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Stop, Look, and Listen: Clarion’s crossroads moment

By - 29 July 2021

After a 24-month absence, Clarion Gaming has had time to reflect on what the industry wants and needs.

Speaking to G3, Alex Pratt, Group Managing Director at Clarion Gaming, tackles the perennial question of whether the exhibition will remain in London. Not paying lip service to the industry, Alex says the team is currently analysing potential locations and that a decision will be made by the end of the summer.

Issuing a passionate defence of the show’s support for land-based businesses and dismissing the notion of a digital ICE show, the interview examines the logistical wrenches of Covid-19, Brexit, and Clarion’s management team overhaul.

How definitive an answer can you give that ICE London 2022 will be a physical event that will take place in February next year – what are the likely restrictions for visitors and exhibitors?

I’m an optimistic person, but I made the mistake of thinking the 2021 show was going to go ahead too, so I’d say logic tells me it’s highly likely.

The audience make-up of ICE is comprised of over half from the UK, 40 per cent from Europe and the remaining 10 per cent is Rest of the World, the bulk of which is the US – all from countries with high levels of double vaccinated people.

Additionally, the recent survey that we sent out with the help of G3 asked if your audience was planning to attend ICE in 2022. We continue to collate the results, but at present – 75 per cent said Yes, three per cent said No – while the remaining 22 per cent were Not Sure.

And if you look at this last category, they told us they’d visit London if there weren’t travel barriers and quarantines still in existence.

Everything points to the show taking place as planned: we have the right demographics to attend the show, we have permission to run large scale events in the UK from September, which will get easier as we progress, and we have an audience telling us that they want a show, plus we have a huge commitment from our exhibitors.

Considering how far out from February we are, we are very close to replicating the size of ICE 2020, which is very positive and a little unexpected.

What are the contingency plans if the show can’t run in February? Do you go digital?

If we can’t run the show at ExCeL in February then unfortunately, and this is something we learned when attempting to move the show to June this year, finding a date and venue in the calendar to host this scale of event is incredibly difficult.

Plus, the big consideration is whether this would be right for our customers? If we were unable to run the show as scheduled, we’d ask if there’s really a need for a show in six- or nine-months’ time?

From a digital perspective, I personally don’t believe that digital events work for a show such as ICE, which is about discovery of new products and innovations, meeting old friends and making new ones. I think it’s extremely difficult to replicate that experience in a digital format.

Even moving away from physical goods to the sale of digital products for the igaming market, in terms of an exhibition I don’t believe anyone has created a viable digital alternative to live events.

Clarion launched its ICE research initiative recently to understand the perceptions of ICE as well as the industry’s aspirations. What are you looking to achieve, and will this lead to practical changes according to the feedback received?

Clarion Gaming must be forever talking and listening to our customers and acting upon that feedback. We need to understand the challenges and opportunities they are facing. And if we do nothing to help, why would they ever speak to us again?

It is more critical than ever to keep the lines of communication open. It will be two years since the last ICE and in that time the market has gone through the most enormous change. We need to understand what we can do to help our customers realise the opportunities and challenges they face.

This could be something specific, such as innovating around the topic of cashless payments, for example. It could be through content, bringing new solutions to the market, or addressing specific questions – such as what are we doing as an events business to drive innovation?

Small initiatives include Pitch ICE, which has been a very successful part of the show for a long time. However, it’s been focused primarily on the igaming sector, and so we’ve decided to carve out a dedicated category for land-based to help drive innovation, exposure and reward for those companies keen to push boundaries.

A much bigger initiative is asking if the location of the show in London is right for the future of ICE? It’s something that countless people have discussed for many, many years, but after a two-year break, it’s only natural for this question to resurface. And we really want to know if we are making the right decision.

At the end of the day, we are custodians of the ICE show; we are caretakers of an event that is fundamentally owned by our customers. If ICE is not delivering what they want, then we need to make whatever changes are necessary. So, asking questions and acting upon them is critical.

After the massive changes that have taken place in the last 18 months due to the pandemic, do people want to see the show adapting and changing with the times – or do they want, having spent two years without a show, the same traditional, familiar, non-changing event? Do we need radical change or stability right now?

