- Property Business
- Roman numerals
- Targeted marketing
- Terre del Barolo
- Mum and VE day
- European Property Multilist Services
Richard Hease and I began to meet up and talk afresh. In one such conversation he suggested that my eye for detail and research would fit well with exhibition management. He explained the key elements of such an operation and I could see that it had the merit of no stock and minimal staff. There are also moments when you can exit inexpensively and painlessly if it is not going well. I particularly liked that it had a clear beginning, middle and end, which few businesses can boast.
My Dad was not ever in business but often repeated a few favourite pieces of advice. One of these was ‘Buy land, they’ve stopped making it’. Later of course I learned that in fact the Netherlands, Seychelles and others were still making land, but in general the advice was good and correct. So, my attention was drawn towards one item on Richard’s list – Property.
My research uncovered that house prices were rising nationally – Nationwide today shows that the average house price had risen by 250% between 1980 and 1988, the ONS shows that the price of London homes had risen 40% between1986-8. Commercial property too was rising, particularly given a new governmental focus on redevelopment, and a number of government initiatives with Development Corporations like the London Docklands Development, Merseyside, Cardiff Docklands, Sandwell/ Walsall, Trafford/Salford, Leeds River Aire… Also visible were the early stages of a move towards public-private partnerships in property development.
I went back to Richard with a proposal for what I called the Property Business Show that would focus on eight sectors – Government agencies, Construction, Property Finance, Property Development, Agency/Surveyors, Property/Facilities Management, Property Products/Services and Property Law.
With Richard’s inputs we did a deal with the London Barbican as our venue, with a small team we sold 130 exhibitors some 2,000 sq m of stand space, then attracted over 600 delegates to a workshop programme, and delivered a total of 4,500 relevant visitors.
I learned a great deal from this first show. For example, the Chartered Surveyors in west London held an annual paint-ball competition. I applied to enter a Prop Bus team, but had my deposit payment returned pointing out, rather pompously, that we were not ‘of the market, we merely served it.’ Of course my first reaction was that they were a bunch of pretentious bar-stewards, but on reflection I accepted the insight that this provided and used it throughout my event management career as a reminder of an organiser’s role.
ASIDE: During 1990 we were preparing to launch the Property Business Show for 1991 and our agency came up with a motif of a Greco-Roman building with pillars, portico and a pediment that would show the roman numerals for 1991 across its frieze. But just how was 1991 written in Roman numerals? In theory this should have been simple, the building block is just seven letters – I, V, X, L, C, D and M. But we soon discovered something of a flaw in the Roman system when you try to apply it to very large numbers – probably back then large numbers did not need to be contemplated.
The natural approach would be to long-windedly use MDCCCCLXXXXI, but this was not very elegant. MDCCCCIXC did not seem to be correct positional usage. Deducting the IX from that final C felt wrong, would it be viewed as attached to the C preceding it or to the final C? It felt no better to take it away directly from 2000 or MM, thus MIXM or IXMM? We contacted the British Museum for its authoritative view, they pondered it and came back to confess that they really did not know! Movies and TV programmes ‘ident’ pages did later adopt the MIXM approach, I guess for its useful brevity.
There was a particular marketing manager at the important residential, commercial and agricultural agents, Knight Frank & Rutley, who proved elusive for us and, when we did meet, he was quite awkward and negative. So, I found myself aiming our campaign at him, believing that if I got him then the approach would get the more approachable players too.
For example, our distinctive ‘horizon’ logo had a red upper and yellow lower. After much pleasurable experimentation we developed a cocktail that had those colours in that orientation – it would have been much easier if the yellow had been at the top. We convinced our target guy’s favourite wine bar on Hanover Square and arranged for it to have a fortnight’s feature of the Property Business cocktail, we printed A-cards for every table.
I also hired one of those trailers with a two-sided poster and had it ‘break-down’ outside the guy’s office window. This may sound a little too personal, but it meant that we had a focus for honing our thinking. Of course, it only works in an identifiable trade or professional sector and would be inappropriate for public events.
During the second show we merged it with another event and sold them both on to Blenheim for six-figure money, and potential for additional earn-out from the next show. The mechanics of the sale were messy, for tax purposes Blenheim needed to own it while the show was still running. I was virtually kidnapped from the event and taken to their offices to complete the agreement before the show closed. It took so long that I did not get back for the close, in one part of my mind it is still running, because I never saw it go down.
ASIDE: Running an annual exhibition has a huge high and a huge low. The high is when you go to site and cannot do any more planning, you just have to build it and open it. The high-point is when you open, particularly if visitors are queueing to come in. The low is when you close the show and most of your year’s work has been pulled out in under thirty minutes.
After announcing an event’s close I developed the habit of finding a high point in the venue and watching it go out. There’s little point in trying to organise that first half hour, have the security team on high alert but just let it happen. I usually then took a quick holiday to clear my head.
To do the deal, I arrived at the Blenheim offices to find Richard already there, with Dermot Graham and his solicitors on a conference-call connection (for the merged show). On Blenheim’s side was one of its principals, Neville Buch, dressed in his squash gear and seeking to press the deal forward so he could catch his court time. But there was a section of the deal that I did not understand and, despite Neville and even Richard showing exasperation with me, I kept returning to this point. After a tense half-an-hour and more, Dermot’s solicitor announced over the audio link that they had found there had been an omission of several clauses in the printed version that we were reviewing, so I had been right to press my point. Once this was discovered we all signed it off and Neville got to his game. I got back to the Barbican to find bare vestiges of the event still there.
