Hear About Plans For A Revived DSE From Questex CEO Paul Miller

June 23, 2021 by Dave Haynes

When news broke back in March that the live events and publishing firm Questex had bought the assets of Digital Signage Expo, there was, understandably, a lot of interest and speculation about whether that might mean the defunct trade show and conference would be revived.

It will be, likely around the same timeframe as the past, and back in Las Vegas. It is also likely it will have the same name – though it might just be called DSE. 

What’s also clear is that it will not be a simple re-boot of the old show – which makes perfect sense, since the Digital Signage Expo that ran for 15+ years would politely be described as spinning its wheels by the end – with attendance flatlined and exhibitor counts shrinking.

I contacted Questex when news first broke of the DSE assets being acquired at auction, and have had a few conversations since then with the company, including its CEO Paul Miller.

I wasn’t sure how much he could tell me, but we had a terrific, very open chat about what went down, and his company’s thinking around a new and different DSE in 2022 expected to happen come early next spring. 

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David: Paul. Thank you for joining me. Who is Questex? 

Paul Miller: Hi, Dave, thanks for having me first and foremost. Questex is a media and information services business that produces events alongside its media sites. We have been in existence as a company for about 15 years, just over. We are a company that focuses on really five or six markets, that is the life sciences and healthcare markets, the technology markets, and then we also focus on the areas of travel hospitality & wellness, and all of that is wrapped up around a focus on the experience economy. That’s who we are and we do events, we do media websites, we do all kinds of connecting of buyers and sellers in those areas. 

David: So of those properties that you have in the context of the Pro AV world, what would people who are listening to this most likely know, LDI or the Nightclub & Bar Show? 

Paul Miller: Yeah. They would probably know our Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas, mainly because that would have been in history. Some cases would collaborate with DSE and in some cases would just sit alongside so they would know that. 

They probably would know the Lighting Dimension Show, the LDI show that you mentioned. Yeah, that’s also one that is quite well known in this space. I would say outside of that, there are events that I think are relevant in the hotel area, in the spa area, in the gym area where we’re connecting owners of hotels & operators of hotels and gyms and spas with various people that want to sell into those spaces. So of course digital signage is a huge area for all of those end users. So they may not know those, but certainly, I think they’re areas that we think are very relevant. 

David: We’ll get into acquiring assets of DSE, but I was curious when that happened, so I looked up Questex to see who they are and how they work and I get a sense that your typical approach is you have publishing wing as a foundational thing that kind of sets the content for that particular vertical market, and then you grow and market the live event off of that. Is that a fair assessment? 

Paul Miller: Yeah, I think that’s a good assessment, Dave.

We believe that we should be engaged with communities 365 days through the year because people don’t always wait for an event before they make their decision. So we want to help them through that buying process through content that attracts them to our websites. As they interact with that content, we like to use that data to produce what we would consider a very relevant show. So when you come to the show, it’s content that’s been popular throughout the year, probably speakers that have been writing content that you can come and meet live. So we see a full connection between how people in the B2B world look for content, and how they go through that buying process, and the event is part of that. 

In many cases, it’s an exciting part of it, because people come to actually buy. In some cases, they come to network. In some cases, they come to get educated, and in some cases, all three. So, that idea that we would just do an event, and then see you next year is not really in our DNA. We’re more, “Hey, we want to serve you throughout the year, and we’d love to see you live at the event if relevant.” 

David: And I also get a sense that that the events look different depending on the vertical. So you don’t necessarily do a full trade show with exhibits for a certain vertical because it really doesn’t fit, whereas, for other verticals, it may. 

Paul Miller: That actually is a really astute comment. I think sometimes in our world, not the digital signage world. This is our world at Questex. We sometimes talk about events a little bit like somebody saying, “I’m going on vacation to Africa,” and your first question is what country you’re going to because you’re going to have a different experience depending on where you’re going. 

In the events world too, there are various flavors. In some events, it truly is sort of a cash and carry. You bring in your goods, you set up your store and people come in and they buy your goods, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. By the way, I do not think that applies to digital signage, certainly on the whole, but that there is a flavor of event that we do that sort of emulates that, that is very much you come in to buy stuff and the exhibitors are there to sell stuff and success is how much did I sell, frankly?

And then there are the educational type events which sort of surround large conferences. I think you’d be familiar with these: great speakers, good education, and some really good networking off-piece at the hotel bar afterward, et cetera, and then you can get into some really specific events which are matchmaking buyers with sellers. This particular buyer is looking for this solution and we’re going to put you in a room with this seller. They tend to be more intimate, very VIP, in some cases, we will host those buyers. So we tend to be, and I think your comment is right on. We tend to look for what fits what element of the market at the right time.