I’ve been attending ICE for 16 years. The scale of the show, the lights, entertainment, and noise are the intangible bits of ICE DNA that make it the biggest gaming show in the world – and we don’t want to mess with that formula. I certainly don’t want to be the one that says – you know what? I’m in charge – so let’s make everything different!

The changes I think we need to make, particularly for 2022, are focused upon assisting customers to extract even more ROI from the show. The tangible side of that is based around customer segments that have emerged during Covid, such as Esports; segments that haven’t been attracted to the show in the past.

The question we’re asking ourselves is what are we doing to lift these elements within the show? I believe that managing this show is about changing the smaller things for the better while leaving in place the major elements that make ICE – ICE.

Clarion has launched ICE365 – a portal closely linked and resembling the iGaming Business website – what’s the USP of this site and is the ICE London site now defunct?

What’s unique about ICE, as an event and a brand, is that it brings multiple communities together under one roof: land-based, lottery, street, igaming, sport betting, media etc. All these entities co-exist under the ICE umbrella, but only for three days a year.

When we stopped being able to run events due to the pandemic and couldn’t deliver the value that our customers wanted, we started to look at how we could extend that experience and brand beyond the walls of ExCeL.

ICE365 was not created as another digital event, as I remain sceptical as to whether even hybrid events deliver any value. Instead, we sought to create a single website that offers unique content for each of ICE’s gaming communities.

And while ICE365 does look like iGaming Business, as it’s built upon the same structural skeleton, we’ve added new content, including an exclusive series that’s a mixture of written articles, webinars, reports and analysis. And we’re not asking visitors to turn up at a specific time and date to view our content when we want to deliver it – it’s available 24/7 all year round.

As to the difference between ICE365 and our dedicated ICE London website. ICELondon.com is a functional website for all practical issues related to the show. Would I ultimately like both websites to become one? Yes. We just need to solve the technical challenges to make that happen.

Clarion has partnered with German tech company, Bayes Esports and Stockholm-based Abios. Is Esports going to feature more prominently at ICE London or remain separate with its own events?

In 2020 we ran Esports Arena, which was an incredible experience and a real eye-opener for the team into the world of tournaments and Esports audiences. As such, Esports has always been part of our strategy. It has grown in importance and risen to the forefront during the pandemic.

So, you’ll see Esports Arena return with a few tweaks and changes as we seek to make it a more immersive and interactive experience. We are also looking to include more Esports content at ICE and will be producing content dedicated to the Esports market throughout the year.

What is ICE Connect (Europe and North America) and is this an initiative that will continue once live events re-emerge? Both events launched in June – what results and feedback can you share?

The concept of ICE Connect is so simple and yet it’s one of the best products I have ever seen. At its core it answers a fundamental question – what is Clarion’s role in this market? ICE Connect connects a buyer with a seller and solves both their problems. A buyer needs a solution – the seller needs a buyer for their solution – which is exactly what ICE Connect does.

I have simplified all the bells, whistles and algorithms that matched together the first participants in June, but feedback shows that the concept works extremely well. Our plan is to run a second ICE Connect in October for the European market, with a North American one staged later in 2022.

ICE Connect is definitely going to be part of our product mixing going forward. However, I want to be clear that ICE Connect isn’t a replacement for live events. As we’ve seen from the enthusiastic response to NIGA, I don’t think there’s any question about the role live events play within the make-up of the gaming industry.

Do you expect bigger numbers coming to ICE 2022?

If ICE were running in the next few months, I think we would see a smaller number of dedicated buyers, a scenario that’s playing out across multiple markets within the Clarion portfolio.

ICE in February will be the first scaled industry event in two years, and so based both on customer feedback and experience in other markets, for example when SARs struck in Asia the return of events saw a huge jump in attendance, our expectations are high for the return of ICE in 2022.

The bigger challenge for me is 2023. How do we you retain attendees that normally visit ICE every other year? How do we incentivise visitors to return in 2023 when they’ve all collectively attended the show in 2022? How do we make sure their show experience and discovery of new products is better than ever before so they return every year to ICE?

