“Who wants to go to a party thrown by the Government?” wonders Andrew Morris when I ask him what lessons are to be learnt from the Dome experience. “The Government should have quietly helped fund it, then stepped aside and let private enterprise take it forward.”
Had it been up for private tender, Morris says he would certainly have thrown his hat into the ring. As things panned out, last year he found himself catapulted into what he describes as “the best job in the UK events and exhibitions industry”. Namely, running Earl’s Court and Olympia. The venues had been jointly owned by P&O since 1985 and many people felt they were in urgent need of new blood. The £183m purchase last autumn by the Morris Family Trust, with backing from Candover Investments, was seen as a move in the right direction. Now all Andrew Morris has to do is deliver the goods.
For the past 13 years he has been associated with the Business Design Centre in London’s Islington, first as sales and marketing director and, from 1989 as managing director. He was the driving force behind the London Contemporary Art Fair, now in its 12th year, the Country Living Fair, and the New Designers Fair. Again, the BDC was owned by the family firm, City Industrial, set up by his father in 1954, the main business of which is shop-fitting, though it also includes a design consultancy and a property investment wing.
Morris claims to be one of the first people in the exhibitions business to employ independent design groups to create a cohesive look for an exhibition. “I’m from a retail background (he ran an imitation fur company for the family firm in his 20s), so I tend to look at exhibitions in the same way you would a retail experience. It’s essential to embrace retail design values within the framework of exhibition design, and in my experience, it can be done relatively cheaply.” What can’t be done cheaply is the refurbishment of Earl’s Court and Olympia, which Morris estimates will cost £60m over the next five years.
“The buildings are in desperate need of a facelift, so we shall be focusing on the entrance foyers, the halls, the restaurants, the loos, the decor and the graphics. I’m a change freak, change stimulates people,” says Morris.
“It’s an opportunity to modernise both the buildings and the management style, so that they can compete on the world stage. My predecessor was basically an accountant, a P&O man through and through. I’m a sales and marketing man with a design background, so I’m coming at things from a different perspective.
“This business hasn’t been as customer/ market led as it needs to be today. Putting on shows and events is an emotional business, lots of nerves and stagefright. It’s terribly important for those involved to know they are dealing with people who are caring and sympathetic, and who treat you in a way that makes you feel good. That’s the style I’m intending to promote.”
As the creator of the influential New Designers Fair at the BDC, how does Morris see the way forward for exhibition design?
“Exhibitions have not been enormously innovative in the UK compared to our Continental counterparts. Organisers and contractors who service the shows need to think laterally about their presentation in terms of graphics, identity and the whole 3D experience. What I want is to see business done in an exciting and original fashion,” he says.
Morris wasted no time in creating a new brand image (design by Skidmore Turnbull), giving the two venues separate logos for the first time. In terms of their respective characters, he sees Olympia as “classical, contemporary and elegant”, while Earl’s Court projects a “more dynamic and macho” image. He foresees Olympia continuing to hold the prestige shows, with Earl’s Court housing larger events and “dynamic consumer shows”. On a more practical level, he intends to improve the halls in terms of lighting, decor, air conditioning and signage, as well as upgrading the catering and bar facilities.
“Whether you’ve come for a consumer event like the motor show or a business event like 100% Design, you want to be treated like a civilised human being. Essentially we should act as a facilitator, and that can be achieved by attitude and training,” he says.
Morris admits he has a daunting task, “Yes, it’s hard work and the scale of the business will take some getting used to – it’s ten times the size of the BDC – but the greatest stress comes from frustration and I am extremely fortunate to have a big resource of cash and a big vision. I can get the things done I want to do. It’s my dream job.”
1952- Born in London
1975- Appointed managing director of Jontique, imitation fur retailers
1984- Works on retail refurbishment in Hong Kong
1986- Appointed sales and marketing director of Business Design Centre
1989- Becomes managing director of BDC
1999- Chief executive of Earl’s Court & Olympia Group