GDS Group chairman, Spencer Green talks to Mike Fletcher about the Bristol-based company’s journey, which saw it win the DEN Award for Best Production Agency earlier this year.
During my 30-minute conversation with Spencer Green, the founder and chairman of GDS Group, sporadic applause could clearly be heard coming from staff at his Bristol-based office. Asked if they were clapping for him, Green laughs but doesn’t deny it.
You see, it’s not such a ridiculous suggestion for several reasons. Firstly, the pretext for this interview is because GDS Group won Production Agency of the Year at the inaugural Digital Event Awards earlier this year.
Although Green admits, the award wasn’t for anything he did but instead it was in recognition of all the hard work and toil of his team during the past year, when you scratch beneath the surface of his modesty, there’s actually plenty he’s done to propel the GDS teams onto the winner’s podium.
GDS started life as a B2B publishing business in 1993 and hosted its first event in 1998. After launching its first summit in 2000, GDS left publishing behind to become a fully-fledged events company.
By 2019, 80% of GDS Group’s revenue originated from its 60 physical executive summits around the world for clients in the transformation sector such as Dell Technologies, Microsoft, Unilever and Walmart.
The remaining 20% however derived from digital events including the company’s Meet the Boss virtual roundtables. When the pandemic hit, this 20% would provide a green shoot of growth that quickly germinated to become a forest.
Green explains: “Covid hit us right at the start of our Spring events schedule, forcing us to cancel everything. At this point we asked ourselves; how can we digitally transform the business to deliver the same outcomes for our customers in lieu of physical events. Our Meet the Boss product took centre stage. We moved fast to collaborate with integrators of Zoom conferencing technology, purchased a studio here in Bristol and found five virtual studio partners to work with worldwide.”
Acting fast paid off and by the second half of last year, GDS was seeing a 300% growth in its Meet the Boss digital roundtable offering as C-level leadership relied on the GDS’ shift to digital to access and converse with other senior executives tackling similar transformation initiatives.
“The overriding topic of our summits – digital transformation – has grown in importance for our customers this year, so they are more driven than ever to understand it,” Green says. “Where previously it was something to plan for over the next few years, coronavirus brought it to the fore as a business imperative to deliver today. As a recognised leader in delivering insightful content on this topic, we were well positioned to capitalise on the additional interest in the trend this year. We expect digital transformation will remain the most important topic for CxOs over the next few years.”
In the Autumn, Green launched the GDS Showcase, a new managed service for business communication.
Making greater use of the company’s studio facilities and advances in Zoom integration, GDS Showcase features a live host, customisable studio set, high production values and a range of interactive experiences, where audience members can be virtually brought onto the stage.
Greens says: “By delivering these events as a service, the GDS Showcase provides everything a company needs to meet the challenges of aligning business strategy, keeping connected with clients and partners and building accelerating pipeline head-on and deliver engaging communications, but without the need to invest in their own studios, broadcast equipment, online platforms or professional presenters.
“Technology has provided a lifeline for collaboration between teams, but traditional collaboration platforms and video conferencing tools are only effective for small groups. Large-scale events require a different approach. When it comes to important business strategy communications, such as internal conferences, sales kick-offs or product launches, there’s simply no room for error; you only get one shot at getting them right. Our virtual showcase provides an out-of-the-box solution for companies to deliver the most immersive, engaging and effective internal communications possible.”
In some ways, GDS Group was fortunate that its pre-pandemic client base were all companies who would continue to thrive during the coronavirus crisis in sectors such as IT, retail and supply chain management. As the old saying goes however, ‘it’s amazing how lucky you get when you put in the hard work’ and Green is quick to remind me repeatedly how hard his teams have worked.
The very fact that they’ve had work at all is potentially another reason for the applause that again interrupts our conversation. Not only has GDS never had cause to put anyone on furlough, it has recruited around 130 new staff during the past seven months – growing an existing team of 250 employees in Bristol to 380 today.
Green believes that growth in product development and digital support staff won’t be a short-term measure as the global events industry double-downs on digital, both for practical, strategic and sustainability reasons.
He says: “The communications sector is incredible exciting currently and virtual events have proved more impactful than physical summits across almost every one of our 18 available metrics including reach, engagement and registration conversions. As we emerge from the pandemic, senior leaders have a responsibility to both business effectiveness and the environmental impact of their practices so given the choice, I believe they’ll make the right decision and continue with digital.
“Previously, our summits would see delegates fly long-haul, spend three days out of the office and fly long-haul home again. Business travel is no longer justified when C-level executives can now connect online for longer and achieve more in a highly productive and efficient way.
“Travel is meant to be enjoyed with the family. For the most part, business travel isn’t enjoyable or sustainable and will require a major rethink at board-level now that there’s a more effective way of communicating and conveying corporate messaging.”
To play devil’s advocate, I ask Green about the one aspect of in-person events considered not to translate into virtual – networking.
“In my view, networking was hugely over-rated at physical B2B events as most of the time it was never based on attendee intelligence. We’re a social species and we’re all looking forward to hugging friends and family but you don’t go to a business event to hug an industry colleague.
“Over the coming year, networking on digital event platforms will improve considerably as the technology continues to accelerate and audience intelligence data plays a greater role. In the B2B space, this focus on attendee profiling will solve the networking issue as attendees will be match together based on desired outcomes.”
If Green is proved right, then sophisticated, intelligence-led virtual events could replace many of the physical B2B formats that global corporations have come to rely on for delivering strategy, learning and development, plus motiving sales staff.
Green is betting on a B2B virtual events future that’s more sustainable, more time efficient and one that allows him to keep growing his team and developing his product line. There’s lots to be applauded.