We need to fundamentally understand the value that visitors expect from ICE and help drive that value every year. It’s part of a wider understanding of how events have evolved and an admittance that, for a long time, events companies have been lazy when delivering value and ROI, due to the fact that people kept coming back year after year.

My view is that we must be far more accountable for the value we deliver and embrace the digital solutions available to us to make that happen. Whether that’s utilising meeting-based or tracking technologies, applying live feedback during the show and making substantive changes in real-time – there’s lots of opportunity for us to build a bigger and better event each and every year.

ICE Connect and ICE365 were part of a £1m investment in digital technology. Are these two elements the extent of the investment or are there more announcements/launches to come?

A large proportion has been invested in those products, however, ICE365 isn’t complete. I don’t think websites are ever finished and there’s a whole list of ideas for phase two waiting to be implemented.

However, we wanted to get the site out into the wild, as Sheryl Sandberg states, ‘done is better than perfect.’ I think when we see the analysis of how people are using ICE365 and gather feedback from the market, we can start to make changes and add more features.

Elsewhere, we still need to invest in the extension of the digital experience of ICE and we will be building an ICE365 studio as we consider how this solution can be integrated into the event. We’d be kidding ourselves if we think that everyone in the world can visit ExCeL in February for three days, and the idea that if you can’t get to London then you shouldn’t benefit from ICE is ridiculous.

We know that we can’t deliver the full ICE experience online, but if you’re an exhibitor launching a product at the show, is there an opportunity to video the launch and broadcast live to our audience? If we conduct sessions with a live audience, can we broadcast those panels digitally?

Can we provide interviews with exhibitors or attendees and give exclusive insight back to those that want to attend digitally – and can we connect people who can’t visit the show in virtual meeting spaces outside of the event? All things are possible, but we must ensure that we deliver on anything we promise.

ICE doesn’t need to be an ungainly hybrid event with huge robots walking the show floor with VR cameras. That’s not ICE.

So the show wouldn’t be labelled as a Hybrid show, but it will have elements that engage with a digital audience?

I think it is important to make a distinction between live events and online offerings as two completely different experiences. We can’t deliver the live event experience no matter what we do with the current technology. It’s about being human, and you can’t replicate that online.

What we can do is deliver a different type of experience to a remote audience including elements of what it’s like to be at ICE. If we try anything else, we’ll over promise and under-deliver.

Are the original ICE initiatives still running, Ampersand and The Executive Network etc.?

Yes, we’re running all the original ICE initiatives. I love the concept of Ampersand, which I think is brilliant for sharing insights and Ewa Bakun, Director of Industry Insight and Engagement, does an amazing job pulling everything together.

I think they are really useful for our customers to meet and connect, but they are especially important for Clarion to gain insight as to where we should be concentrating our focus.

As regards The Executive Network, despite being dormant over the last 18 months we’ve been looking at how TEN can fit outside of our events and what benefits it can deliver for our customers in the future. TEN is a very effective way to have eyes and ears in the market and to support growth and development and in this case the recovery of the market.

Is the ICE agenda totally focused on the igaming and the sports betting sectors? What are the land-based initiatives that you’ve implemented and are you talking directly to the smaller land-based suppliers who are most worried by the postponements and changes?

Land-based is critically important. My background is the igaming sector and so to understand the land-based sector is of paramount importance to me. Not only understanding it as an industry, but the people, the nuances, what’s important and where are the challenges?

My time in the last five months has been dedicated to speaking to customers and industry veterans, asking them where we are going right and wrong. We have also conducted research with external companies to get beneath the skin of the sector to find out who is responsible for the buying process, where are the challenges, where are they finding new customers and where are those customers finding the solutions that they need?

We fundamentally need to know what Clarion can do as a business to support both the recovery and future growth. I think it’s even more important because land-based has been most affected over the last 18 months.

My philosophy is that we need to be there in the good times, but it’s even more important to support customers in the bad times. If I’m not helping their business right now, then I shouldn’t expect support from this market further down the line.

