Focus on Leadership: Informa Markets North American president Nancy Walsh discusses TISE and the future of the trade show industry – Jan 2022
Interview by Kemp Harr
In January 2020, Nancy Walsh joined Informa-which owns and manages The International Surfaces Event annually as well as a host of other exhibitions. Hired as president of Informa’s fashion portfolio, Nancy was promoted to president of Informa’s North America exhibition business within the year.
Nancy began her trade show career with Reed Exhibitions, where she ascended to the role of president of North America. In 2018, she stepped away to serve as a consultant but missed the collaborative nature of her prior roles and jumped back in for a stint at Freeman Company as senior vice president of brand experience.
A people person, Nancy enjoys the team-centric work of the exhibition business and sees exciting opportunities on the horizon for the trade show industry, as face-to-face events begin again this year.
Informa is a London-based publishing, business intelligence, and exhibitions group, traded on the London Stock Exchange. The company has offices in 43 countries and more than 11,000 employees. Informa has five operating divisions: Informa Connect; Informa Intelligence; Informa Markets; Informa Tech; and Taylor & Francis, a publisher of research books and academic journals.
Q: Tell us a little about Nancy Walsh-where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in the Bronx and Westchester with my parents, two sisters and a ton of animals! Currently, I split my time between Connecticut and South Carolina.
Q: You started in software sales and ended up in the trade show business. What was most difficult about that transition?
A: There was nothing difficult about it because the trade show industry was so much more exciting! My first boss at that software sales company went to Reed and encouraged me to join him. At the time, I was working in Manhattan, and Reed was based in Connecticut, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to reverse-commute to the suburbs. But I’m glad I decided to in the end because I can’t really see myself in any other industry. I love what I do.
Q: You spent 32 years at Reed, then went to Freeman and then landed at Informa. What drove those career shifts?
A: I absolutely loved working for Reed. It’s where I started my trade show career and where I met so many friends and colleagues. But after 32 years, I was ready for a new challenge. I thought I would start my own business as a consultant-and I did, but it was not the right fit. I really love working and collaborating with people and being part of a team.
I had worked with Freeman for a long time, and when they opened the senior vice president of brand experience role, I thought it would be a great opportunity. I think Freeman is an incredible innovator in our industry-my daughter actually works there now-but when the Informa opportunity popped up, I couldn’t pass it up. I was eager to get back to the commercial side of the business, and I have known and respected Charlie McCurdy for a long time, so I was excited to work with him. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!
Q: What do you enjoy most about what you do?
A: I love learning and connecting with people. I’m very much a people person, and I enjoy working as part of a team and in an environment where I’m learning and growing every day.
Q: To say the trade show business has gone through a tumultuous time due to the pandemic would be an understatement. When do you think face-to-face events will be back to normal?
A: We are already seeing projections for a healthy return to face-to-face events in 2022, barring any further challenges stemming from the pandemic. Our customer testimonials in 2021 were really strong, and our rebook rates are already quite high for our 2022 shows. Marketing and corporate travel budgets may not yet return to pre-pandemic levels, but I’m optimistic that we’ll bounce back this year and have a really quality audience at our shows.
Q: What positive changes will the industry enjoy thanks to this disruption in the norm?
A: I don’t think we’ll ever focus solely on face-to-face again, and that’s a good thing. The hybridization of trade shows is a natural progression and allows people to participate from all over the world, extending the reach of our communities. The pandemic has proven both how important in-person connection is and how much we can accomplish virtually. We’re developing “Smart Events,” which are enhanced versions of our traditional face-to-face events with virtual wraparounds that allow for product discovery and networking before, during and after our events, and we’re developing audience and insight solutions to provide a broader range of services to our customers and help them reach their own target audiences more effectively.
Q: Considering that the trade show business is all about connecting people-buyers and sellers at an event-do you think the virtual element will wane over time?
A: Transparently, I don’t think that networking will ever be truly replicable in a virtual format. Relationship-building isn’t a one-click experience. But I think virtual offers us an incredible complement to the face-to-face experience. With virtual solutions, we are offering people the experience that they have come to expect in their day-to-day: participating from wherever you are in the world, having the opportunity to research products and companies online before viewing them in person, setting up meetings with companies that may serve your needs before you arrive onsite. I don’t think that will wane at all; I think that will actually become a more foundational and expected part of the experience.
Q: Will there be an Uber-type disruptor in the trade show business that changes the way we meet and buy goods and services?
A: Yes, I think that’s us! We are putting a lot of effort and investment into disrupting the space and experimenting with better ways to do things. We are in a unique position because we have the scale and resources of a publicly traded, global company, but the culture of a start-up, and I think that serves us well.
We have an enormous amount of first-party data from our events and online solutions and have developed a data management engine to clean and collate that data so we can deliver behavioral insights, buyer intent data, audience segmentation and more to our customers. We are also launching a solution stack called Qualifi, which helps our customers identify target audiences with precision, both at our events and online. We want to offer a more holistic, one-stop-shop opportunity for market access, and I think that is something really unique that we are doing in the space.
Q: I hear you have 900 people on your team. How do you effectively manage a group of that size?
A: That’s simple: a strong, motivated, authentic and inspiring leadership team. I don’t manage a group of 900 people; I manage a group of 12 people who create cultures that people want to be a part of and are loyal to. I recently asked my team to think of what’s important to them in their leadership style, and they said being transparent, authentic and open to learning. They are also very smart, and they all care so much and so genuinely about their teams and their communities.
Q: What is the best way to motivate a team of people?
A: At the risk of sounding repetitive, I think when you are authentic, trust and respect follow. People are motivated when they feel they understand and can connect to the goals set forth for them.
Q: Tell our readers about your guiding principles.
A: Communication, collaboration, coaching and culture.
Q: Other than your parents, who would you say was your strongest mentor, and what did that person teach you?
A: My mentors are my two children. I learn more from them than anyone at this point in my career. They teach me their generation’s way of motivation and value systems that I could not learn anywhere else. They are also brutally honest with me.
Q: Your 28-year-old daughter is following in your footsteps in this same industry. What is your advice to her about achieving success?
A: Trust yourself. Build relationships. Be open to learning. Work hard. Stay authentic. Always over-deliver.
Q: What do you do to sharpen the saw and let off steam when you aren’t focused on the day-to-day?
A: I gain energy from staying in motion. I love to get outside and walk every day. I connect with friends, family and my dog, Stewie. I see live music. I am a connector, so connecting with people brings me happiness.
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