Conference & Meetings World Issue 102 - Page 16

Big interview $100m meeting man lastair Stewart and Nicholas Hoare, CEO and COO respectively of etc.venues, are to take their successful urban day venue model across the Atlantic. They revealed exclusively to CMW editor Paul Colston that they will go Stateside armed with a fresh US$100m tranche of private equity funding to roll out the brand in New York and the East coast. Etc.venues CEO Alastair Stewart was winner of the Transformational Leader award at this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year, London and South East. It is easy to understand why. He has grown the UK urban day venue portfolio seven-fold into a £70m ($84.8m) business, since he led a management buyout backed by Dunedin in 2006. Further PE backing followed in 2012, and now Stewart reveals publicly for the first time to CMW his plans to double it again within five years. He will be backed by a further $100m of private equity funding from US global hospitality investors Gencom and Benchmark, the fund that took a major stake a year ago. Etc. venues has already opened the first of three planned New York venues, with two more to come before the New Year. These will add to the 17 UK event spaces which, Stewart claims, have already seen etc. overtake both Hilton and Marriott in London for meeting rooms (with 278). Stewart is not one for resting on laurels, and doesn’t suffer industry fools gladly. He is never shy to share his opinions. One is that the industry has not been successful in getting its valuable message across. “The conference centre sector has had its moments, but if we’re to get interest and investment we need some success stories,” says Stewart. Most of etc.’s success has come in the capital, thanks to its booming meetings sector. London has nearly all of etc.venue openings, although Stewart notes its Manchester property has started to deliver. “We are seeing higher rates in 16 / CONFERENCE & MEETINGS WORLD / there than in Birmingham. There is good demand and good rates.” By implication, it is a somewhat tougher ask in Brum. Aiming for the Big Apple So, how did the New York big idea come about? “It is a personal vision. I’ve always wanted to take the business there,” says Stewart. The etc. chief says the tipping point was when his UK private equity investors were not supportive of Stewart’s international expansion idea. “They are a UK-focused fund. Our finance director Paul Keen left and we changed from UK PE to American investors, Gencom and Benchmark.” Another significant part of the new paradigm was Nick Hoare joining as COO last year. Hoare had previously worked at Dunedin so knew the business and its DNA well. Since the Gencom investment the centre of gravity switched from London to New York. “The whole ball game has changed from a good sized London business to transforming into a global business,” says Stewart. He explains that, having honed the model in London and making it scaleable, it is now the aim to deploy in New York and benefit from the much larger market. Stewart sees the urban day venue market largely dominated by four big brands: Etc. venues (UK); Convene in North America; Chateauform (Europe); and Cliftons in Australasia. “Previously, we had all stuck to our home markets,” says Stewart. “Convene may come to the UK, of course,” but he says etc. is more than ready to compete. Stewart believes there is plenty to export and while acknowledging that in the US there is a bigger spread of activity, he maintains the pace of innovation has been much greater in Europe. “Europe is so far ahead in technology and innovation,” says Stewart, while Nick Hoare adds that the UK approach to training and meetings means venue suppliers have had to adapt more quickly. “We had to evolve to keep ISSUE 102 up with demand,” he says. Stewart can be forgiven for letting his eyes move to the bigger prizes. “The big change is our focus on larger venues,” he says. And they don’t come much bigger than the old Greater London Council HQ at County Hall, where Stewart and Hoare are holding court. “This etc. venue has been a huge success and symbolises our natural progression from training to big events,” says Hoare. More good numbers, but there have been recessionary bumps along the road. What would Stewart have done differently with hindsight? “Given how good the market has been we could have been more ambitious and done well. You can never know the cycle, but we could have been bolder with investment,” he admits. HSBC goes hipster? As etc. gets bigger and used to playing with the Big Boys of international PE, what of the new disruptors coming up behind? “Some are trying to climb on the back of the co-working phase,” Stewart says. “It is driven by WeWork who have expanded significantly in London, making landlords think more carefully.” He believes that up to 1,100 people from HSBC are set to relocate to WeWork premises, but that they may be surprised to find there isn’t training space, but rather ‘cocoons’. “We, however, occupy office space and rent on demand,” contrasts Stewart. “My view is that the conventional office will come back. You always need doors in business.” Stewart does agree that the concept of Space As A Service (SPaaS) is very helpful in terms of raising capital and it's why etc. is repositioning towards being perceived as operating in the SPaaS sphere. Tech Another important area where etc. wants to show leadership, says Stewart, is through investment in technology. “As a sector we are being woeful. We are one of the only companies [in the sector] with a proper online booking