Opportunities & Threats: B2B Media

Colin Morrison's article in the Publishing Partners Guide 2019

By Colin Morrison

Opportunities & Threats: B2B Media

Everybody is talking about ‘experiential’ media. Newspapers and magazines everywhere are hooked on the idea of building reader loyalty (and sponsorship revenues) through events as diverse as wine tasting, book festivals, cruises – and exhibitions. Much of this B2C activity is experimental or, at best, mere incentive for subscribers. But, in B2B media, exhibitions are anything but experimental.

Trade shows originally sprang mostly from trade associations and were then embraced by B2B magazine publishers who realised that, far from being mere ancillaries to trade magazines, exhibitions were a distinctive and highly profitable sector.

To emphasise the point, exhibition revenues have been growing at an average 6% for the past ten years. Almost 50% of B2B exhibitions companies increased profits in 2017 and 70% were expecting growth in 2018.

The reasons are easy to find.

First, the rapid growth of emerging Asian countries has created a huge market for equipment, technology and services. Exhibitions are an engine of growth in the world’s most dynamic economies.

Second, exhibitions are the real-life antidote to a world where so much ‘networking’ has been reduced to email, facetime and video conferencing. Business people are increasingly attracted to exhibitions as valuable opportunities to meet would-be customers, collaborators, and competitors.

The result has been an exhibitions boom, measured not just by revenue growth but also by the construction boom in new exhibition venues, in profits – and in exhibitions M&A.

In 2018, Informa acquired UBM to create the world’s largest exhibitions group (overhauling long-time leader Reed Exhibitions), Clarion has become no.4, Comexposium, of France (no.6) has changed hands again, and ITE (no.12) has acquired The International Spring Fair and other UK shows from Ascential. Mack Brooks, CloserStill, and Centaur exhibitions are all expected to be sold soon.

The world’s two largest exhibitions companies (and three of the top four) are UK-based. All but two of the Top 10 are from UK / Europe. European organisers have been able to “geo-clone” their major brands and use their sector experience in one market to expand into many others.

Those strengths are, of course, good reasons why B2B information companies need to be good if they are to diversify successfully into exhibitions. But that is the opportunity.

In an era when specialisation can be the key to media success, B2B companies need to be versatile. Success depends on using brands, data and relationships to help readers make money. That is why many publishers will covet exhibitions, as live marketplaces where their readers and suppliers can do business together.

More than ever, the big strategic prize in any B2B sector is ownership of (or, at least, collaboration with) the major exhibition(s). That should be close to the top of every strategy.