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In conversation: Dave Withey

In his fourth decade in the events industry, Arena Group’s sales and marketing director for UK & Europe is still looking forward

At this year’s Event Production Awards, Access engaged in a bit of good-natured espionage. In collusion with Grahame Muir, CEO of Arena Group UK & Europe, we plotted to surprise one of the events industry’s most dedicated trailblazers with the inaugural Industry Legend Award.

We’re talking about, of course, Dave Withey. No one in the room begrudged Withey his win; during his 40 years of service at Arena Group—he was there when it all started in a stable in Newbury—he has pioneered new technologies and methods. The standing ovation that he received as he made his way to the EPA stage to collect his award from Muir was proof that Withey is one of the most well-respected and well-liked people in events.

Fast forward through many, many bottles of celebratory wine and beer, and Access editor Emma Hudson is sat down on a squishy VIP room sofa at the Event Production Show the next morning, talking to an elated Withey about the surprise of his life, working for one company for 40 years, his favourite memories and moments on the job and how he thinks the next generation of events profs will stack up.

Emma Hudson: Hi Dave. How are you feeling after your win?

Dave Withey: Apart from a hangover [Laughs] I’m really, really chuffed. Everyone—you, Grahame [Muir]—kept it so completely secret. I had absolutely no idea; I loved it. Especially with all of those peers that I’ve known for years in the audience, that was fantastic.

That was the nice thing at the awards, to see those peers and some competitors, all standing up and cheering.

Yeah, that’s what was so great. The fact that a lot of our competitors were the first ones to come over and say well done was fantastic, actually. That’s the sort of industry we’re in.

And was it a complete surprise?

It was a complete surprise. I didn’t realise until Grahame got on stage and all the guys on my table said, ‘Neck that glass of wine and get on stage’.

So tell me a bit about how you originally got into this industry.

Arena—the original Arena—started in Newbury, where I’m from. It was a seating business and about four or five people worked on it. It was being run out of stables with a horsebox and two trailers, 40 years ago. If you had anything about you, you’d get a summer job at Arena and go round the country sticking grindstones up. I did that, and then left to go to art school for two years.

But I realised I couldn’t make a living out of art, and I needed a job for a few weeks while I worked out what I was doing, so I went back to Arena. Forty years later, Arena has 300 or 400 employees rather than three or four! The rest is history.

A bit different from a stable in Newbury!

Very different, yeah. I have colleagues that have been there for 35 years, 30 years, 25 years. It’s just grown and grown to what it is now: a global events supply company. We think it’s one of the best in the world—but it’s certainly one of the biggest in the world.

Was there ever a moment where you said, ‘I can probably spend the rest of my career at Arena’?

When I moved onto a different role into operations, and that eventually turning into what I do now, I thought, ‘Well, I’m really enjoying this’. The business was growing and growing, and I thought, ‘I’m going to stick with this’—and I am still, all these years later.

It’s such a rarity these days. Now, people seem to bounce around.

I think in our industry, there are quite a few people of my age who have been in the industry all of our lives, but I think that’s coming through less and less. Saying that, there are a lot of people who have been in the industry a long time. People enjoy it,
 and they don’t leave, generally speaking. It’s a great industry to be in; it’s certainly not boring!

What was it like back when you started?

It’s changed enormously. It’s much more professional. All sorts of things have changed; health and safety has seen a massive change in the last 10 years. That’s a change for the good. It’s a much safer place to work nowadays, for spectators, for people in the industry, for people who are working out on-site. Back 40 years ago, there was no health and safety 
at all. A lot of people were outside in flip-flops and shorts—that was it.

And the events have got bigger and bigger, so we’ve worked on some amazing stuff over those 40 years. The highlight was obviously London 2012; I imagine for anyone who has been in this industry for as long as I have, the Olympics were pretty special.

Is that because of all the amazing places the Games were staged at?

I’ve said this so many times before, but whoever sat around that table and said, ‘Let’s do the beach volleyball at Horse Guards Parade’ was just a genius. It was amazing to work on. There have been other fantastic events over the years, but that has got to be a highlight for anyone who worked on it. The whole industry didn’t get to work on it; we’re very lucky that we did an enormous amount for it. And for most people who worked on the London 2012 Olympics, they are probably never going to see another Olympic Games in the UK.

I was going to say, there isn’t really an event of that magnitude coming up.

No, not in the UK of that size. When will an Olympics come back to the UK? It might be in your lifetime but it won’t be in mine! [Laughs] It did give us, Arena Group, a massive springboard for moving into doing bigger things. It helped us grow the business hugely. We’re now in the States, we’re in the Middle East, we’re in Malaysia and Hong Kong. It has made a massive difference to us and I think that most companies in the UK that worked on the Olympics saw the same with their own businesses.

