CDI World

John Robinson, Managing Director of CDI World UK, explains how building good relationships is vital to operating a resilient events business.

John Robinson, Managing Director of CDI World UK & Europe

Our industry is always adapting to meet new challenges, whether in response to clients’ ambitious creative designs, to economic factors, logistics complications, or more recently, to new regulatory controls. Change, for us, comes with the job. If we couldn’t handle it, we’d have chosen a different profession. Many have tried it for size then quickly decided to pursue a more 9 to 5 lifestyle!

But there’s one thing that has remained constant and pretty impervious to the numerous challenges that time, governments and technology continue to throw at us, and that’s the central importance of human relationships. Let me be more specific…

In our field of expertise, assuming that you have all the experience and technical skills required to carry out the project, good working relationships are founded on three qualities: empathy, honesty and positivity. The order doesn’t matter, they’re all equally important and they all contribute to that essential we’re always told must be earned – trust.

So let’s unpack those three qualities a little more. In my book, empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective. Another way to describe this in practical terms is the ability to listen and understand what the client wants. Sounds simple enough, but in reality it can be surprisingly rare.

Understanding stretches well beyond being able to read a client’s brief accurately. It encompasses knowing what pressures they’re under and what they need to achieve for their client. Much of our business comes from international creative agencies who, in turn, serve the needs of large corporate clients. There’s a chain of trust that links all the parties together, and like all chains, it’s only as strong as the weakest link.

Having true empathy and understanding includes knowing exactly where you fit as a specialist consultant or supplier in the total event endeavour. This gives our direct agency clients the confidence to engage us alongside them from the outset as part of their pitch to the end client. Our build expertise is seen as a strength that will reinforce the agency’s proposal. 

It’s great that we are seen as an upfront asset, not shadowy figures to be kept out of sight – although we’re happy to be shadowy if the client prefers to operate that way.

The projects we become involved with are high profile by nature – and this holds true regardless of their scale or budget. They are also time critical. Major sporting events, trade show openings and product launches tend not to move their planned dates. We often say that, in our industry there’s ‘nowhere to hide’. This puts considerable pressure on the client and our mission is to remove as much of that pressure as we can.     

Another fact of life is that people move. Client contacts that you’ve built up over years get promoted, change companies, seek new roles. People who may not know you take their place, and inevitably, they will have their own preferences and ways of working. Again, understanding their perspective and explaining that our job isn’t to maintain the status quo but to help them achieve their objectives, will reassure them and allow a new relationship to thrive.

In over 30 years, despite countless changes in the people, strategies, organisational structures or budgetary constraints of our client companies, I’m pleased to say that we have never walked away from or lost a solid relationship.     

The second quality of the three I mentioned was honesty, which in this context is being able to tell the client when something isn’t possible for the budget or in the available timescale. It can also mean being entirely open when circumstances change.

Imagine, for one moment, having to tell your client that, due to bad weather, shipping containers packed with thousands of dollars worth of carefully prepared exhibition properties had been jettisoned by the crew from a cargo vessel midway across the Pacific and were now resting on the sea bed.

Or how about the time when high quality exhibition flooring, specified by the designer for a conference in Nevada, was unable to handle the aridity and 100 degree heat and began to curl, making it unusable for the next scheduled venue in Chicago. The Windy City posed some more problems at the other end of the temperature scale – a frozen exhibition hall caused by someone leaving the doors open!

Stories like these come with the territory. What makes the difference is how you deal with such setbacks. Our approach is clear, along with complete transparency about the problem, we always offer a practical solution. For the client with Champagne-sized aspirations but a beer-sized budget, we’ll suggest an alternative that still looks a million dollars. If a property is lost or damaged we’ll use our worldwide connections to source a high-quality local replacement that will get there on time and tolerate the climate.               

The last leg of the three qualities needed to build solid working relationships is positivity. Humans aren’t machines and react to circumstances differently. However, those who see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, have a natural affinity with our line of work and we’re fortunate in having recruited an abundance of ‘can-do’ individuals both in-house and in our supplier network.

Having people with a positive attitude and outlook gives us a tremendous advantage. It allows us to take on projects and work confidently in environments that others might baulk at. I can recall numerous examples, but one of the most testing, which also has maritime associations (a theme developing here perhaps!), is when we had to build a stage set and other elements for a prestigious automotive launch at sea.

The venue was a luxurious cruise ship out of Miami that plied the Hawaiian isles. Guests would attend the product launch and be entertained on board in the evening, experience the product on Hawaiian roads during the day and then return to the ship overnight before flying home.

The list of challenges was long. Sections of the ship’s wooden decking had to be lifted so that massive generators could be welded to the steel beneath the ship’s golf-driving range and hidden out of sight. Their power was needed to drive product reveal apparatus and a huge lighting rig.

Weather played its part too with 60 mph winds howling across the deck as our team battled to put up the set walling and secure it with ballast. After the event, all our extensive additions and modifications had to be removed and the ship restored to its original condition in an incredibly short timescale so the vessel could resume its regular tourist duties.

I forgot to mention the time when the ship’s captain decided not to dock at the location where our hired cranes had been carefully stationed. All of which makes for a good seafarer’s yarn but more importantly underlines the importance of positive people. Without them, the show really wouldn’t have gone on and turned out to be a success for all concerned.

Finally, having identified empathy, honesty and positivity as the three essential qualities required to establish good working relationships and given some real-life examples along the way, I’m going to add one further refinement that business leaders and senior managers need to master. This is the ability to match particular account managers with specific clients. Put the right personalities together and you increase capability still further.

While our specialty is building clients’ creations, we never forget that we’re also building relationships. Get those right and you’ll certainly reap the rewards.

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