Andrea Vinassa Interviews Melanie Froneman: People Management for the Expo Industry
By Andrea Vinassa CEO Torch Media who can be contacted at
Exhibitions are a growing industry. Part of the marketing sector, expos is employing more and more people on a temporary as well as fulltime basis. South Africa Rai is one of SA’s top expo organisers, with Decorex SA, Wikid, Gardenex, the ICT exhibition and the SuperSport show on their books. ANDREA VINASSA spoke to one of the company’s dynamic directors, Melanie Froneman
Q: How does South Africa RAI go about recruiting and retaining quality talent?
A: Very often we recruit through word-of-mouth and are always on the look out for other qualified people in similar positions that seem suited to the job. We trust word-of-mouth a lot because it takes a specific type of personality to be in this industry and rather than have them here for a month or two only to find out that they’re not suited, it’s better to take the word of someone who’s had some experience of it and knows what’s required and get them to suggest someone suitable. We look for young people, entrepreneurs!
Q: Why are women more drawn to this sort of work than young men?
A: Because they are organised. And they can multitask. This job really is about multitasking, and communications and dealing with people, and females are just so much better at that.
Q: You’re talking about taking people on recommendation who have already had some experience in this sort of work. But how does one get this work experience? What sort of raw, inherent qualities would you look for in an absolute beginner who is setting out to get some work experience in this industry?
A: I would look for someone who has some background in marketing or public relations, a course or a degree. We do work closely, for instance, with the University of Cape Town, who send us interns – students who want to get into event management. We usually take them on for a month or so and they do the basic work – the typing and the filing and working with basic budgets and that kind of thing, and from that you can quite clearly see who thinks for herself and who’s organised and shows the kind of qualities that we look for in this work. And, again, females tend to do better.
Q: How many people do you employ on an ongoing basis?
A: At the moment the company employs about 40 full-time staff but it fluctuates, obviously, as we take on temporary staff when we do shows.
Q: That’s not a very large staff.
A: Indeed. People think this is a very glamorous industry, but really, that’s only when the show is actually happening. That side of it is busy and interesting and exciting, but it takes a lot of slog work at your desk throughout the year to make that possible.
Q: What kind of incentives do you offer and what are your remuneration practices?
A: We continuously compare our salary structures with the rest of the market to ensure that we stay in line, and we are in line with the rest of the marketing industry. And because this work does involved a lot of long hours sometimes, and evenings and weekends, we do have a bonus structure after shows, performance bonuses depending on how the shows go. Our exhibitions are run as their own cost centres, like little mini-companies – each exhibition has its own budget and has to deliver its own profit margin. And managers are really empowered to look after that cost centre as if it was an independent little company and based on the success of that cost centre, we also pay a profit share. So we try to incentivise from junior management level upwards.
Q: Is there a shortage of skills in this sector?
A: It’s a growing field – I think marketing in general is a growing field. I wouldn’t say there’s a shortage of skills because there isn’t necessarily a specific set of skills that you need to be in this business – it’s not like being trained as a doctor. It has more to do with a specific type of personality, someone who is inherently organised and a clear thinker and can stay cool under pressure. Those are not really skills that can be taught.
Q: What is your personal leadership style?
A: Personally I’m really quite a softy and I prefer to lead by praise rather that criticism. I try to focus on the positive and reinforce that, rather than throw tantrums about mistakes. Each person on the team has a very specific area of responsibility that they look after and they are totally empowered to look after it, and they are accountable for it. And then obviously as a team we integrate quite regularly, and often, because this is very much a team effort and it depends on communication. We have a pretty flat style – I don’t like hierarchies – I see it as a team effort. Because of the amount of detail that goes into an exhibition, small administrative details, I have to delegate and trust people to look after specific areas because it cannot be done by just one person. It’s important that I keep a holistic overview on the whole project rather than get bogged down in micro-management.
Q: Did you find that difficult at first?
A: Very much so! Because I come from that – 14 years ago I was the one taking care of the details and I was very proud of myself for getting the detail right. And you never think that someone else will do it as well as you did. It takes a while to let go and trust the people that you’ve empowered. It gets easier with time, as you work with the team and you see that they are doing a good job. And I have a great team!
Q: When you take on temps and flexible staff over busy periods, what labour relations and labour practices come into play?
A: Obviously we comply with all the rules and regulations. We’re very strict with labour regulations. We really value temporary staff – we couldn’t do it without them. So it’s important from a remuneration point of view and contractual point of view that they are treated as part of the team. But we always work through agencies, which protects us.
Q: What sort of training do you provide?
A: On-the-job training, really. We’re all still learning all the time. Obviously we have certain systems in place that we’ve developed through years or trail and error, and that new staff have to learn. But they’re very basic. And we like it when people come with fresh ideas and develop their own systems that might work even better.
Q: Do you have mentoring and career development programmes?
A: Well, as I’ve explained, we have a relationship with the Cape Town University where we provide work experience to marketing students who work with us as interns.
Q: How important is the ability to think innovatively and entrepreneurially in appointees?
A: Very important. As I’ve explained, we run our exhibitions like little companies, so you have to be able to think like an entrepreneur to grow that little business centre. So that quality is very important to us in recruitment – entrepreneurship is pretty much our fundamental culture. We’re always open to any new ideas and new ways of thinking and we need people who can think on their feet all the time.
Q: To what do you ascribe your career success?
A: Being at the right place at the right time. Getting the opportunities to show what I can do and making use of those opportunities. And then just hard work! I think it’s important to know the fundamentals – having started at the very bottom allows me at this stage of my career to know what my team is dealing with and what they’re going through, and also what’s needed. I can tell at a glance how things are going because I understand from experience what needs to go into it. And I totally love what I do – when you have a passion for it, it shows.
Q: What is it that you love about it?
A: The showbiz of it! When you open those doors to the public on the day and it’s all happening and it’s the culmination of a year’s hard work. And I like the cyclical nature of it – you work on a show for a year and then it happens, but then it’s over and you get to start from scratch – you have a fresh canvas and you can reinvent it every year, and improve it. That, to me, is the creativity of it.
Q: How do you cope with the stress?
A: I’d love to say I exercise and eat healthily and all that good stuff, but in reality it’s all down to my team. We work so closely together that we’re each other’s support network. We all know each other so well and we know each other’s strong areas and weak areas and our good days and our bad days and without even thinking about it, I think we step in to support each other when it’s needed. We all know that we can rely on each other and that relieves a lot of stress. And I think as you get older, you know from experience that things will happen as they happen. Sometimes you just can’t stress over things – we know we have the resources and the ability and the experience to make it work, whatever happens.