Aside from London 2012, what have been some of your favourite moments?

Oh goodness. Forgetting London 2012, because that was obviously the big highlight. I think it’s all about what you actually enjoy. The Cricket World Cup in 1997 was amazing because I love cricket. When you’ve got a passion for those sports and events, and are able to go behind-the-scenes at Lord’s or behind-the-scenes at all these great cricket grounds—that has been fantastic.

The Queen’s Club is close to my heart also, because I did the first-ever tennis tournament there. Now it’s even bigger—this year is the biggest ever. Henley Festival is also an amazing event. You know, there are so many. At Arena Seating alone, we’re servicing 280 events this year; some of them are huge, some of them no one has ever heard of. All of the Royal work we’ve done over the last two to three years has been pretty amazing. We’re lucky: we work on a lot of new events.

It changes and changes, which is good. If I was just looking backwards I wouldn’t want to do it anymore. I’m in a really fortunate position where I can get involved in all the new stuff. Wimbledon is really important to our group; it’s one of the greatest events in the world. But I’ve done it 37 times or so—I want to work on the new stuff.

It is funny to think of Wimbledon as being boring.

I think it’s really interesting, because I’ve been doing this a long time and I do get blasé about it. But we’re behind-the-scenes at some of the greatest events that happen in the world, let alone in the UK. You just take it for granted that you’re at the back
of house at Wimbledon or back of house at Lord’s, which for me is huge because I’m a cricket fan. You just get like, ‘Oh, I’m going to Lord’s today’. All of my mates that I play cricket with in my village are like, ‘What, you’re going to Lord’s?’ And I just reply, ‘Yeah’. But it’s what we do, isn’t it?

And then sometimes it clicks and you go, ‘Oh my god, this is what I’m doing right now’.

Yeah—and that’s what keeps you doing it and still enjoying it. None of us enjoy everything we do, but I feel really privileged that I’ve been able to work on all of this stuff over this period of time.

 

“If I was just looking backwards, I wouldn’t want to do it”

– Dave Withey

Looking at the future, where do you see the industry going in the next 40 years?

It’s going to change enormously. You look at the temporary structures that go up for these events: they used to be tents and they’re definitely not tents anymore. The interiors of these structures now at major events have become permanent venues that can be taken down and put up somewhere else. It’s all about the experience now, and the really good companies in this industry have embraced that and moved forward to make it more. Now you go to corporate hospitality at a major event, and it’s like a permanent boutique environment, from catering to everything else.

People want to have a genuine, tailored and unique experience now.

Exactly, that’s what’s changed enormously. Cheltenham is a great example, because the experience of Cheltenham 10 years ago was incredibly different. The Jockey Club is investing a huge amount into the spectator experience, and we’re always building to that big moment.

Cheltenham in particular is so different now.

Yeah. For example, what we do now at the Guinness Village at Cheltenham has changed hugely, because people expect better facilities. e village used to be a shack, but now it’s an amazing experience to walk into. That’s why we are industry leaders, because we’re trying to do things different to create better environments, whether that’s for corporate guests or spectators buying a ticket. It has to always get better and better.

Brands also understand events more and push everything forward. Thank goodness they’re prepared to put their money in, because without sponsors nowadays, most events don’t exist. We live in a world now where if you want all these things and you want these events to happen, somebody has to pay for them.

And with all that change, do you think young people coming up in the industry have the same longevity that you’ve had?

I think even 20 years ago there wasn’t a structured route into this industry. I drifted into it, and the reason I did was because Arena back then was a tiny company that happened to be in my hometown. There are now many more courses for people to get into what they believe is truly an ‘industry’ now—it’s the events industry.

It can be a career now; people say, ‘I want to get into this events industry’. Of course, it’s a sexy thing to do and I don’t blame them, because it’s a great industry to be in. You can go to university and get your qualification in event management.

You speak to anybody in the room at the Event Production Awards—and there were a lot of people in the room that have been in this industry for a very long time—and every one of them will tell you a story, but not one of them will say, ‘Yeah, I went to college or university and I decided to do event management’. They will have all come into it through some other route.

There still aren’t enough really good young people, and this industry needs that. Because you can’t carry on with the likes of the 50 people in that room who have been in the industry for as long as I have, or longer. We need the new Dick Tee and Brian Grant. We need new people, and now there is a much more structured route into the industry.

But in the end, all of those new people need to have a passion for it. e people who have that will be the really successful ones in the next 40 years. It is an unusual industry, because the deadlines are real, physical deadlines. If Wimbledon is going to start on Monday morning, it’s going to start on that Monday morning. You can’t go, ‘Oh, the weather has been bad, we’ll start on Tuesday’.

Whether or not everything’s ready, that event is going to go on.

It’s going to happen one way or the other!