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Interview: Peter Heath on the challenges facing PLASA

After nearly two decades at Roland, Peter Heath has taken up the post of managing director at PLASA. He talks to Paddy Baker about how he is addressing the challenges facing the association

After nearly two decades at Roland, Peter Heath has taken up the post of managing director at PLASA. He talks to Paddy Baker about how he is addressing the challenges facing the association

Peter Heath is one of a number of executives in the pro audio world with a previous career as a professional musician. A self-taught guitarist and keyboard player, he counts the highlight of that part of his life as touring with disco/soul group Shalamar. He then joined Roland, and spent nearly 20 years there, rising to the role of head of Europe pro A/V – but this came to an end towards the end of last year.

He still flies the flag for his old employers’ wares: he expresses mock (I hope) exasperation when he sees I’m using another brand’s recorder for this interview (“Didn’t Roland create these products?”), and also mentions that he has just bought himself a Jupiter-80 synth. He wasn’t keen to move to another manufacturer, he says, as that might put him in a situation where he had to give credibility to the products of a former competitor.

Last November, his pat answer to his wife about his next move was that he would work for PLASA – but it wasn’t until mid-January that he saw the MD’s job advertised and, bolstered by supportive comments from industry friends, he applied. His appointment was announced in early April. Of course, he knew that “PLASA has been through a really difficult time recently, with the merger and now de-merger with ESTA [the US-based Entertainment Services and Technology Association], and the London show has been a real challenge for PLASA for eight years”.

A couple of weeks before we meet in early August was PLASA’s AGM and lunch; he made a point of inviting a number of people to the latter who had not previously been asked (myself included): “It makes a statement that we’re trying to be open – we’ve got nothing to hide, we just want to be positive and add value.”

The AGM itself was only open to members; after the constitutional part of the meeting, he spent about 12 minutes presenting “four or five slides” about what members can expect from the organisation. Then there was a Q&A, which covered subjects including plans for the London show; recovering the six-figure sum owed to PLASA by ESTA; and Brexit. “I said: ‘The government don’t know what to do about Brexit at the moment; we’ll keep abreast of it, and when things happen, we’ll talk to you.’ The comment to that was: ‘Shouldn’t PLASA be more proactive than that – shouldn’t you be sitting alongside government, getting involved?’ It’s a very valid comment, and they’re not wrong – but I don’t have that kind of resource and capacity to do that at the moment.

“But no-one cornered me afterwards to say, ‘You didn’t talk about this…’ All the post-event comments we had were really positive.” He characterises it as the best PLASA AGM he has ever been to. “All we have to do now is deliver on all the things we’ve said. Internally we’ve already started that process, so it’s a question of how soon we can get people externally feeling it.”

Within the PLASA organisation he has made two significant changes. The first has been to break down silos within the corporate structure: the organisation was run vertically, with events, media and membership the responsibility of different PLASA-owned companies. “When I got there I found some really skilful people, just not really hooking up with each other, not reaching out, not looking out for each other,” he explains.

He has restructured some of the staffing to create what he calls “one PLASA”. For instance, the media sales and events sales teams are being combined under a single commercial manager responsible for all product sales, including memberships; similarly, promoting the complete PLASA offering across the board is the remit of a single head of marketing. He has also made changes “to bring people together across all disciplines on a regular basis to talk about the business as a whole”. Effecting this change has proved “much tougher than I thought”, he says – adding that instilling the one-PLASA mindset will take time.

The separation of functions within PLASA was exacerbated, he says, by the organisation being split between Eastbourne, on the Sussex coast, and New King’s Road in south-west London. So Heath’s second major change was to close the London office, which previously housed senior management as well as the events, skills and some of the media teams. Discussions about downsizing this office were underway before his arrival, but “I decided not to downsize it, I decided to shut it”, he says. This will happen at the end of September, after the London show; the staff will switch to a combination of homeworking and coming into Eastbourne once or twice a week.

