x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Chris Speller: director shows he has talent to build on

Profile: The driving force behind the Cityscape property exhibitions in the Middle East has known and overcome some major challenges. But he believes the future of the shows is a bright one as the region's markets recover.

Chris Spellers 
 Illustration by Christopher Burke, for The National
Chris Spellers Illustration by Christopher Burke, for The National

Chris Speller, group director for Informa, the company which runs the Cityscape property shows in the Middle East, is a man who enjoys a challenge.

That's possibly why he held this year's inaugural Cityscape Egypt exhibition in the middle of the country's upheavals.

"It was a big challenge trying to launch a show during a revolution," says the affable Mr Speller, 40, from Surrey in southern England. "I had a lot of people turning round and saying, 'Are you mad? I had the guys in London and Geneva phoning me up and saying, 'Chris, really have you lost the plot? What are you doing, you're going to cost us a fortune.'"

Despite taking place in February during fresh protest that followed last year's Tahrir Square demonstrations, Mr Speller says the Egyptian show proved a success, attracting just over 12,500 visitors and garnering a surprising number of home sales.

"We had a call from the minister for housing who said that they had recorded over 1.6 billion Egyptian pounds [Dh964m] worth of sales during the show period, so in their words, we transformed and boosted the real estate market," he adds.

And it's not just Cityscape Egypt that has been testing Mr Speller's resolve. The public school educated former concert organiser faced the difficult task of breathing new life into the prestigious Dubai and Abu Dhabi property shows in April 2009, at a time when the UAE property market was reeling from the effects of the global economic downturn.

"I arrived to start this job in 2009. Literally my first day was the build up of Cityscape Abu Dhabi," he says. "My role was really to come in, look at the business and see where I could offer the best support. It was a challenge at the time. But coming from UK events and coming in to see these fantastic stands - even during those tough times - was fantastic. The commitment developers put in to building their stands is second to none," he adds. "And seeing that sort of established event, I thought, 'Yes I've definitely made the right decision.'"

The move from the United Kingdom may have come at a tough time for the UAE property market but it also came at a tough time for Mr Speller personally. He joined Informa after his own events organisation and consultancy company, Coastal Events, which he had run for five years, failed in the UK recession.

"With a partner of mine I ran the Clapham Outdoor Show in south London. We had acts like the Happy Mondays," Mr Speller reminisces. "But then the recession hit my business and so I put myself back on to the market. At that point, the UK wasn't receptive to employing people, most firms were looking to make redundancies and I was offered the chance to try this. You do what is necessary to support your family."

The sluggish market, too, continues to affect the UAE shows. Mr Speller says Cityscape Global, which takes place in Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre next month, will not be attracting anything like the 40,000 visitors it did during the boom years of 2006 and 2007. But nonetheless, he says after re-branding itself to attract more international players, the exhibition's organiser, Informa, predicts the number of participants will grow by about 25 per cent on last year to approximately 21,500.

"Dubai was built up on the basis of international speculators," Mr Speller says.

"Its dynamics have now changed and it has very much addressed itself against those speculators and has pushed them out of the market, which is the best thing that could have possibly happened.

"The rationale in 2009 was to make the name represent what the show had become," he says. "We weren't trying to change it or develop it or anything like that. It was simply the fact that people assumed Cityscape Dubai was just about the real estate market in Dubai and that wasn't the fact. It is a fact that, although the show is smaller, we're seeing a lot more international players so we're seeing people coming from countries such as Turkey, which is the country of honour at this year's event. And Qatar, Iraq and Egypt, Russia and India. And obviously we're seeing some of the Abu Dhabi companies. The list goes on."

Mr Speller admits Informa thought carefully about merging the Dubai and Abu Dhabi shows as the UAE property markets slowed - and it continues to review the situation.

"Those discussions did and do take place on a regular basis," he says. "We have gone to government entities, we have gone to developers, we have gone to the participants. We'd love to combine them because it would reduce our costs but overwhelmingly the response has been saying that they like the dynamic of the two separate events.

"It gives them the opportunity to highlight Abu Dhabi as the capital of the UAE. And Global has established itself as a show that does represent Dubai but represents all the other regions of the GCC, and the [Middle East and North Africa] region and is a recognised international show."

So what next for the golf-loving father of two and the Middle East property shows he organises? How will the Cityscape events evolve over the next three to five years?

"A three to five-year plan in this market is ambitious at best," he says. "Last year we made the decision we were going to quadruple our marketing spend. And this is really to try to support the exhibitors and to try to drive the participants as well.

"We are really driving to increase our participants by 25 per cent. And as far as the elements of the show are concerned we're in line to achieve 40 per cent growth on exhibitor space.

"Having someone like Informa behind us means we are here for the long term," he adds.

"We're not here to establish ourselves and then disappear again two months later. We're here through the good times and the tough times and as the market returns."

lbarnard@thenational.ae

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