I think where it gets exciting, Dave, and this probably leads us into sort of our thoughts around the Digital Signage Expo is that in many cases you can do all three. You can have a great conference, you can have a great show, trade show floor, and you can do great matchmaking, and it doesn’t work all the time. We have a feeling that it is relevant to DSE from what we’ve been hearing from the market, but you’re absolutely right on the money. We don’t really have a one size fits all approach as a company, and I think given the communities we serve, that would be very difficult for us to shoehorn in certain templates if you will. 

David: Right. So back in, I think you said it was April, but you acquired the assets of Exponation. What did you actually acquire? 

Paul Miller: We acquired the assets of Digital Signage Expo which would have included the trademarks, the websites, the database, the customer database. I think that was about it. A few other URLs, websites that sort of surrounded the industry a little bit. But everything that Exponation had that was DSE-related is what we acquired. 

David: And how did that happen? Was there like a Broker who came to you and said, “Hey, we have this”, or do you have people who just pay attention to this sort of thing? 

Paul Miller: No, it was strange, to be honest. The last year has been strange in many ways. Firstly, we’re very aware at Questex of DSE. We had, as mentioned at the start, we had seen the show, we had visited the show. I wandered over to the show while at our Nightclub & Bar event.

David: Just to sober up? (Laughter)

Paul Miller: Yeah, actually, just to see what it’s like at a B2B show that isn’t serving alcohol, which is a different field, and actually we had been impressed for many years with the show. We certainly didn’t really know the understories and what was really going on, but from a very shallow view, I would say, the show looked very professional. There were great companies, and there was good buzz, and we always said to each other that, that looks like a great event, and that was about it, just for the record. 

Then I forget the actual timing, but sometime in the fall of last year, we obviously saw the story that Exponation had filed for Chapter 7, and that sort of alerted us about that a lot of us that are in the events business, the pandemic has been devastating. It wasn’t that it was a surprise, but to be honest as having that sort of very narrow and shallow knowledge of the show, we were like, wow that’s a shame that, that was a good looking event and we’re probably going to see more of this was our initial reaction. Then what happened, Dave is that we got a notice from, I think it was the bankruptcy court. I can’t remember who it was, but anyway, we got a notice that the assets were going to be auctioned to help raise funds, for those people that the debt was owed to if you will.

So we said, okay we like these assets and we’ve got some things that we could bring to the event, or this was before we knew, by the way, that might be relevant. So we entered into an auction process and it was the first time in my career that I’ve ever been through such a process and it truly was a person on the phone, basically banging the gavel and saying, “Yep,  sold to the people at the back,” and that ended up being us. We obviously then did a lot of homework before we went into the auction. We got our hands around a little bit. What was the size of the show? What was the target audience for the show? What do we think we could bring to the show? And it checked a lot of boxes for us. Yeah, we went into the auction seriously and we won that auction, and then, of course, you find what actually have we acquired? And that was a fascinating sort of few weeks of research. 

David: I’ve spoken with you in the past, I’ve spoken with someone else from your company and a consultant, Brad Gleeson, who you’ve engaged to help out with this. 

I’m curious, as you’ve done your kind of due diligence and exploration of the industry, what have you been hearing about the industry, your impressions on that, but also, we can go from there to what are you going to do? 

Paul Miller: Sure. So firstly I have to say, and I think you know this that there wasn’t a lot of ho-hum type of commentary in the research when we went to the industry. People were very passionate about space, very passionate about this product. Not all of it positive. I think there’ve been some negative experiences for certain people, but what we did find, Dave, was that this is an industry that is going through terrific growth and that growth looks to be sustainable, certainly, through the next half a decade if not beyond in our opinion, so great sort of 7.5% CAGR growth rates, touches a lot of verticals, and I know that people listening and yourself would know this, but this was our learning, touching verticals as diverse as healthcare, through to retail, through to hotels, houses of worship, hotels. So that was really interesting for us.

We also found and heard that the industry actually wanted a place to gather. They do see this as an industry that has its unique personality. It’s not all about one thing or another thing, and there are definitely some trends that are coming in, the digital out of home space for instance, that in my opinion, is akin to what happened between print and the internet, back in the late nineties, a lot of data starts to be kicked off and a lot of backend technology starts to get into play. With digital signage becoming the forefront of that, it’s where people first interact. So we got very excited very quickly. Some of the comments frankly, were hard to swallow or people saying, “Hey, the event was not what it used to be.” “It was starting to lose a little bit of its luster.” 

