Indonesia, South Africa and Thailand. This was all done through Overseas Exhibition Services which was part of the Montgomery group. Since then we have created Montgomery International, so although it may be a relatively new company the concept is something we’ve been doing for a long time.

TSNN: How do you decide which countries you go into, is there a strategy or is it purely based on where an opportunity arises?

Benyon: Our first strategy was to take the strong brands we had and look at which markets we could take them to. Perhaps the best example of this is IFE. We scanned the world and decided to take into new and emerging markets such as Poland, Hungary, India and Russia. These were markets that we thought could grow significantly.

TSNN: Are you always working in partnership with people on the ground who know their own markets well?

Benyon: Yes, mostly we are in joint venture partnerships with a local operator.

TSNN: Is that simply an easier and more agreeable way of doing it?

Benyon: When we decided to go into new markets that we perhaps didn’t know as well as we needed to, we decided we had to have a local partner to take care of the local side of things and we felt that the best way of getting their buy-in was to do it through a JV. If they were just going to act as a local agent they may not have had the same commitment to the shows. Although all those partnerships have worked very well I’m not sure that we would now necessarily go into a JV, we may explore other possibilities. That’s not a strategy that’s set in stone but something that’s a possible way forward for the future.

TSNN: The received wisdom of people in the UK industry is that you ought to have a JV but I suppose the more experience you get the less important it becomes.

Benyon: To a certain extent but unless you really know the local language, culture and market and you are living and breathing there I think you do need a JV.

TSNN: Give a brief case study of a show you think has worked very well, one you would put in a text book on how to run shows overseas.

Benyon: I think the best brand we’ve exported is IFE. The reason for that success is that because of the nature of a food and drink show you have a large number of combined stand organisers, that is to say associations that bring lots of companies to your shows. Because IFE UK is so internationally well known it made it much easier to take the show overseas, when you launch overseas you have to take a brand that has a world following. Once you’ve got a foot in the market you don’t necessarily need to have every subsequent launch that of a world brand but the first one definitely must be. One of the first shows we launched was IFE Poland in 2003 and this raised a few eyebrows because people didn’t think that Poland was a particularly exciting market. But, there are nearly as many people in Poland as the UK and since it’s joined the EU its profile has risen significantly.
The local show certainly didn’t do us any harm. When we looked at the market we saw this show which called itself a food and drink show but which contained elements of agricultural products and anything else they could think of, it was a very generalised show which was also open to both trade and consumer visitors. We were in the right place at the right time, not trying to compete with the local show, really on trying to present something different. The B2B idea was quite new in Poland at that time and was well received by the international exhibitors.

TSNN: Are there any catastrophes that you’d care to share with us?

Benyon: To be fair, we have a high success rate but Hospitality Week Russia had to be cancelled. We didn’t do anything different, we had good partners, good association contacts, good brochure, good marketing, everything was exactly the same as we always do. The one thing we didn’t realise was just how many hospitality type events there were already in the market. That’s the real danger of going into developing markets or, put another way, markets where there isn’t a huge of amount of available market information. So, when we did our research and looked through all the information we had available to see what our competitors were like, we only found two main competitors, neither of whom we considered problematic enough to keep us away. But when we launched and the months went on we realised that we actually had about six or seven competitors and that launching the show hadn’t been logical.

TSNN: There’s a number of UK companies that are doing well overseas but I think it’s surprising that more aren’t doing it. Why do you think more haven’t dipped their toes in the water?

Benyon: It surprises me as well because if you’re a UK organiser you’re not tied to a venue. Look at, say, German organisers, it’s much harder for them and they take a little longer to get things moving. I actually don’t know why more aren’t doing it but I do know that while this is the case it’s all the better for us.

TSNN: If you went to work for one of these organisers how would you persuade them to look at spreading the business overseas? What are the attractions of doing this rather than staying here?

Benyon: Remember that I’ve spent all of my career working overseas so I can’t claim to be a great authority on the UK market. What I would say is that the UK market seems to be so well developed that it’s verging on being saturated. If we were sitting in the boardroom throwing around ideas for new shows I reckon we’d be there for months trying to think of a gap in a given market. You might get lucky but I think you’d be hard pushed. It is much more interesting to come up with several ideas and research these ideas around the world.
What I would actually look at if I went to work for another company is if it had any strong brands that had a truly international following. If they do then there’s every chance it could work elsewhere.

TSNN: What is particularly exciting you at the moment?

Benyon: India. I first went there in 2001 and we ran Interbuild India and IFE India in 2002. At that time I remember going there on aircraft that were only a quarter full with mainly families, certainly no other exhibition organisers sniffing around. Now we’re on our fourth and fifth edition of those shows and we have launched others. When I get on that plane now it’s hard to get a seat and there are as many business people as families on board and there are a lot more exhibition organsiers starting to launch shows there.

TSNN: For all the images of poverty that we see in India the remains that it has a population the size of Germany that is buying designer goods.

Benyon: Absolutely. There are 1.1 billion people in India and 250 million of them are either already earning high wages or aspiring to earn high wages. That means there are 250 million people who want to spend money at exhibitions and who have a high disposable income. That is five times the population of the UK.

TSNN: So you’d be foolish not to get involved.

Benyon: It can often be interesting, to say the least, to business over there, but is a hospitable nation and a great place to go.

(Related categories of interest see Exhibition Stands or Modular Stands)