Blenheim's Traveling Show: Has the Fast-Growing International Exhibitions Organizer Got What It Takes to Survive?

Article excerpt

BLENHEIM'S

TRAVELLING SHOW

It's not often you see a board of beaming faces in the pages of an annual report. However impressive the company's results and promising the prospects, its directors habitually gather their features into expressions calculated to convey a reassuring air of gravity and responsibility. But open the pages of exhibition organiser Blenheim's 1990 report and the impression is quite otherwise. Granted, the company is celebrating its 10th anniversary, but aren't those broad smiles just a touch unprofessional?

But perhaps Blenheim's directors have good reason to be smiling. Since its flotation on the USM in 1986, which valued the company at 5.8 million pounds, Blenheim has grown in leaps and bounds. On the main market since April last year, it is now capitalised at close on 150 million pounds. In the year to end-August 1990, it recorded pre-tax profits up a spanking 222% to 21.3 million pounds, on turnover up 250% to 88.8 million pounds. In the four years up to the same date, earnings per share and dividends per share rose by eight and 10 times respectively -- good news for a board which owns some 41% of the company's equity.

As a fast-growing, acquisitive business, Blenheim has done well to start the 1990s in such good shape. For many 1980s growth starts, the closing years of the decade proved to be a graveyard into which over-ambitious organisations tripped and fell, surviving, if at all, as mere shadows of their former selves. Blenheim is a striking exception. The company now organises a total of 250 events in nine countries, in industry sectors ranging from building construction to hotel and catering and information technology. It is Europe's leading independent exhibitions organiser; and with shows in the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Belgium, it is well placed to exploit new opportunities in the single market. Across the Atlantic, Blenheim has laid the foundations for a similarly significant presence in the 5 billion pounds US market. Says Chris Akers, European media analyst at Citicorp, 'They have bought up the best on the European exhibitions scene. All have performed up to their demanding expectations. Of the 250 million pounds or so that they have spent on acquisitions, probably only 5 million pounds has been a bad investment.'

Through the 1980s, the proportion of the promotional budget spent on exhibitions worldwide has risen steadily. According to a report published by the Exhibition Industry Federation last year, some 22-25% of all promotional expenditure in Germany goes on exhibitions. In France and the US the comparable figures are between 11% and 14%. Britain lags behind at 6-7%, but spending on exhibitions here increased by half in the course of the last decade. In all its markets, Blenheim looks set to benefit from the tendency among companies to focus marketing more specifically. While other media, such as television or magazines, reach a broader audience, the marketing message will in many cases be wasted. Exhibitions allow narrow targeting of likely buyers, at lower cost than most other forms of promotion.

Chairman Neville Buch and chief executive Lawrie Lewis, who have masterminded Blenheim's rise to prominence in this sector, are a charismatic couple who complement each other well. Lewis, who founded the company as Blenheim Dresswell in 1979 with two associates (since gone their own ways), has a background in clothing manufacture--and a suitable penchant for flamboyant ties and eccentric suits. Trained in garment production, he was sales director for a company marketing the collections of the likes of Ossie Clarke and Sheridan Barnett in the early 1970s, before starting his own business with his second wife, herself a fashion designer. When that marriage ended, so did his involvement with the company and he looked around for something to invest in.

With 10 years on the exhibition circuit in Europe and North America, Lewis had a good understanding of the importance of exhibitions as a marketplace. …