Some of the initiatives we have announced include dedicated categories at Pitch ICE and hosted buyer programmes, which are 90 per cent focused on the land-based sector. We know that we must incentivise buyers who have supported ICE for many years, to make ICE a top priority once again.

We need to support them financially, help them connect with the right people, organise their hotel stay and be part of the wider support programme for the land-based sector.

The market is telling us that costs have become very significant and so we are announcing our ICE Charter. (The ICE Charter launched two days following this interview, including: £500,000 investment in Hosted Buyer Programme; freeze on costs of exhibiting in 2022 and 2023, special team to negotiate hotel rates, discounts on IT and Web costs).

We know that ICE is fundamentally important to the recovery of the land-based sector and we need to make it as easy as possible for buyers to attend the show. We need to ensure there’s enough space for the land-based exhibitors on the show floor versus the online sector. And we must ensure the right exhibitors are in the right locations.

If rumours that ICE has become an igaming event persist on the show floor at ICE 2022, I’ll personally give guided tours of all the changes and investments we’ve made that are dedicated to land-based.

If people don’t feel the that they are being listened to – especially the smaller companies – put my contact details into this article so that people can contact me directly – [email protected] It doesn’t matter if you are small or big – we are led by our customers as a whole.

Before the pandemic, the ICE brand was seeking to create regional events under the ICE umbrella. Has Clarion dropped these ambitions and returned to a single calendar ICE event or do you see the resurrection of ICE “geography” events in the future?

Covid has had a huge effect on Clarion’s business. We have not been able to fundamentally operate our business in 18 months, which has given us a long time to step back and consider our approach to the market.

In the medium-term our focus is entirely on the core business, our European events that include: iGBLive, iGBAffiliate London and, of course, ICE. In addition, we have added our digital product solutions to form a platform to help grow and accelerate those live events.

For the next two years our heads are down focused on these shows, however, that doesn’t mean we won’t seek out partnerships and collaborate on initiatives in new territories.

We are very much focused on that core right now, but once this has levelled out, we will look at other opportunities and when we come to the market, with its permission, we will launch whatever the industry wants, if it delivers value.

What we won’t do is say we’re going to launch across multiple continents with a view to taking over the world, because without permission there’s fundamentally no point.

Alex, what’s been your journey both in the gaming industry and within Clarion Gaming? How did you get the top job?

My journey in gaming started on a Friday. In September 2004, I started working for iGaming Business magazine in the burgeoning igaming sector. On the Saturday I flew to Las Vegas for G2E and my eyes popped open.

What it gave me was insight into one of the most exciting, fast moving and dynamic sectors I have ever discovered. I made a ton of friends in a matter of days and from there I never left gaming.

We grew iGaming Business from a quarterly magazine through to other publications in the sector, including the first affiliate magazine and affiliate event. We went through a whole world of adventures before 2016, at which time we’d grown to a size of business and earned the respect of the industry to the degree that Clarion came along and acquired us.

I’ve exhibited and attended every Clarion show over the years, and ICE was this epic gigantic show I’d watched evolve alongside EIG and GIGSE. My role working with Kate saw me growing out the publishing side of Clarion’s business and I spent the next few years focused on the digital marketing sector, acquiring the Affiliate Summit and the Traffic & Conversion Summit to build out a division within Clarion focused on digital marketing.

I was working in this area in October/November last year when we went through Covid enforced change. Clarion sought to restructure the business, whereby I took the MD chair overseeing all gaming products as we emerge from the pandemic.

Is this an opportune time to take on this role – or the worst time?

It is an opportunity. I think fresh eyes on any business is good – especially if they’re looking at things from a new perspective. I can’t deny that it’s been tough, especially with a much smaller team. We’ve had to make some really hard decisions about people within the business, which is never easy.

And there’s a lot of pressure, both internally to recover and bounce back, and externally too – since this event is more than just a product, it is an important part of this sector. There are a huge number of stakeholders that quite rightly have a major interest in this show, which puts a lot of pressure on me to deliver on that expectation.

Only a handful of the original team that organised the ICE 2019 show are still with Clarion Gaming. What have been the factors in the turnover of staff and who are the new key team members running the show – and do you have the numbers to manage the show at this stage?

