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.”
But unlike most of his competitors, Douglas had a more direct connection to his audience through a newsletter he’d launched a few years earlier. He got the idea during a conversation with a Financial Times columnist named Simon Kuper. “He was writing about the future of cities and interviewed me to get information for his column,” recalled Douglas. “And he asked me where he could learn more about this stuff, because it’s not in the newspapers and there wasn’t much about it on the internet. And then I kind of suddenly realized there’s a strong need for content focused on urban mobility solutions.”
So Douglas launched Urban Mobility Weekly, a newsletter he sends out every Thursday via Mailchimp. The format is pretty straightforward and has hardly changed since the newsletter’s debut; it opens with excerpts of two thought leadership pieces, the full versions of which are published to the company’s website. Douglas, when he’s not writing the pieces himself, often sources the articles from his contacts within the industry. Further down, the publication curates articles published at outside news outlets and then ends with postings from a community job board.
The newsletter was a near instant success. “We got to 10,000 subscribers fairly quickly and after that, the growth was quite hard,” said Douglas. “But what we saw was that we had a very high opening rate of 40% and a very good engagement rate.” Most of the new subscribers came in via Google searches that landed them on the thought leadership articles published to the website. “We eventually started a more aggressive subscriber campaign by signing up people who were visiting our trade show, which attracted 5,000 to 6,000 people. “We’ve gradually grown it to about 12,000 subscribers.”
Douglas never monetized the newsletter directly, and for most of its existence it didn’t tie in much to the business. That all changed in the age of Covid. After he canceled the November trade show in March 2020, he immediately set about pulling together a digital counterpart, one that he could market to his ever-expanding online audience.
First, Douglas needed to find a platform that could actually host a digital trade show. But because there had never been much demand for one, the pickings were slim. “We chose one of them called Swapcard,” he said. “It wasn’t bad, but we worked with them quite closely to develop the type of platform that we thought would work for our event.”
So what format did Douglas settle on? Well, the event still had digital versions of booths, but they weren’t well attended, since they were essentially just landing pages where visitors could peruse information and sign up to receive more. What really received traction were the interactive talks — panels and speeches that attendees could watch live. The platform also allowed people to break off into one-on-one Zoom meetings, so there was a networking component as well. Douglas’s company would collect the contact information for those who attended the talks and then hand it over to the sponsors for lead generation.
Douglas is the first to admit that this digital trade show is nowhere near as alluring a physical one. One of the main draws of in-person trade shows is that you get to travel to a fun city and eat out at restaurants and charge your bar tab to your company. He didn’t know if there was much of a market out there for what was essentially a much less exciting Zoom-a-thon.
But that’s where he benefited from having an intensely loyal newsletter audience; he had direct access to the people who were most passionate about urban mobility — the very people who were still eager to attend a less sexy virtual event. The newsletter was, by far, the most effective marketing channel for driving signups.
So what results did Douglas see? Well, the November trade show drove around €300,000 in revenue — much less than the €1.5 million from the year before, but he had much lower costs. For next year’s trade show he’s already on track to generate €450,000. He also drove upwards of €50,000 in revenue by producing sponsored webinars and white papers throughout the year.
A post-Covid future
Eventually, of course, the virus will go away, and people will start attending live events again. Douglas is already starting to think about his relaunch of a physical trade show in 2022. But he maintains that he won’t be simply returning to the old format; he’s committed to running a hybrid event in which people can attend either virtually or in person. “So every component that happens physically has to be able to happen digitally too,” he explained. “You should be able to participate as a physical exhibitor or as a digital exhibitor. You should be able to participate in a round table digitally or physically, and you should be able to attend as a delegate digitally or physically. So when you have a round table at the show, that will be effectively broadcast on your platform. Anybody can watch it from anywhere in the world, but you should also be able to have a speaker who can participate virtually as well.”
The success of the newsletter has also spurred ideas about other niches Douglas could move into. “Every single major company in the world is now stating that it’ll be carbon neutral by 2040. So what does it mean for companies to go carbon neutral? Nobody is really covering that.” He already has a journalist in mind who he wants to hire to start covering this niche.
And once that new newsletter has generated an audience, Douglas will be ready with a business model. “What I like doing is finding something that’s really complicated and trying to find an audience for it. What we were writing about in the Mobility Weekly newsletter three years ago is now coming true. We predicted accurately the use of micro mobility options like scooters in cities. At the time people didn’t believe us, but we were right. So for us, we really love taking a subject that’s complicated and difficult, publishing content on that subject, and then building a community around it.” After that, the monetization part is easy.
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