ITDigest’s Interview With Michael Champion, Chief Executive Officer, Tahaluf

Michael champion

“We have a better view of how to make virtual, in-person, and hybrid events a more integrated experience — so that even if an event feels big it can also feel small, which is a powerful way to think about events.”

What strategies and approaches did you employ as the CEO of Tahaluf to achieve such remarkable success, including the substantial revenue growth from $2 million to over $125 million in just four years, and the recognition through multiple prestigious awards, such as the AEO Excellence Awards, Middle East Event Awards, Stevie® Awards, and Global IM Awards?

The most important structural reason for our initial successes was to employ some of the best people in the industry and empower them – give them near total decision making authority over their roles, and to encourage them to devolve that power to their team leaders. Like a startup, we are geared towards employing people with a Founder mentality, and by employing great talent, the positive results have so far greatly outweighed the negative ones. Conversely, I rarely make a decision about the business without firstly consulting all my senior managers, getting their input, and co-deciding on the way forward – this might make me sound like the least powerful CEO in the business, but sharing decision making this way allows for a more motivated and enfranchised senior team, whilst drawing upon a far deeper well of experience and knowledge.
Aside from that, a special strategy was to ensure the company was allied to powerful, relevant and motivated partners – this is why Tahaluf is a strategic joint venture between Informa PLC, the Saudi Federation for Cyber Security and Programming (SAFCSP), the Events Investment Fund, and imminently SELA. So it’s fair to say everything we have achieved so far, this remarkable success, is down to a combination of strategic initiatives involving each of these entities and all of it aligned with the Country’s Vision 2030 goals.
I think the awards we’ve won, and the revenue and profit growth we’ve achieved, is largely because of these strategies: talent, enfranchisement and alliances.
The final reason for our success is Saudi Arabia itself. There are few, if any, countries that are as large a market, with such a massive executive decision making authority on spend, than the Kingdom. Its obvious that if we were operating in another country, with the same people and level of political support, the events wouldn’t be impactful – the reforms made by Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman have ensured a red hot business environment, which is uniquely positioned for launching iconic, impactful and large-scale events.

What were LEAP’s key achievements in 2022, and how has it surpassed them in 2023, becoming the world’s largest tech event with 172K attendance? How does LEAP24’s move to a larger venue support Saudi Arabia’s digital transformation and align with Vision 2030?

In 2022, LEAP made significant achievements by setting new industry records during its debut. The event garnered unprecedented attention by attracting registrations from more than 100 countries, making it the largest debut of any technology event in history. The 2023 edition continued to break records by confirming 172,000 attendance, solidifying its position as the world’s largest technology event by attendance, investor funds size, and speaker quality and quantity.

LEAP 2023 demonstrated remarkable growth compared to its predecessor, with a 32 per cent year-on-year increase in on-event transactions, exceeding US$9 billion. The event played a crucial role in injecting fresh foreign direct investment into Saudi Arabia’s digital ecosystems and startup economy. Major announcements included significant infrastructure investments, new data centres, billion-dollar-plus public-private partnerships, and initiatives to foster local talent.

Also Read: ITDigest’s Interview With Abdallah Abu-Sheikh, Founder at Astra Tech 

The move to a larger venue for LEAP in 2024, with a doubled floor size of more than 125,000square-metres (1.345million Sq.ft), reflects the event’s commitment to accommodating more innovative technologies, digital entrepreneurs, tech startups, and high-profile speakers. This expansion aligns with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, aiming to position the Kingdom as the largest digital market in the Middle East and North Africa. LEAP 2024, powered by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) and organised by Tahaluf, is poised to galvanise growth in the international technology arena, supporting the nation’s ambitious economic diversification strategy. The larger venue symbolises the continued momentum and ambition of LEAP in driving Saudi Arabia’s digital transformation.

Mike, can you tell us about your professional background and your current role at Tahaluf. Also tell us how does Tahaluf differentiate itself from other companies in the same space?

There’s several of the senior management that all share a long history of working in the events industry, and our approach to building a culture at Tahaluf has been based on (1) what we experienced that we liked, and knew worked well; (2) what we experienced that made for a negative work environment, and doing the opposite to that.
The first example is easy enough and I’m sure is shared by all leaders – to pick up best practice and emulate it in your future workplaces is what is sometimes called experience and knowledge transfer. I’ve been fortunate to work with many excellent leaders and practitioners, as have my colleagues, and so we bring to Tahaluf the things that worked well at previous places of work in order that we succeed as best we know how.
The second example is less common I’d expect. But my history of working in events has also been one of working in environments I’ve not felt are conducive to motivating people the best way, or creating an enjoyable workplace. My management team and I are determined not to have these factors replicated at Tahaluf. There’s several examples I can give:
Enfranchise and empower people. This way they feel they can manifest their creative ideas, feel ownership over the business, and a sense of purpose.
Never take credit for someone else’s work. Always celebrate others’ achievements.
Only employ people who display a degree of humility or kindness. This business is hard enough to also have to deal with bad attitudes.
Pay fairly, reward well, allow the opportunity that through success, people can get ahead and improve their lives and financial situation.
Don’t keep secrets from your team. The key to all relationships really – transparency and honesty can feel risky, especially if you’re admitting a mistake, but you’d be surprised how many people are rooting for you, and can help overcome a challenge if you’re just honest with them.
Of all these things, if there were any Golden Rules at Tahaluf they would be: to be transparent about all business decisions and the reason we are taking them; consult with the team before making a decision; be kind and generous; and aim big, take risks, just go for it without fear that failure will impact you negatively.