Obviously when the show was canceled last year. Some people were really quite upset about the lack of refunds and what went on there, and I fully understand that. We had to cancel a lot of events last year as well. It was a very tough scenario for everybody, but the industry we felt as we got into it had an opinion, and it was a strong opinion and people wanted to talk. We had incoming people calling us saying, “I want to talk to you about what you’ve bought here and let you know what you’ve got.”

And actually Brad was one of those, by the way, Brad said, look, I have a lot of history with the show, and I’d love to help reinvent it along the lines that I feel, and I think what the industry feels it should have been going in any way. So look, we have the ability to “start again” in many ways. I don’t think the Exponation had that ability. They had a product, they had to try to grow that product. We’ve acquired a set of assets, but we have a real strong ability to listen to the community and try to create a new experience for the community that they’re telling us they want. And that’s unique. So, we purposely were have been extremely patient. We just said, let’s listen, and the more we listen, the more we’re finding that the industry wants an event, it wants a place to gather, but it doesn’t really want your grandmother’s DSE. 

I think the event has reached its limit, if you will, in terms of value and people wanted to do something else going forward, without losing some of the great things about the event, seems like it was a fantastic place for the industry to network and meet once a year. We don’t want to lose that. That’s a super reason for having an event. So, it’s been a real experience. I mean, this is a very good acquisition from my experience, acquired through auction had gone into Chapter 7 through the pandemic and it has a set of stakeholders that really want to have a say. I mean, nobody said, sorry, I don’t want to talk about it, or, I don’t really have a comment. Everybody had something to say and I think that’s great. That shows some passion. It shows some engagement. It’s just that not all of the comments were positive, I have to be honest.

David: Oh, for sure. When we chatted in the past, I said, I don’t think there’s enough to do at a trade show with a whole bunch of exhibit stands and everything, the way it was done in the past. There’s a diminishing number of companies that want to spend those kinds of dollars, and I just didn’t see it. Is that what you’re hearing more broadly? 

Paul Miller: Not really, no. I get your point, and we actually gave people the ability to tell us what they really want. Now, I will say that the number one thing that’s coming back is that we want to meet people that are going to buy our product. So we want to meet, we don’t really want to just get together and talk to each other. But it’s a very expensive meeting to just talk to other people in the industry. So there’s been a lot of questions to us like, do you reach people in the hotel industry? Do you reach people in the restaurant space? Do you reach people in other areas where digital signage is needed and can be engaged with? 

And when we’ve explained, as I did up top, that these are the markets we’re in, people have gone, if you can get those folks to attend an event, we absolutely will bring a booth and we absolutely will exhibit, but you gotta bring buyers. You’re not going to get away with putting up an exhibit and meeting without competitors across the aisle, that’s not enough. 

David: Right. I know with Exponation, they worked their butts off trying to get brands to show up, to a level that they were putting them on advisory boards and things like that, just to make them feel like they should be there. 

Paul Miller: Yeah. Look, I’ve been in the events space for sort of 25 years. It is not easy, particularly when, and this is where it comes back to the strategy of Questex, I think compared with Exponation, we’re a huge believer in content.

I think I’ve said this to you before content is still king or queen, but the kingdom is data. Once you have people and you’ve attracted them, around content, it’s really about understanding what their needs are, what they’re looking for, engaging with them, and I think if you’re a pure-play event company, what you do is you put on an event once a year, you’re sort of reliant on a lot of partners to produce that content for you, and not in your environment. So you don’t get the data as much, and I think that makes it very difficult in complete deference to what Exponation was trying to do. 

I think they were trying to do the right thing, but when you don’t have that daily engagement with the community, it’s quite hard to hit it out of the park on every single thing. You’re going to find your content probably gets a bit tired, sometimes the loudest voice gets to be the speaker, as opposed to the one that everybody wants to hear. There are certain things that data takes out of the room. It takes that emotion out of the room and it says like this audience is engaging with this type of content, that’s what they want to see live. That I think gives you a little bit more data-driven decision-making around what the industry wants, as opposed to my gut feel or what somebody just told me at the bar last week at the show. 

David: So, based on everything you’ve been hearing, everything your team has been doing, do you have the bones of an idea of what we’re going to see?

Paul Miller: Yeah we do. I think that’s a good description. I’m not sure we’re fully fleshed out, but I can certainly tell you a few things that we’re going to do. 

Number one, we are going to relaunch the show. Just to be clear from the top, we are going to relaunch the show. We do think that the show has to be repositioned somewhat to be a broader show to bring in those customers, as I mentioned, We’re looking at experiences around a broad-based agenda of life and business and mid the re-emergence of society and the global economy. So this is more about where does digital signage fit in the “roaring 20S”? So we are looking to bring back the event. We’re looking at next Spring and we are looking at Las Vegas. I can’t go much further than that at this point in time, because we are obviously trying to secure venues and we’re trying to secure dates, and that by the way, is easier said than done in a post-pandemic environment and everybody wants dates.

