As education shows cross borders, former Bett director Joe Willcox traces the Bett roots of 'Learning'
I’ve worked on live events for 14 years. In that time, I’ve helped to organise conferences and expos for a wide variety of audiences – EFL teachers, high-powered telecoms executives and IT professionals from every kind of business. I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of the world on my events travels – Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the USA and South America.
But one period of my career clearly stands out as the most enjoyable to date – my three-year stint on the Bett Show executive team, which started on a blazing hot day in July 2010.
I loved meeting so many professionally generous and wonderfully creative educators from schools all over the UK and beyond. I also enjoyed working with companies whose clever products were designed to have a positive impact on something we can all believe in – improved learning outcomes for our children. On top of all this, I relished the challenge of having to figure out ways of making a well-loved and well-attended show even better than it already was.
The intersection of public education, technology and commerce
Along the way, I learned a lot about the intersection of public education, technology and commerce. I also had to revise many of my well-worn ways of approaching the nuts and bolts of putting an event on. Now I’m applying all those lessons to an exciting new context – India!
India deserves a world-class, large-scale event where educators can gather to learn from each other as they meet the huge (but exciting) challenges facing their schools, colleges and universities. Just like Bett, it needs to be free-to-attend, content rich and hugely enjoyable. Just like Bett, the overarching themes should be a focus on improved learning outcomes and a shared desire to work out what role technology has to play.
Nothing quite like that currently exists in India. So I decided to build it. Not alone of course. In fact, I’m very fortunate to have some amazing people working with me. A special mention must go to my long-time friend and colleague Paul Dunne. He’s the guy who recruited me into Emap in his then capacity as the senior executive whose portfolio of events included Bett. We’ve also got a great team on the ground in India, including the 14 creative, entrepreneurial people who run EdTechReview, a Delhi-based outfit who have been running brilliant edtech-themed conferences for quite a while.
So which Bett experiences will Paul and I draw on as we work with our Indian friends to prepare a vibrant festival of workshops, conference sessions and more – Learning (Bangalore, July 15-16)? In answering that question, I find myself reflecting on my first days as a Bett person and the realisation that I had a big task ahead of me.
I remember feeling really privileged to be given the opportunity to get involved in something so amazing. That said, when I joined the Bett team at Emap HQ in London, it was abundantly clear that finding ways to offer more value to visitors and exhibitors was not a “nice to have” luxury item. In fact, it was immediately impressed upon me that Bett was entering a potentially very challenging period and that lots of hard work and imagination would be needed to ensure the continued success of the event.
'Who does the Bett workshops?' 'Er, Becta...'
I’m referring, of course, to the fall-out from the May General Election of that year. “So who’s responsible for organising all these workshops?” I asked my colleagues. “An organisation called Becta that the new Government has just shut down,” came the reply. OK, I thought. We need to create our own content programme with no help for the first time ever. This should be fun.
Becta’s fate as an early 'bonfire of the quangos' casualty was the tip of a scary-looking iceberg. Very quickly, I heard talk of schools’ technology budgets no longer being ring-fenced. I heard about large-scale redundancies among local authority ICT staff. None of this sounded terribly encouraging.
So how has Bett grown impressively in what should have been a really challenging time for the event? In my version of events, there are a few reasons for this.
First, we made it a priority to do the marketing basics as well as we possibly could. Data was thoroughly cleaned. Copy was refined. Communications were more carefully targeted. Focus groups were convened to ensure we really knew what Bett visitors wanted. Guesswork didn’t feel like a sensible option.
We also made sure to make more of an effort to understand people who had heard of the event but who rarely, or never, attended. Why did one school send a big group of visitors to Bett every year while a similar school in the same postcode never sent anybody? We really paid attention to what those stay-away schools were telling us – it looks too much like a trade show; we don’t feel we know the organisers so your direct marketing gets treated as junk mail; it’s not obvious what we’d actually learn if we attended.
It was this feedback, then, that made us get out of the office more often and spend more time getting to know people in those schools and those parts of the country that simply didn’t send visitors to Bett. This feedback also prompted us to invest heavily in putting the learning and networking side of things right at the heart of the experience. That’s why visitors noticed a massively expanded programme of workshops and the sudden appearance of full-blown conferences alongside the show.
But we also learned to resist the temptation to be complete control freaks. We saw that the best part of many people’s Bett experience was the stuff we hadn’t organised ourselves. I’m thinking here about the TeachMeet sessions, the TeachMeet takeovers of exhibition stands and all the other wonderfully informal gatherings organised by visitors to the show.
'How pleased I felt with the world's largest ever TeachMeet'
Realising how brilliant all of this was, we set out to make it much easier for people to set up such events on site at Bett. I’ll certainly remember how pleased I felt when the world’s largest ever TeachMeet was in full swing at ExCeL in January 2013.
Finally, we always remained aware that Bett would not be free to attend were it not for the continued support of its hundreds of paying exhibitors and sponsors. We were always keen to find ways of offering them more value. So we attacked this challenge on a daily basis and I’d need a much longer article were I to list all the things we tried. One measure, however, does stand out in my memory.
When I joined Emap I spent some time getting to know our customers. What did they make? How did they sell their products? To whom were their products sold? The answers to these questions raised more questions. Given that lots of our customers were interested in FE colleges and the higher education market, why was Bett not designed to connect exhibitors with customers from these sectors as well as with people from schools? Surely we’d be helping our customers get way more bang from their marketing buck if we did something about that? So that’s exactly what we did. When my time on the Bett team drew to a close, we were even making some progress when it came to connecting relevant exhibitors with customers from the learning and development department of large enterprises.
All these lessons, then, are fresh in our minds as we get to work in India. So far, it’s proving to be immensely enjoyable and I can’t say enough good things about the friends we’ve already made in India’s schools, colleges, universities and enterprise learning and development teams. The opportunities for learning technology companies in India are huge. So I hope to see lots of old friends from our Bett days joining us on this exciting new journey.
Joe Willcox is a former EFL teacher who has worked in the live events industry since 2000. He was product strategy director for the Bett team at Emap between 2010 and 2013 and has since co-founded an Anglo-Indian company whose sole activity is to develop a world-class, large-scale learning technology event brand in India.