What notable investments were unveiled during the LEAP 2023 technology event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and what impact do these investments have on advancing the Kingdom’s digital transformation, solidifying its standing as the foremost digital market in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region?

LEAP 2023 showcased several notable investments during its four-day run, reinforcing the Kingdom’s position as a leading digital market in the MENA region and contributing to its ongoing digital transformation under Vision 2030. The investments, totalling in excess of US$9 billion, were announced by His Excellency Engineer Abdullah bin Amer Alswaha, the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, during the opening day.

Key investments included Microsoft’s US$2.1 billion in a global super-scaler cloud within the Kingdom, Oracle’s US$1.5 billion to expand its MENA business with new cloud areas, Huawei’s US$400 million in cloud infrastructure, and the establishment of a Zoom cloud area in partnership with Aramco. These initiatives, backed by a total of US$4.5 billion in global and local assets, showcase substantial commitments from major players within the global technology sector.

The investments also underscored the support of His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and aligned with his vision to empower the technology sector, a pivotal aspect of growing Saudi Arabia’s digital economy. The infusion of funds into future technologies, digital entrepreneurship, and tech startups aims to accelerate the Kingdom’s digital transformation across sectors such as the Internet of Things, healthtech, space, fintech, and open source software.

LEAP 2023’s impact proved to extend beyond financial transactions, too, injecting fresh FDI into Saudi Arabia’s evolving digital ecosystems and startup economy. Major on-event announcements included infrastructure investments, multiple new data centres, and the launch of academies to foster local talent, further emphasising the event’s pivotal role in driving the Kingdom’s technological advancements.

The event’s success in attracting global tech experts and fostering unprecedented investments positions Saudi Arabia as a digital hub.

How do you leverage social media and digital channels to amplify your company’s presence before, during, and after tech events?

To leverage social media and digital channels effectively, the company adopts a comprehensive strategy before, during, and after the events we organise. Prior to the event, we employ targeted campaigns across platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram, showcasing teaser content, engaging industry influencers, and utilising event-specific hashtags to build anticipation. This helps create a buzz and attracts attendees and stakeholders.

During the event, we maintain an active social media presence with live updates, real-time coverage of key announcements, and multimedia content like videos and infographics. We engage with the audience through interactive elements such as polls, Q&A sessions, and behind-the-scenes glimpses, fostering virtual participation for those unable to attend in person. Collaborating with event organisers and participating companies, we ensure cross-promotion to maximise reach.

Post-event, our strategy focuses on sustaining momentum. We share highlights, recap key moments, and express gratitude to attendees, exhibitors, and partners. Content includes interviews with thought leaders, in-depth analyses of major announcements, and user-generated content, all of which help foster a sense of community. Leveraging event-generated data, we tailor follow-up communications to nurture leads and maintain engagement, driving ongoing conversations about the industry’s future.

By integrating these strategies, we aim to amplify our company’s presence across social media and digital channels, extending the impact of tech events beyond their duration and solidifying our position as a key player in the ever-evolving technology landscape.

How can event organisers balance enhancing participant engagement through open digital ecosystems and innovative event services with implementing strong cybersecurity measures to protect sensitive information and maintain attendee trust in today’s interconnected world?

As event organisers, we are obligated to ensure that we navigate the delicate balance of fostering participant engagement through open digital ecosystems and innovative event services while implementing robust cybersecurity measures to safeguard sensitive information, thereby maintaining attendee trust in our interconnected world. To achieve this, we begin with a comprehensive risk assessment to identify and understand potential challenges specific to the event. We then prioritise the selection of secure event management platforms and collaborate with reputable vendors that adhere to industry best practices.
It is also vital that, as organisers, we educate participants about cybersecurity best practices, such as recognising phishing attempts, as it contributes to a more informed and secure event environment. Regular security audits and assessments of event platforms, along with prompt application of updates and patches, help mitigate emerging threats. Transparent communication with participants about the security measures in place, coupled with a well-defined incident response plan, builds trust and reassures our attendees of their safety during the event. By incorporating these strategies, we ensure to successfully manage the dual objectives of participant engagement and cybersecurity in our interconnected digital landscape.

In the rapidly evolving tech landscape, how do you stay ahead of trends and ensure that your company’s participation in events remains innovative and relevant?