But we do have our Nightclub & Bar rebranded as our Bar & Restaurant event in Las Vegas next spring. There’s the possibility of bringing that together again if you will. We will have an exhibit floor but also adding things like show floor experiences, very inclusive. You know, “let’s demonstrate some applications, do some showcases, have some themed presentation stages.” So a lot of buzz on the show floor, but at the same time, a really engaging conference program, lots of curated presentations, tracks based on innovative applications, why do this, what are the outcomes, what you should be looking for?

And last but not least we are hoping to have multiple layers of networking at the event. That’s one thing that this community told us is, “Please don’t lose the networking!” 

As I think, you know more than I know, great parties, great places for the industry to come together and celebrate, learn to buy, to sell. So yeah, we were even looking at guides around Las Vegas itself, tours of installations so people can learn, form real-life applications, not just what somebody might tell you what could happen. Let’s curate some tours, and we do that by the way, for our Bar & Restaurant event, we take people behind the scenes at a Nightclub behind the scenes of a Vegas restaurant, so they can see everything from point of sale applications through to what’s going on in the kitchen, and how does the food come out? We think that the audience, the community is telling us it wants more, hands-on more, show me what works, more education, more demos and bring it all together as an event that is an experience beyond just, ”I walk the show floor and I meet a couple of friends at the bar.”

David: Yeah. I’ve certainly heard many times and when I did a little survey asking about, where should a trade show go? The comment that’s stuck in my head was, I know when I go to something like DSE, I’m landing, and that’s what I’m doing that week, or for the next two, three days, that’s my subject matter versus an ISE or an InfoComm, which are great shows, but they’re Omni shows covering a whole bunch of different vertical industries and technologies and everything else and you don’t have this aggregate of people who are just there for digital signage. Now you could go to a party and talk to 20 people, and they’re all doing things that have nothing to do with digital signage, but they’re in AV. 

Paul Miller: Yeah, by the way, I think both are relevant. A lot of respect for ISE and InfoComm and the AVIXA Association in general, I think they do great stuff by the way.

And I think there is relevance in attending a show that is broader than just the sort of industry that you’re in. I think that’s where you do see adjacencies and ideas that might be applicable. But what was loud and clear from this community was we wanted our own place. There’s enough going on in the digital signage space for us to need to focus on our industry, our solutions, our ecosystem for us to want our own place, and that, by the way, was one of the key learnings over the last 8 to 10 weeks of listening to people. 

There wasn’t one person who said, I don’t think the industry needs its own place. There are a few people who said can I afford the time to go to all of these events? And I think that’s a relevant comment and that’s all about saying, well, we have to win your respect to get your time, and we have to have a program that you walk away after two or three days or a week, and you go, “Wow, I’m going to recommend this to my friends because these guys really put something on that it creates a fear of missing out if I’m not there, and I think more importantly than all of that actually creates business interactions. People actually do write orders and they do write RFPs at the event.” That’s what we’re here for at the end of the day. 

So yeah, I think the need for an event that’s focused on this particular community is clear: that’s actually a box that was checked very clearly. it wasn’t a 50-50 decision.

David: There will be people who listen to this and think that’s great that you’re doing a show, but spring in Las Vegas or just spring in general in the trade show industry is very crowded. There’s a lot going on and you’re putting this in between ISC and InfoComm, which are AV shows, there’s NAB, all these other ones that happening around then there, I’ve heard many people say it would be lovely if an event like this was in the fall instead.

Paul Miller: Yeah. Unfortunately, the fall is also busy. It’s got its own interesting issues and particularly around the pandemic where shows have been moved around, and they’re off cycles. The feedback that we got, Dave, was again, you’re right, “It’s crowded. Please don’t put it over the top of another show because we don’t want to be forced into a decision. Do we go to this or this?” 

The feedback we got was, “We liked where it was before,” which was, around that April timeframe, spring timeframe. So we’ve taken that into account and we didn’t have any huge set of people saying, “Hey, move it to November or get it out of the way.” The other option we had by the way was to think about, do we put it alongside our lighting show, which is in the fall, October, November. 

The more we get into it, the more it becomes clear to us that actually, the lighting show is not as relevant as an audience, they tend to be lighting designers, people that are doing the rigging of lighting, et cetera. A better audience would be people that are buying stuff for their restaurant for us. So yeah, we’re never going to get a date that’s going to satisfy everybody, unfortunately. Our feeling is we have the best chance to bring the right set of buyers to this event in the spring of next year. 