We made the hard decisions and let some people go, but most of the team involved with the operations side of the event are still here.

Eva Bakun, who oversees and runs TEN and Ampersand is still involved, but we recognised that we lost experience and knowledge, which is why Kate Chambers is back as an advisor to ensure we’re not missing low-tech items that are really important to the audience, but might not be obvious to us.

In addition, Greg Saint, who used to be ICE’s Event Director is again helping us with the continuity of knowledge. Stuart Hunter is a new face having joined the Clarion Gaming team in the last 18 months, but he’s spent 17 years in Clarion’s consumer division and has huge experience running consumer facing events.

He understands all the elements that make those shows successful and just because ICE is a B2B event, doesn’t stop us from delivering a consumer experience.

We have also brought in a new head of marketing, Jeannette Gilbert. She has a lot of experience with big audiences driving customer-led strategies and she is building out an experienced team as we staff-up rapidly across the business. We need to expand with investment into new capabilities in data and customer success..

The final element is our ICE Ambassadors – people that aren’t necessarily the biggest names in the industry, but are well connected, experienced and who will hold us to account. We will start to announce those names over the next month, but they will be recognisable faces and they’ll be drawn mainly from the land-based sector.

Clarion announced it was making former Group MD Kate Chambers a consultant to ICE in October last year, in November she left entirely – in June 2021 Kate became an advisor under the guise of Fulwood Media. We plan to ask Kate about the rollercoaster ride, but as you’re now Group MD, what are our readers to make of this hokey-cokey?

I agree it’s been a hokey-cokey. We have been going through a lot of change and there were many conversations between Kate and myself about the role that would deliver material difference and value both to her new business and ICE. At the time Kate was establishing Fulwood Media and so it took a while to find the right blend.

I think it’s amazing that Kate has launched her own business and we’re her first customer. She has big plans and product ideas she’s bringing to market, which I think are incredible and we will do everything we can to support them.

Not only that, but Kate is also helping to make a material difference to the event we deliver in February. She is the eyes and ears of the land-based market. Kate is able to listen to the market and put pressure on me to make changes to ICE that reflects what the industry wants.

How are you dealing with the issues raised by Brexit? The shipping and the movement goods – the increased costs and delays?

There is no denying that Brexit will impact upon customers transporting products into the UK. However, I think there’s a lot of misconceptions too. There are three areas that Brexit impacts – timelines, duties/tax and administration. On timelines, what we are finding from our official freight-forwarders is that Brexit is adding an extra two days to shipping, which isn’t a huge impact.

Many of the land-based suppliers are shipping weekly to the UK and have told us that in March it was hard and there were a lot of teething problems, but since then they haven’t found it difficult – at least not in regards to timescales.

The other element is cost, which is more important and is dependent upon the value of the product shipped into the UK. If it is a temporary import, goods not remaining in the country – such as those at an exhibition, the only charge is a custom fee.

However, if suppliers leave goods in the country, they must pay a duty and tax. And to really understand how this impacts each product, customers can speak to our freight-forwarding companies, who are preparing freight documents in the next few weeks.

We are also looking to conduct a webinar with our freight-forwarders in October, so that customers can ask any questions they need answering. However, as it’s at the front of people’s minds at the moment, we’re looking to pull this date forward and we will also record and share with all parties.

And the final element is administration, which as far as I understand it, the change is a small increase that again the forwarding companies will tend to complete for you.

Will the ICE show move to mainland Europe – and is there a timescale for when this might happen?

The clamour to move the show has gotten louder and louder since the last ICE show in 2020. I want to understand if this is something that the market wants or is there just a handful of people making a lot of noise? We are the custodians of ICE and if the market wants us to move the show – we will move the show.

What is the best thing for Clarion Gaming? Unequivocally, that’s to keep the show in London. Moving an event of this size is a logistical nightmare and isn’t necessarily going to deliver a better event, but having said that – the best thing for me is for the show to reflect what our customers want – so if customers don’t want ICE in London, then we’ll move the event.