London show challenges
As far as the organisation’s ‘products’ are concerned, he highlights the London show – along with membership – as “areas where the focus is really needed”. PLASA London moved to ExCeL in 2013 as plans for redevelopment were looming over its previous home at Earls Court; this month sees the show back in west London, at Olympia. For that show, he says, regardless of venue, “the cost base is still that much higher than Leeds and Glasgow, so the energy you’ve got to put in for the return is almost ridiculous, and the pressure that puts on the company is almost unfair. We’ve got all these great things happening, but London remains the challenge and can make the difference between us being in a position to reinvest or not.”

His joining PLASA in the spring has left him little time to put his stamp on this year’s event. However, he believes that relocating to Olympia will result in a show that is “friendlier to visit”. “In the evenings there’ll be more of that community that you used to find at Earls Court that we never found at ExCeL.”

So what else will be different about this year’s show? “There’s definitely more content, and more audio content” – including a day of Dante training seminars presented by Audinate – “and we have brought back the after-show party, and the Innovation Awards, which we didn’t do last year.”

One question he is specifically looking to address is, “Why did the audio community go ‘bye-bye PLASA London’ and yet Leeds is predominantly an audio show?” To this end, he has set up an audio steering group, with representatives from well-known manufacturers and rental houses, to find out “what type of behaviours do the audio companies expect from us in order for them to come back and exhibit?” He accepts that this may not be a straightforward issue, as even just within audio, exhibitors have different requirements: the larger, more corporate companies generally want to talk to their customers on their stand, while the more aspiring ones are keen to show off how their systems sound.

One criticism I have often heard levelled against PLASA London is that it attracts broadly the same visitors every year, who are already known to potential exhibitors, so why should they exhibit? Does he recognise that argument? “It’s an argument I put to PLASA myself when I was an exhibitor,” he concedes. “I didn’t go to last year’s PLASA London, but the exhibitors I’ve spoken to haven’t said it quite in the same way – they say they’re still seeing new people. What percentage? We’ll do some work this year to make sure we have definition on who’s a newcomer and who isn’t. But we do have data that says that 41% of visitors to PLASA London don’t go to any other show. We need to do more research about that – in itself it’s a great stat, but actually it’s incomplete.”

Another criticism levelled at PLASA London is that it is no longer an international show. Heath believes that overlapping the schedule with IBC was a benefit here: “There used to be a crossover – everybody hated it and moaned about [going to two shows], but everybody went.” A lot of international visitors, he says, found it easier going to Amsterdam for IBC and “making the hop” to London than making two separate visits. “With more international visitors, it was easier to get international exhibitors, and to get people to launch new products and technologies at the show.”

But surely the overlap between the IBC and PLASA constituencies is small? “In our industry, years ago you had one discipline, which you could earn a living from. That’s very difficult now – you’ve got to have lots of disciplines to make a living and grow your business. So there’s a need for people to cross-reference between an installation show in February and a broadcast show in September and a live events show in September – they need to be part of all three and understand what’s going on. And that disruption of our industry hasn’t really begun in earnest.”

PLASA and integrators
According to its website, PLASA is “the lead international membership body for those who supply technologies and services to the event, entertainment and installation industries”. So what is his vision for the installation industry within the PLASA world?

“One of the jobs we have to do is to get to the consultants and the systems integrators. When I was an exhibitor, we used to get a number of integrators coming to the stand, then we might see a burst in sales over the next six months. Systems integrators do come to PLASA London. We have to get through to consultants and architects and get them to understand who we are and what we’re trying to do. That will help us to reach the installation market.”

Overall, he says he’s “feeling OK” about the decision to take his new role. “Though, of course, there are always moments when you think, ‘Really? Did I do that?’ – especially at half-past four on a Monday morning when you get up to drive to Eastbourne [he lives in Wiltshire – “172 miles door to door”]. But I’m enjoying it – and hopefully we’ll make some positive changes as well.”