Expanding internationally during ongoing economic turbulence

Publication date: 21 February 2019
Article type: Blogs and Articles

Entrepreneurs with international aspirations should ‘dream big’ and see where it takes them, according to Anabel Fielding.

Expanding internationallyGrowing any business to a point where it’s ready for international expansion is both exciting and daunting. To achieve stable growth and profitability in your home market is a huge achievement in itself, especially when operating in a highly developed, competitive economy. Once achieved, the obvious, tempting next step is to expand internationally, which brings with it a host of unfamiliar challenges.

When my company was first established in 2005 by myself and Caroline Villamizar Duque, I could not even imagine us surviving the year! Quintessentially Events is now a global company and one that enjoys an annual turnover of over £22 million.

From day one, we felt that if we managed to survive the first six months then we might just be in business. We divided all the roles of running a business between the two of us, and although some were not my primary skills, it’s amazing what you can turn your hand to if you’re the only person left to do it. Together we were a very good team and my advice to any entrepreneur would be to find a business partner you can trust, to complement your skills and, ultimately, to share the journey and the load.

When we started out, we were lucky enough to work with aspirational brands such as Gucci and Hugo Boss which helped cement our reputation. I had spent the previous 10 years working in DJ management and running club tours, and one thing I had taken from that industry was the need to keep adapting and moving. One of the main reasons our events were successful was because we constantly surprised clients with bespoke ideas and innovations. Remits often focused on how fantastic we could make something, rather than the budget. But that was in 2007, and now all that has changed.

Following the financial crash, many of our corporate clients and brands – unsurprisingly - had a significant check on spending. In response, we became even more focused on delivering additional value to get the business while trying not to reduce the wow factor we had become known for. It was during this time that I realised just how imperative a business partner was - Caroline was both a Creative Director and mathematician. Her signature style made everything look amazing, while ensuring everything was delivered exactly on, or preferably, under budget. I managed the client relationships, refined the guest experience and introduced new talent. It was a winning combination which brought us significant return business.

While the UK and much of the West was going through an economic crisis in 2008, much of Asia and the Middle East was booming, which was a welcome and important counter balance. However, we could not avoid the significant mindset change that emerged at a fundamental level within most of our clients, be they organisations or private individuals. Lavish, extravagant events became unpopular and uncool to a certain extent. The principle of social responsibility was rising and, for us as an events business, we had to respond. Fortunately, much of this chimed with our wider ethos.

As well as being acutely aware of greatly reduced client budgets and the requirement to provide a lot more detail than before, we also knew we had to keep our costs in check. During those tough years, we kept staffing costs low by doing a lot ourselves - staying as ‘lean’ as we could. We also purposefully hired multitaskers to help carry the day-to-day load. In turn, this instilled a strong team culture into the business, creating a mindset of being ‘in it together’, collaborating both creatively, operationally and logistically. This became extremely valuable as we grew and expanded internationally, to the point at which teams needed to work even more collegiately to help us find our way in new markets.

The vision and drive to go international was a business priority to grow teams across the board and export our brand in the best way possible. I’ve always been quite an impulsive person and, when running a business, you need to learn to manage that. Sharing and consulting on decisions is vital even though it’s important not to delay decision making. Equally, sometimes you take a wrong turn – we tried to franchise and it didn’t really work because so much of what we do is about people and relationships. Mistakes are part of the journey, however, and to a degree, part of the success – it is important to learn to accept that things will go wrong whatever you do, and you need to move past that.

This pragmatic approach has meant that when opportunities have arisen, we have tried to take full advantage of them without too much delay. It’s certainly true of one of our first international events – the Diacore Gaborone Marathon in 2013. It was a completely new experience – it was the first charity run event in Botswana, we had never done a sporting event and it definitely wasn’t luxury! But we ensured we worked closely with our client and the many teams, organisations and volunteers, and scoped everything out to ensure we delivered an exceptional experience, on time and on budget.

Our modus operandi is to ensure we are always grounded and connected into the local network and culture – we ensure a large part of our team speak the local language - which as a people-led business with service at its core is imperative in my view. Taking the time to find the right team structure is also a high priority – the experience and diversity of people you need in the mix, the strategy you take, how you deal with tensions and how the whole process interrelates. Investing time in this at the beginning is time well spent.

As a business we are extremely proud of our journey over the last 13 years and how it complements the wider Quintessentially Group. Back in 2005, ‘luxury events’ wasn’t really a thing. There was ‘high-end’ or expensive but there wasn’t something referred to as a ‘luxury’ market at the time. We worked to own the luxury space and from that, we established our reputation.

I think it’s very important to leave behind the best impression that you can, not just for clients but with all the people and organisations that you come across along the way. I cannot think of a place in the world where we could not go back and find someone to work with us again. Reputation really is everything in the events sector - that and building trusted relationships. Of course, you need to have the ideas and skills to come up with impressive event design and delivery, but relationships can be ever-lasting and they can truly transport you from humble beginnings to an international stage. It sounds rather cliché, but you most definitely need to ‘dream big’ and see where it takes you.

Anabel Fielding, CEO and co-founder of international event management company, Quintessentially Events, part of the Quintessentially Group. Through the work of Quintessentially Events, Anabel has helped to raise over £10 million for charitable causes and, in 2015, she was the winner of the First Women Award for Tourism and Leisure.