In terms of timescale, if we do move the show then it wouldn’t happen until 2024 at the earliest. In London, for example, there are only two shows of an equivalent size to ICE. These are rare commodities and not something that you just pick up and put down.

So, after a great deal of discussion with the market it wouldn’t be any earlier than 2024. However, we will be starting those discussions this year. We need to understand who within the customer set is pushing for change and why are they want it?

As we start to understand the why, we can look at how we can change things – and if we can’t change their minds then by looking at the alternatives, we can discuss whether new locations would solve or address their issues in the long-term.

We would also need to address the fact that if we move the show to Europe then we’re flipping the Brexit problem round for our UK customers. And is Brexit at its core more important than the 90 per cent of the visitor base wanting the show to be staged in London?

If the buyers want to come to London, but the exhibitors want to save costs and not stage the show in London – which is more important? It’s a complicated decision and there isn’t an easy answer.

However, I will commit to having that answer by the end of this summer. We have to give consistency to the market, or we will be spending the rest of our lives talking about where ICE should be held, as opposed to how we can build a better show.

How big a role in the success of ICE does the city play in which it is located?

It’s massively important. We look at accessibility, evening entertainment, the costs of the city in terms of travel, accommodation and living costs. London is one of the best cities in the world when you consider all the metrics. There is a reason why ICE has been so successful to date. So, if we’re going to move the event then we need to find a city that ticks the same boxes.

It needs to be as good if not better than London. And you must remember that London is also changing. Cross Rail – at last – will open in October 2022. It will be too late for ICE 2022, but it will fundamentally change what ICE looks like in London.

It won’t be a massive warehouse on the outskirts of the city that you only travel to when visiting the O2 or ExCeL. And we also can’t dismiss that fact that one of the most important aspects is the venue.

Finding a venue that’s available in a city that ticks those boxes is difficult, because ICE consumes the entire venue. And if we tick the availability box, we also have to make sure that it’s the right type of building. Many of these exhibition centres are ancient with low ceilings and obtrusive columns spread across many halls.

Does this deliver the type of experience visitors want? Do you want to spend 20 minutes walking through a maze of corridors to find other halls? When you start to consider the alternatives – what is more important overall? It is not a simple answer and it’s not something that I thought I’d be having to consider in my first five months in this role.

Clarion Gaming needs to keep growing and expanding its business as part of the Blackstone investment portfolio. Outside of the ICE London show, how is Clarion Gaming expanding its offer and what sectors/markets are of particular interest?

Blackstone does need to exit, that’s their business model, but that’s unlikely in the near-term in which our focus is fixed on strengthening the core and building resilience.

I realise that sounds counter intuitive in terms of private equity but using non-financial metrics like NPS (Net Promoter Score) and customer satisfaction scores, these are the most important metrics to illustrate how the business has fared through the pandemic. We haven’t been able to deliver the product in 24 months, and so we need to show that we can grow back the business.

I’m entrepreneurial and I love opportunity. I’m hungry for that – and so if we’re given permission by the market and there is an opportunity to grow our business, we will go after it. But that’s not necessarily in the format that we’ve seen before.

Part of our role is to find innovation in this market and innovate ourselves and I think this will influence our move into new segments and new products. What they look like – I’ll show you in 12 months.

How important is it to get that first show under your belt?

I’m not fresh to the gaming market. I understand it – I know it. And I also know ICE. I’ve worked with Kate for the last four years and I still work with Kate. What I’m doing now is listening and acting and taking incremental steps.

When we went to our supplier base and they told us that costs were a real problem, ROI is getting harder to prove and that’s only going to be more important in 2022 – we went away and came back with a whole set of changes around reducing costs at the show. We are now talking to the operator side of the market to implement further changes to add additional support.

I am trying to walk the walk slowly, but if I don’t deliver upon what I say, I know I’ll be held to account by you and by our customers. But so far, I’ve delivered everything I’ve promised and that will continue throughout the lead up to ICE.

For me, it’s hugely important to gather the industry together under one roof and celebrate after two long years apart, but I also know I’ll have one eye on the next show in 2023, which is just as vital.

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