Paul Miller, CEO of Questex, started his career at Reed in the UK, before moving to New York and Silicon Valley in the 1990s.
Here he chats to VEI editor Alison Ledger about his greatest careers lessons, and how to navigate a disrupted future in the events and media industry.
WHERE DID YOUR CAREER IN EVENTS BEGIN, AND HOW DID YOU BECOME CEO OF QUESTEX?
It's really been a journey of how a failure turned into an opportunity. After college, I started my career at Reed in the UK, working on the media side.
I was recruited by a New York-based tech business that needed someone to expand the business into Europe and Asia. It was a great opportunity, but it closed down after two years. I was offered redundancy or a role in New York. So, in 1993, my wife and I moved to New York for five years, before moving to Silicon Valley in San Francisco.
The business was later acquired by UBM, where I worked for 14 years. We parted ways very mutually, but I didn't really agree with the company’s events-first strategy. I was still really very involved in what I call year-round community building.
I then moved to Penton, which was acquired 18 months later by Informa. After 18 months at Informa, the former Private Equity owners of Penton offered me my current role as CEO at Questex. From the UK to the US, it’s been a great ride so far.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT THE PAST 18 MONTHS HAVE BEEN LIKE AT QUESTEX?
I've been at Questex for just over two and a half years. The majority of that time has been in a Covid environment, which is obviously not what I bargained for and it has been quite awful in many respects.
Before Covid, we had looked at our communities in an omnichannel way through what I like to call 362-3, which means we engage with our communities 362 days a year through digital media channels, but bring them together for three days a year at a live event.
Great content brings communities to your website, which then creates data that allows you to produce better solutions for your audience, customers, and exhibitors. This was fully in place pre-Covid and had achieved 9% organic growth in the first year.
Revenue-wise, our business was 70% events, so Covid hit us like a brick wall. Yet, the digital business skyrocketed and we will almost double our business in 2021 from a $20 million base in 2019.
We have delivered virtual events worth a total of $10 million.
It’s been a real test of leadership, our strategy, and our people. The bottom line is: we survived, and we've moved from surviving to thriving. What I will say is that our original pre-Covid strategy is still
INSTEAD OF AN EVENTS-FIRST STRATEGY, DO YOU THINK A COMMUNITY-FIRST STRATEGY IS A BETTER BUSINESS MODEL?
The question is being discussed very heavily in many media and event companies right now. My personal take is that the number one reason media, digital websites, live and virtual events exist is to connect people.
Deep down, we are all connectors.
The key is how do you make those connections more efficient and more valuable for the people we are serving.
WHAT DO YOU THINK HAS BEEN THE SECRET TO GETTING TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
There are two things that were much more impactful than I realized at the time. The first was Reed’s terrific graduate training program, which gave me a solid foundation. It
was truly world-class and included how to conduct yourself with a client, how to be customer-focused, and to remember that you're solving their problems, not selling
The second thing is that I have been tremendously fortunate to work for some of the most creative world-class leaders in our industry – people who would challenge me to push further and push harder to challenge my beliefs and think differently.
THE ADVICE I’D GIVE TO MY YOUNGER SELF WOULD BE...
I came from a deeply working-class background.
I was the first kid in my family to go to college and I sometimes felt that I had to act differently, particularly around senior people. My advice to my younger self would be: don't do that.
Be yourself, be authentic and stand up for what you believe in rather than trying to be somebody else because that's not sustainable.
I'd also say surround yourself with good people earlier – spend more time with people that are fountains and fill you up every day and less time with drains.
THE BEST BUSINESS ADVICE I HAVE EVER RECEIVED IS...
Business is a team sport. Surround yourself with people that don't always agree with you. Spend a day with your customer and observe what they're dealing with. A good decision on a Monday is better than a perfect decision on a Friday – don't wait for perfect, just move.
LOOKING AHEAD TO THE FUTURE, WHAT EXCITES YOU MOST, AND WHAT WORRIES
I am tremendously excited by the influx of tech into our world. It means more customers being connected and more data to gain more intelligence.
What worries me is talent – we are in a talent war.
We need to attract and keep talent. We need to upscale training and development, and career pathing is supremely important. You need to accept that you will upskill some people and they will move on.