All Things Business spoke to James Rook, Managing Director of Wellingborough based Nimlok.

The exhibition sector is very competitive, what makes Nimlok different?

Nimlok has a whole host of differentiators, but the two key things that really stand us apart are:

1) Our unique bespoke hire stand formula

2) Our design and development of engagement tools

Our bespoke hire offering cleverly blends hired architecture with custom fabricated features to deliver stunning custom design with a reduced investment and greater flexibility for our clients.

We reassessed the market several years ago and concluded that with the pace of brand evolution and the variability of clients exhibiting plans and messages, that the ability to hire the bulk of the stand architecture would provide a competitive advantage for us and greater value and flexibility for clients over traditional custom design & build. Our heritage as a modular system manufacturer enabled us to create the clever mix we deploy today of what we term ‘behind the scenes’ hired structure comprising modular framework and features such as archways, counters and kiosks. This has enabled Nimlok to become one of the largest turnkey stand providers in the custom design and build market, but with a unique and competitive formula.

The second differentor is engagement. We not only create stunning environments to attract and host visitors, but we also create clever engagement tools to help our clients draw a bigger crowd, start more conversations, shift more opinions and create an overall memorable brand experience for visitors.

Our engagement work involves us having a much deeper understanding of our client’s key message to develop tools that will work. The tools themselves range from interactive content, bespoke branded games, quizzes, surveys and VR & AR experiences. Crucially unlike mainstream digital marketing agencies, our specialism is creating these tools specifically for the live environment which means we use different technology to activate the content in a way that generates a visible activity on the stand. Unusually for our sector, in addition to our 3D stand designers we have a graphic design and digital development team too.

What is your favourite exhibition and why?

My favourite exhibition is Marketing Week Live. Why? Because we get to practice what we preach and there’s no greater pleasure for us than talking to marketers in our own medium and and subsequently for our team to be able to consult our clients from our own experiences. It’s a wonderful testbed for new ideas and ultimately vital that we demonstrate our ability to derive tangible ROI from shows so that we can help our clients do the same.

It always amazes me that at the three prominent marketing exhibitions we attend, Prolific North, Marketing Week Live and Technology for Marketing we are rarely accompanied by more than one or two competitors. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry about that as whilst it’s great for us to show we can walk the walk as well as talk the talk it’s sad for our industry that so few can advise exhibitors with what they’ve learnt from their own experiences. Our experience has also enabled us to start running tailored training courses for our client’s sales teams, that involves a 5-hour boot camp on how to interact with visitors at exhibitions.

Beyond the shows that we attend, the beauty of this industry is that we get to see so many other sectors and such a diverse range of topics. Nimlok is full of so many creative and inquisitive minds that we can go to any show and find something to get excited about!

Employing over 100 must have its challenges. What is the biggest challenge you have had to date and how did you overcome that?

It’s less that Nimlok’s size of team is an issue and more the diverse and specialist skills our team needs.

To do what we do requires such a wide range of skills, from design, audio visual, carpentry, printing, welding, sewing, spraying, marketing and more. Whilst we have an incredibly talented team it can pose a challenge with recruiting due to the diverse skill.

It also can pose a challenge with recruiting from the immediately local area due to these precise skill requirements.

From a size perspective, despite my best efforts, I struggle to get around to see each member of the team every day but I address this with a monthly newsletter, regular departmental meetings and a quarterly company-wide update where we get the whole team together to share successes, challenges and plans.

Nimlok work on projects in many countries, how are you preparing for Brexit?

Firstly, we reassured our European team members that the business valued them and that we’d do all in our power to support them remaining here.

Then looking at the practicalities Nimlok deliver 400 projects a year for 200 clients – most of whom are in the UK but around a quarter of our projects are delivered in Europe and another 10% elsewhere in the world.

Preparing for Brexit is very difficult because we still don’t know if it’s actually going to happen and if it does what impediments on the current easy transportation of stands and installations teams around Europe will exist. We are exploring further partnerships in Europe with an eye to contingency but hope that business sense will trump political nonsense to enable free movement of people, goods and money without added cost or time delay that would be incurred with carnets, temporary export documentation, custom queues and added bureaucracy.

If it does go as badly as it has the potential to, all our peers will face the same challenge so it will broadly remain a level playing field (other than a few that currently outsource production to Eastern Europe gambling cost for quality control) so we would consider investments on the continent to counter these challenges and consider where we might place hire inventory and where we might employ people in the future.

Looking at our market place, most of our clients are ambitious exporters and we like them will innovate to find solutions whatever challenges are thrown our way. Much of what makes us unique also places us in a strong position during a challenging market. Looking at the market itself we are trying to deliver more projects in Europe as the UK exhibition market is relatively provincial and likely to get more so if it becomes a less relevant place to host major European events. Sadly, some of the damage has already been done with the UK already excluded from bidding to host some major European health congresses for example. Of course, it’s not all about Europe and Nimlok continues to build its ability to deliver in ever more exotic locations including Seoul, Cape Town, Bangkok, Dubai and Buenos Aires amongst the many far flung places we’ve delivered projects this year. Personally, I don’t see the correlation that some of our political leaders do in a correlation between exiting the EU and our world trade increasing but I do have great faith that the UK is full of ambitious exporters who rise above the ever less relevant influence of politics and focus on where the demand for their products and services makes the prize of getting them there worthwhile despite the obstacles placed in their way.

Years in business: 47 years, Turnover: £7.5m, No. of employees: 100+