Virtual offering fuels growth at events business

Richard Murphy

It’s no secret that the event industry was hit hard by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 but from those ashes one business has risen like a phoenix.

First Event is based in Yeadon and the founder and managing director, Richard Murphy, sat down with TheBusinessDesk.com to talk about how the business has not only adapted to survive but in actual fact thrived!

“Prior to Covid,” Murphy started, “We were a team of about 40 people doing 70-80 events a year with a turnover of about £9m-£10m.”

He explained that pre-pandemic the business created both UK and global conferences and incentive trips for businesses all over the world. Everything from taking over F1 tracks to desert treks in Dubai and events for 30-5,000 people or more.

“Then Covid hit and everything went, they were dark days for us as a business as everything we offer disappeared overnight when lockdowns and restrictions on travel and meetings were put in place.

“So, when our business disappeared overnight, the question became ‘what do we do?’ The answer for us was to expand the virtual side to the business. For example, at the time one of our clients was due to do a conference for 400-500 people and we explained how we can deliver this virtually around the world. Of course, we’d created virtual events before but not with such short time scales.”

Like all good suggestions the proof would be in the pudding and Murphy smiles as he remembers when the client said yes to the concept.

“We thought ‘Oh my God, do we actually have time to convert this whole event to a virtual event? However, we worked to build an event platform structure that enabled us to quickly convert all of our clients’ live events to bespoke virtual events with only weeks of planning (not the standard months) and we delivered around 80 virtual events in the space of 4 months August – November 2020. Once only offered as an addition to a live event, we’re now pitching and winning digital event work internationally as a result.”

He joked that pitching for virtual work against companies in Australia, U.S and Hong Kong was “humbling because we’re doing this from our office in Yeadon.”

That story however marked just the start as Murphy noted that the virtual offering is now part of First Event’s growth strategy, which will see the business this year turnover £20m and work with companies including the NHS, Just Eat, Virgin Media, Raleigh, and global cryptocurrency Cardano.

“We’ve literally gone from being on our knees [at the start of the pandemic] to having a completely different company. By August, we will be at 83 full time employees – over double what we had pre-Covid! As part of this we have gained some completely new skill sets such as a team of in-house Web Developers who work on platforms, apps and websites for our clients through to Virtual Producers, and more.”

This growth, Murphy explained was always a challenge as he was keen to maintain the culture of the business which in 2021 became employee owned.

“The thing I’ve found challenging as leader of a company which is doubling in size is to maintain the culture which has made us successful. I never want us as a business to turn into one of those homogenised giants where my values and the values of everyone in the leadership team and the whole business are lost. I want them to remain in everything we do, to support us in this next phase.”

Looking to the future Murphy says that Covid hasn’t been the death knell for live events.

“Digital has gone huge and it works, because sustainability and accessibility are key for all of our clients and all businesses now – so the times of flying to New York for a one-night conference are probably gone. But it’s not just that, it’s about changes to people’s lifestyles and how their relationship with work is changing too. If you’re a Chief Executive, you don’t need to fly to New York for that one-day conference and have drinks and fly home the next day; you can carry on doing your day job, attend the conference virtually in the UK and then go home to your wife and kids. Digital can allow attendees a greater work-life balance at times and is a great solution to those with global teams and the increased popularity of working from home.”

It’s crucial however for Murphy that it’s not live vs digital, actually it’s about “a bit of both”.

“A new event has evolved off the back of the rise in digital and hybrid activity and it’s called Watch Parties. We had a client come to us wanting to hold a launch event. Previously and pre-covid we’d created one in Miami for them, flying everyone in for a big celebration. In September 2021 they wanted to do another event in the midst of the relaxed, but not fully lifted, travel and event restrictions. So, this time we took over an American Football stadium in Wyoming to host a reduced size event but we also created a global platform for them which saw 140,000 people sign up to attend the event virtually around the world. We also created six smaller watch party events in London, Berlin, Tokyo, Cape Town, New York and Miami which adhered to each country’s covid restrictions and were linked to Wyoming virtually via giant screens to help them to be part of this amazing conference.”

But, while digital has seen rapid growth because of large societal and behavioural shifts, live events have seen a boom as people look to experience what they’ve missed most over the last two years.

“There’s a lot of people who haven’t travelled for two years now, so there’s a pent-up demand and we’ve had clients saying they’ve got a budget and want to do something as soon as possible. For the past six months it’s been busy. We’ve had conferences for over 1000 people, 500 people out in Las Vegas, 900 people in Barcelona, and even charted the whole of the Orient Express to Venice for a private party of 120 – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

So, looking ahead and with both areas of digital and experiential clearly “booming” what’s next for the business?

“Our three-year plan is for £35m in three years and originally that was for us to achieve £19m this year, £25m next and £35m year after.

“That growth is the result of the whole team and it comes from a shared ambition. So, when we became employee owned last year I sat down with the leadership team and everyone else and said ‘what do you want to do with your business?’ The answer unanimously was we want to be a great company – now yes that means continuing to deliver a great customer experience, be a great employer etc but for everyone it also meant being a bigger agency with more support and resource for the events teams, so we’ve invested in it, put a strategy behind it and now it’s delivering.”

Away from just the turnover growth Murphy says there are already opportunities for First Events to expand from Yeadon, the business already operates hybrid working and has a satellite office in the North West where it employs people from Manchester, Liverpool and Cheshire and even has a base for its Italian employees in Rome but Murphy wouldn’t rule out further international expansion.

“Going forward I think we’ll have two or three people working in different time zones with satellite offices around the world which will create new opportunities and make us a true 24-hour agency with teams who can work with and respond to clients in their local time zones.”

It’s clear that First Event is on a growth trajectory but for Murphy it’s about more than just the numbers on the accounts.

“We’ve set up an internal academy not only to ensure our standards and quality remains high despite our growth, but to support bringing people into the industry. Not just school leavers but people looking to change careers. We are also looking at ways to increase diversity in our company and support the BAME community.

“I’m actually a bit obsessed with social integration, we’re all quite lucky here so we’re looking at ways we can give back to the community. I left school at 16 and was a YTS trainee and I’ve been lucky to get where I am. Fortune has been good to me, so I’d like it if we could use First Event’s success to give opportunities to others, it’s just the right thing to do!”

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