David: And if you do it somewhat in tandem with an existing show like your Bar & Restaurant show, I imagine there’s some efficiency around Ops people, like, you don’t have to bring double the staff. You may bring more than you would for one show, but not of double compliment. 

Paul Miller: Yeah, the efficiencies come with, obviously the show place itself. So if we do go to the Las Vegas convention center, obviously you get efficiency. If you do two in one, if you will. 

From our team perspective, maybe Dave, in terms of we could send seven people rather than two sets of five, for instance, which is where I think you’re going. But I’m not sure, I think what we’re looking at for this event is and also by the way, for the Bar & Restaurant event, as you can imagine, the experiences there are pretty high end. You’ve got people launching new dreams. You’ve got people launching new bar and restaurant concepts. So I think that it would be the same as at a reinvigorated DSE. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not looking for cost efficiencies, let me put it that way. That wouldn’t be the reason for doing it. 

David: When do you think you’ll have a launch or an announcement saying we’re going to do this? 

Paul Miller: We’re in the midst of recruiting an advisory board. We’re getting some great traction there, by the way. I can give you a few names if that helps. I would say we are a matter of weeks away from a full announcement and maybe not many weeks. 

David: Yeah, and I guess you really have to be because planning cycles are long, right? People are already budgeting for 2022. 

Paul Miller: We gotta get moving, yeah.

It’s not just the budgeting aspect of this. It’s the sales team that has to be implemented. You’ve got to have your content team in place. Your advisory board needs to meet so we can start to get around the sort of flavor of the show. So no, we gotta get our skates on, no doubt about it.

David: So who are some of your advisors that you can say? 

Paul Miller: Some that I can say, and by the way, there are a number of others that we think are going to be really exciting for the community to hear about, but we’ve got Rich Ventura, B2B Business line manager at Sony, I think previously the chairman of the DSF. We’ve got Rick Robinson, Chief Strategy Officer for Billups, leading voice in the out-of-home industry, and by the way, a play on the advisory board, just for the record is these four quadrants, there’s the industry veterans, those people that really know this space, the new voices, and the new faces. We said we’re going to reinvigorate, let’s get some new voices. So Jackie Walker, digital signage subject matter expert at Publicis Sapient is one of those. 

We’ve got a number of others. Laura Davis Taylor retail & reality, we’ve got some people here that I think are going to bring some really great new voices and faces alongside the veterans, also strategic partners that we’re looking at, and of course, people like yourself in the media. We’d like to have a balance of all of the above and if we’re going to deliver on our promise of a reinvigorated show, I think the definition of insanity is doing something the same way and then expecting a different outcome, so we’ve got to make some changes here and reinvigorate the advisory board, get new names and voices and faces involved, but don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater either, make sure you’ve still got the people that know what they’re talking about. 

David: The last question I suppose is will it be called Digital Signage Expo or it’d be something else, or is that TBD?

Paul Miller: Yeah, that’s a great question. We have, interestingly, sometimes for how things happen without doing more sort of fundamental research, but internally we’re using the DSE acronym quite a lot. I don’t know is it Digital Signage Expo? Is it Digital Signage Experience? Is it DSE? At the moment where we’re sticking with brand equity. Words and all that come with digital signage expo, but it’s interesting internally, and we do refer a lot to it as DSE, and sometimes that just turned into the experience as opposed to the expo. So a little bit more about the industry, a little bit less about the product itself.

I would say a personal front, from what I’ve heard from customers, Digital Signage Expo is fine. People are calling it DSE anyway, and I don’t know if I want to go through a massive rebranding exercise at the same time we’re doing a relaunch of the event. 

David: Yeah. It’s more of the communications and the people you bring on board and everything else. 

Paul Miller: I think so, yeah. At the end of the day, I think it is: have we delivered a product that people go to and say you know what, these guys are on the path to creating a must-go-to event, we did some business, it was great to meet the community again, and I learned a lot. If we can check those boxes, I think we can then start to think about, okay, what now? And at the moment, we’re just fully focused on producing something that people walk away from Vegas going, “These guys nailed it, they listened and we’ve got an event that’s a must go for our industry, and they want to listen to some more on how we can make improvements from stage one.”

So I think at the end of the day, that’s what really matters. Yes, people have a lot of opinions. Yes, there’s a lot of baggage. Yes, there’s a lot of words that we’re using right now that I hope resonate with the industry. But at the end of the day, it’s did we deliver? 

David: All right, Paul, thank you. I appreciate your time. 

Paul Miller: Dave, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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