ASIDE: One such post-show holiday around this time saw us drive Jane’s Golf down through France and Italy and back through Switzerland and the Black Forest of Germany. I had a particular penchant at the time for Barolo wine, so we went to the town to taste some of its wine. Early in our trip, we arrived on a Saturday at Terre del Barolo’s plant.
1981 Terre del Barolo bottles and carbuoy
There was just a Saturday skeleton team, who challenged me to try three different Barolos, they approved of my selection and they pulled out all of our luggage to place a 50+ litre carbuoy in the Golf. It cost me less than 50p/litre when we routinely paid £15+/bottle back in the UK. But it was the early phase of our road trip, so we could never park the car in the sun, had to offload it every night into our hotel room. We also had half-a-dozen border crossings to negotiate!
As we tried to transit from Switzerland to Germany we went through a large lorry parking area and accidentally found ourselves in France. We drove along a riverside in France and then crossed the river back into Switzerland. This was the only point where customs officials showed any interest in the carbuoy. We had draped clothes over it but the French douanier stopped us. Revealing her tension, Jane exploded in French saying we shouldn’t even have been in France, didn’t want to be here, the douanier wilted under her tirade, gave a Gallic shrug and waved us through.
In the Black Forest we bought a small jug that we thought would be perfect to draw off a night’s Barolo requirement once we got home. We got back to Bedford early and found the house was immaculate, any signs of the kids partying had been cleared away and they were out. I unloaded the Golf and, despite Jane suggesting I wait for Matt to return, waddled through the house carrying the carbuoy. I put it down in the kitchen. It was only a tad hard, but the glass disintegrated depositing the 50+ litres across our kitchen’s Floatex carpet. I threw the pine furniture onto the lawn, grabbed a Stanley knife to cut the Floatex rather than move big items like our Welsh Dresser.
We became drunk wading in it, in bare feet, and though we salvaged some into various containers, none of it ever tasted good. PS: that pine table and dresser are now in our daughter’s kitchen in Paris and you can still just about make out the red tidemark.
I went to Blenheim along with the show to serve the earn-out year that might increase our payment for the show. I had launched a second show, Top PA, and this clashed with a Blenheim London Secretary Show. They insisted PropBus be at the remote offices of another of their acquisitions (Exclusively Housewares) in St Albans. I only learned of the location when I got back from my holiday to find my team had already moved our stuff from Victoria to St Albans, my son deciding (correctly) that there was no virtue in bothering me with this while on holiday. As I lived in Bedford, St Albans represented no particular hardship either.
I met up with Blenheim’s new Managing Director, Phil Soar, who was, to put it mildly, obnoxious. I suggested we discuss how we were going to operate for the earn-out year and his repeated response was, ‘See you in court next year’. I wrote to Neville describing this unhelpful meeting and signed off saying I doubted Soar’s first name was Phil, because he seemed to me to be more of an R Soar. The other Blenheim principal, Laurie Lewis, took me to one side to point out that the Buchs and the Soars regularly holidayed together. Great start to that year.
In the event (pun intended) we earned no more, and it was largely a waste of my year. My team seemed happily settled in to Blenheim and they would prosper there. I had met a number of valuable contacts through PropBus and this led to other business ventures like EPMS, Euromissions and ITIM – though none of these proved particularly profitable.
ASIDE: At around this time there was a sudden interest in celebrating the VE day anniversary and Bristol local radio requested stories. We had a family tale. My mother had been 21 on the day after VE day (8th May) so the celebrations in the centre of Bristol had continued into her birthday. After midnight she had been dancing on top of a pillar box, but when she got down her shoes had been stolen and she had to walk home barefoot. My cousin Beryl told the radio station the story and they called up my Mum to confirm and feature the story.
My father had rather atrophied away following a series of strokes and he had encouraged my mother to develop her platonic relationship with a mutual friend. They subsequently moved in together and Mum had been liberal with the truth about her age, she had decremented it by five years. She was absolutely horrified that her being 21 on 9May1945 would be broadcast across Bristol and insisted they degraded what was otherwise a great VE Day story by making them avoid stating it was her 21st.
European Property Multilist Services
This on the face of it was a timely initiative. My partner was a guy who had set up a successful property auction business, and we had talked at length and came up with this notion. We set up an office in the London Docklands.
Each High Street in the UK had a row of estate agency offices that all looked the same and offered a similar service, only the personalities or ethics were different. The idea was to offer one of these in each town the opportunity simply to offer overseas properties for sale. This was greatly assisted by the outrageous percentages charged in France, Portugal and Spain by local agents there, they had more than enough to afford a good intro-commission to the English agent that effected an introduction.
ASIDE – Taking a stand at the MIPIM event in Cannes offered me a real opportunity to get to know my future French son-in-law. We took a stand and I asked my daughter (living in France) and her French boyfriend to help me out on the stand – to deal with any French-speaking clients. I drove a van down with our exhibition material. At the end my daughter had to work the next day so returned on the train back to Paris, but Laurent drove back through the night with me. We sang much of the way making up ludicrous Blues and Country & Western lines – I would sing ‘I lost my baby’ and he would add ‘and the dog’ – I guess you had to be there!
I focussed on how the multi-list would be presented and the contracts needed with the parties to make sure this did not descend into anarchy. I wrote guides for each country’s property scene and the local rules & reg’s. It was my partner who was supposed to obtain the European properties for listing. I delivered on my tasks, but in the end he failed to get a single European property for us to list. Worse, I found out later that he had forged my signature for a loan of which I had no knowledge. It purported to have been signed at a place in East Anglia that I had never visited and my signature was not a very good forgery.
But the real piece of good luck for me was that he had dated it on Jane’s 40th birthday, we had held a big party and I could categorically prove I was in Bedford all that day. Yet another salutary lesson on partners.