Tahaluf employs a multifaceted approach to stay ahead of trends and ensure innovative and relevant participation in the events and exhibitions landscape. We conduct market surveys and generate industry-focused reports to gather insights into emerging technologies and shifting market demands. Engaging exhibitors on local, regional, and international scales allows us to stay abreast of diverse markets, fostering a comprehensive understanding of industry dynamics.

Furthermore, our commitment to innovation is reflected in our choice of world-renowned specialists as speakers at our events. By bringing thought leaders and experts to the forefront, we provide attendees with insights and facilitate discussions on the latest trends. This strategy ensures our participation remains at the forefront of technological advancements, creating a platform that not only responds to current industry needs, but also anticipates and shapes future developments.

What advice do you have for other leaders who are looking to drive growth for their brand?

My advice would be to, firstly, prioritise a strong market or market sector. We went with LEAP (Technology) sector as our first launch, because we knew it was one of the hottest markets. We did it in Saudi, because we knew Saudi was the strongest market in the region. Weather plays a major factor in the success of campaigns.

Then my advice is to not seek large profits from the outset. Growth in events is achieved by creating a better product than your competitors. Our overwhelming advantage is we have the appetite to reinvest profits into our events and create excellent products by doing so. The market can smell immediately when the value has been extracted. Big profits can come later on. You can’t grow by sucking out the value of the events at an early stage.

Cultivate relationships with sponsors, industry influencers, and renowned specialists to elevate the credibility and appeal of your exhibitions. Additionally, prioritise the attendee experience. Understand your audience’s needs and preferences, and tailor events to provide meaningful and immersive experiences. This includes curating engaging content, leveraging technology for interactive elements, and ensuring seamless logistics.

Lastly, always ensure to invest in marketing and brand visibility. Utilise both traditional and digital channels to promote your exhibitions and build a strong brand presence. Establish a compelling narrative that communicates the unique value proposition of your events.

By combining market forces, growth-first mindset, attendee-centric approaches, and effective marketing, leaders can drive sustained growth for their exhibition brands, solidifying their position in a competitive landscape.

What is the biggest problem you or your team is solving this year?

Dealing with the substantial growth and expansion that Tahaluf is currently undergoing is undeniably a challenge, though it’s a nice one to have. This year, our primary focus is addressing the monumental task posed by the announcement of the single biggest events expansion programme in Saudi history. Our strategic joint venture between Informa PLC, SAFCSP, and EIF has laid out plans to introduce 20 new sector-specific trade and consumer events in the Kingdom within the next couple of years via our partner Informa.
This ambitious expansion, including the debut of some of our renowned Informa brands such as CPHI and Cosmoprof in Saudi Arabia, is set to serve the global pharmaceutical and beauty industries. In addition to this, we aim to strengthen existing flagship brands such as Cityscape Global and introduce new titles and concepts aligning with the strategic objectives of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. We are also launching several Saudi-made brands such as 24Fintech which we aim to be a global powerhouse in the fintech, finance and insurance sectors.
While navigating this extensive growth, Tahaluf is positioned to solidify its standing as the largest event organiser in Saudi Arabia, both in terms of square metres, revenue, and profit, and emerge as one of the largest across the Middle East.
As the CEO, I look forward to the scaling up of our successful portfolio as an unprecedented growth curve in the global events industry. It not only reinforces our leadership position, but also aligns with national ambitions, contributing to job creation, generating new business opportunities, supporting economic diversification, and delivering tangible economic impact. This comprehensive initiative is projected to contribute more than US$1.5 billion in economic impact to Riyadh, reflecting exhibitor and delegate spending on travel and hospitality.
While this growth brings with it a unique set of challenges, we approach it with enthusiasm and determination, recognising that it places us at the forefront of shaping the future of the events industry in the region.

Is there anything that you’re currently reading, or any favourite books, that you’d recommend?

I read a lot, but find its largely current affairs, or sports news about my favourite football team Nottingham Forest. However, when I think back on which books give me the most enjoyability, there are two authors: Roald Dahl, so that I can read his stories to my 7 year old daughter whilst putting on theatrical accents; and Evelyn Waugh, because there are few authors you can read that have such a masterful command of the English language than him – I really appreciate fine craftsmen like Waugh.

Thanks Michael !

Michael is a professional event director, Co-Creator of LEAP and @HACK (Now Black Hat MEA) – two of the most exciting and large scale tech events in the Middle East, with extensive experience in commercial conferences and large scale exhibitions.

As head of Informa’s Saudi operations, and Tahaluf, I’ve grown revenue from $2million PA to projected more than >$125million in 4 years.

Inspired and energised by Vision 2030, Tahaluf is a strategic alliance between Informa PLC, the Saudi Federation for Cyber Security and Programming (SAFCSP) and the Events Investment Fund (EIF). Setting new benchmarks for the international events industry, Tahaluf will help accelerate economic diversification, provide market access to international business, and attract investment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.