How a trade show’s newsletter saved the company during Covid
Ross Douglas launched a newsletter about urban mobility and then was able to leverage its audience when he pivoted to virtual tradeshows.
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Ross Douglas was fairly blunt when I asked him about his mindset as he began to realize the impact Covid-19 would have on his trade show business: “It was fucking dark,” he told me. “It was really, really hard.”
This was in early 2020, when his team was already gearing up for November’s Autonomy & the Urban Mobility Summit, an annual trade show he’s been running since 2015. “I realized that this thing is coming and it's going to stop anything physical happening,” he said. “And I own an event that's built on people getting together and eating and drinking and slapping each other on the back and doing deals. And this thing's going to take me out.”
But here we are a year later, and not only does Douglas’s company still exist, he actually hosted his trade show in November, albeit in a different format. His revenue is down, but so are his costs, and he plans to relaunch the physical version of his trade show by 2022.
How did Douglas stay afloat? There are a number of pivots and strategies you could point to, but perhaps his biggest savior came in the form of a weekly newsletter he launched three years ago. Without it, Douglas may have joined a long list of entrepreneurs whose businesses were destroyed by the pandemic.
How he launched the company
To understand how Douglas found the light at the end of the tunnel, it helps to know a little bit about the company he built pre-Covid.
Douglas started out his career as a filmmaker, making African wildlife documentaries for outlets like National Geographic. In 2004, he got interested in contemporary art and helped produce an event with a famous South African artist named William Kentridge. He used that experience as a springboard to launch a series of art fairs that showcased African contemporary art. “That’s how I learned to build consumer facing events with large sponsorship revenue,” he said.
Douglas ran that business for about a decade, and then he began to get obsessed with climate change, reading everything he could on the issue. “I believed that the world was going to quickly move to sustainable solutions,” he said. “I thought it was going to be this rapid change away from combustion cars, and I wanted to be part of that discussion, which I thought was very exciting.”
In relatively short order, Douglas uprooted his life in South Africa and moved to Paris to launch a company focused on urban mobility, which he defines as the “shift away from the driving and ownership of combustion cars.” This is a growing industry that encompasses everything from public transportation to cycling to even Uber. “It’s this idea that you don't need to own a car to move around,” he said. “You just need to have a smartphone with some money in it and access to a whole lot of different mobility assets on the street, whether it’s bicycles, scooters, buses, or ride hailing.” He moved to Paris in 2015 and that same year launched the first event in the world focused on sustainable urban mobility.
There were some stumbles initially -- that first year his expenses far outstripped his revenue -- but Douglas’s trade show eventually attracted thousands of attendees and dozens of large sponsors. His model was relatively simple: charge companies within the urban mobility space for different levels of partnership that would allow them to participate in the event in various ways, from hosting booths to participating in panel discussions. It took about four years for the event to break even, and prior to the pandemic it was attended by up to 5,000 people and generating around €1.4 million.
A newsletter to the rescue
Douglas was among the first within his industry to acknowledge that live events were gone for the foreseeable future. In early March he spent several days reading about past pandemics and their tendency to hit in waves that would periodically bring society to a halt. “We canceled our trade show basically at the first lockdown in March, and none of our competitors canceled,” he said. “And at the time all of these trade show organizers in France were saying to me, ‘you’re mad, things will be reopened by November this year and things will go back to normal.’ But I knew the virus was here to stay.”
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