Q&A: The events pioneer fighting back for his industry

This week we speak to Gary Fitz-Roy, MD of Expertise Events. The independent, family-owned business organises Oz Comic-Con, craft & jewellery shows and gift & lifestyle events across Australia. With COVID making life incredibly tough for events, Gary is passionate about getting the industry back on track.

ISB: What was the inspiration behind the founding of Expertise Events?

GF-R: In many respects, I started off on my own accidentally. I had finished a marketing course and wanted to eventually branch off and provide services within this space. Doing what I thought was the right thing, I advised my employer (an exhibition organiser) and gave them six months’ notice, only to be terminated a week later as they believed I was going in opposition to them.

Though perplexed by what had happened, I had numerous calls from clients and venues over the following days encouraging me to do shows. I could see the opportunities and there was little opposition.

ISB: COVID has had a devastating impact on the events industry – how did you pivot the business to keep it going?

GF-R: COVID was devastating – it was very difficult to pivot and replace our core delivery which is face-to-face contact. I felt very conflicted and resisted doing hybrid or virtual events as it didn’t represent what we stood for. I stand by that – people need those face to face interactions.

Whilst we sold some unique merchandise, the majority of our time was spent developing new positioning and content with our shows, constantly communicating with clients and keeping our staff occupied. We believed that having an experienced team would be a deciding difference post-COVID. Unfortunately, many in our industry have let a lot of staff go.

ISB: You recently ran the Gift & Lifestyle Fair at MCEC, which I believe was the first big event at the venue since the pandemic: Firstly was it a struggle enticing exhibitors to that event?

GF-R: The challenges were understanding the compliance issues, demystifying what was required from them and visiting retailers. The Victorian Government had suggested not coming to the city for 12 months, so one of the challenges was trying to change the conversation to say that we were open for business. Luckily, exhibitors had open minds and didn’t have unrealistic expectations.

COVID compliance is largely common sense. Being the first event back, we had far more hoops to jump through than events now. We were down around 20-30 per cent on the number of clients we expected to attend, which is understandable but commercially painful!

ISB: And secondly, how did the Fair go, bearing in mind that understandable apprehension among exhibitors and visitors?

GF-R: It surprised exhibitors because every visitor was a serious buyer, having made the effort to attend. There was an upturn of country retailers as they had seen an increase in consumer habits and needed to look for new lines. Many commented on the number of new accounts they managed to open, which is worth a lot to them.

ISB: What is your vision for the development of Expertise Events in the next couple of years?

GF-R: It’s clear that people crave being back at live events, however, with state governments closing borders after one or two cases, interstate confidence is a big issue. It won’t be until 2023 that we recover from the wounds of COVID. There are a lot of opportunities out there, but you need to be prepared to change, evolve, and push the limits.

We can’t do the same thing we did in 2019 and expect different results, we need to evolve and spend time listening to our clients and markets. Data, and its quality, will become a determining factor.

We have a vision to offer a more all-encompassing service that takes into account marketing, strategy, creative and data, but I have parked that to focus on getting shows back up and running in 2021.

ISB: And, finally, what is the number one lesson you’ve learnt on your journey you’d share with others looking to start their own events business?

GF-R: It’s a combination of two things and they depend heavily on each other – the team and the communication. We weighed up every possibility rather than just roll shows out. You build trust through communication and take the clients on the journey with you.

We were old school with our approach and that’s how we survived. We shouldered ourselves financially from prior years, so that helped.

Being optimistic played a crucial role in inspiring others to stay on the bus. I think our industry sounds sexy and easy to get into, but the last year has tested the very best. So, whilst it’s a great industry, it has changed and, unless you can merge passion with a commercial balance, I would think twice.