Charlie McCurdy works around the world, but as he explains his company’s plans, the sound in the background is the rental car Satnav guiding him around Fort Lauderdale. When Fort Lauderdale Magazine catches up with McCurdy, he’s on his way to a breakfast meeting with Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show leaders. He’s used to life on the road, as you would be if you headed up an events business responsible for putting on some 200 events around the world. For McCurdy, those events now include the boat show.
McCurdy has been chief executive of the global exhibitions division of Informa - a multinational publishing and events company - since September 2015. In March of this year, Informa bought Show Management, the company that produces the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, for $133 million. The acquisition includes performance rights for all of Show Management’s Florida shows, which also include the Palm Beach International Boat Show, Yachts Miami Beach, St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show and the Suncoast Boat Show.
Informa isn’t new to the world of high-end boating; its portfolio of events already includes the prestigious Monaco Yacht Show. Overall, the company has offices in more than 20 countries, employs more than 7,500 people and reported revenue of more than $1.5 billion in 2015. The company, whose primary headquarters is in London, first came into being in 1998 with the merger of International Business Communications PLC - an information supplier known primarily for conference organization and financial publications - and Lloyd’s of London Press, which published trade titles such as maritime intelligence provider Lloyd’s List and organized business conferences.
The two companies planned to create a one-stop shop for business information, and promisingly so: Together, they had a list of about five million customers and almost 1,000 different titles in areas as varied as finance and insurance, telecommunications, information technology, maritime commerce and energy.
Over the years, Informa bought more and more companies and rapidly grew not just its global presence but also the range and variety of what it does. Today, the company’s activities are split into four divisions: Academic Publishing, which produces thousands of journals and new books every year; Business Intelligence, which provides specialist insight to more than 30,000 subscribers in sectors including finance, maritime and pharma; Knowledge and Networking, which organizes more than 2,000 online and face-to-face networking events every year for professionals with a background in global finance, life sciences and telecoms as well as media and technology; and finally, Global Exhibitions, which, under the leadership of McCurdy, organizes trade shows in more than 30 different sectors ranging from health care, anti-aging and beauty to agriculture, real estate, logistics and maritime.
With annual sales of more than $622 million, the Global Exhibitions Division is the largest contributor to Informa’s revenues and profit. But this hasn’t always been the case.
“The exhibition business is more than 50 percent larger than it was when I joined,” McCurdy says. Since his arrival, the division has hired 400 people, bringing its total number of employees to 1,200 worldwide, and has seen a similar growth in revenues and profits.
The recent growth of Informa’s exhibitions business has largely been concentrated in the U.S. - which is home to at least half of the world’s exhibitions industry, worth around $12 billion. Since 2014, Informa has added 39 U.S. exhibitions to its portfolio.
“Informa has gone from a presence in the United States that was negligible in exhibitions four years ago, to half of our business in the U.S.,” McCurdy says. “It’s more representative of the mix of the global marketplace than it was before.”
Putting on a successful boat show requires a unique set of skills in order to deal with some tricky challenges. One element, which McCurdy calls “surprisingly difficult,” is converting a waterfront into an exhibition space. This often “means taking a working harbor and marina and turning it into an in-water exhibition facility with the entire waterfront populated by tents,” he says. Setting everything up usually takes more than a month, he adds.
Another challenge: the weather. Heavy winds earlier this year meant that organizers of the Palm Beach International Boat Show were having to deal with trees falling down and tents being blown into the water the night before the big opening on March 23, he says.
Then there is the issue of accommodating masses of people flocking to a city all at once. Boat shows, McCurdy says, “bring in large volumes of visitors who are occupying hotel rooms, restaurants and generally provide a significant economic lift to the cities while there and add to their reputation as boating centers.” To prepare for and make the most of these visitors, McCurdy says, organizers have to work closely with the relevant municipalities and authorities.
While boat shows bring together those who are interested in buying boats and those who build them, they are also meant to be a fun event for the whole community. Organizers, he says, must also succeed in presenting the “sense of festivity and celebration of the yachting and boating lifestyle which is so important - particularly in Florida.”
Over the last year, McCurdy’s division has also been ramping up its digital marketing and communications capabilities - spending its share of a more than $116 million company-wide investment package. Among other things, it added online databases to its exhibitions, so that visitors could find exactly what they are looking for before setting foot in the often vast exhibition spaces.
“For example, if you’re a potential buyer in the medical industry and you’re searching for a certain kind of equipment, you would now be able to use a website that can help you search a very large show and narrow down your search to a handful of exhibitors who have the kind of equipment you’re looking to purchase,” he says.
The same concept could be applied to November’s boat show. While his division will be looking at “exactly how to execute that in the context of a boat show” over the coming months, he says it could take shape in the form of a database of boat specifications such as “size of the boat, which application you’re looking for whether it’s cruising or fishing, sailing or power, and then you can find out how to organize the visit to a very large event.
“There’s a lot of boats to look at.”