Farnborough, we have a problem

Farnborough International is going head-to-head with a former joint venture organiser partner by planning a rival UK exhibition for the commercial space industry. Why is this happening? Mike Fletcher investigates.


In March 2025, two exhibitions for the UK commercial space sector are slated to take place.

Space-Comm Expo, organised by Hub Exhibitions, has a tenancy at ExCeL London, 11-12 March. The inaugural Farnborough International Space Show is planned for Farnborough’s Exhibition and Conference Centre in the county of Hampshire, 19-20 March.

According to ADS Group, Farnborough’s owner and a trade organisation representing the aerospace, defence and space sectors, the UK’s space industry is worth around £17.5bn (US$21.77bn). It contributes £7bn to the economy. Last year, the global space economy was worth $630bn and is growing at an average of 9% per year, according to the World Economic Forum.

It’s certainly big business. But why does the UK sector need two flagship shows next year, staged in the same month, just one week apart?

The 2024 edition of Space-Comm Expo attracted over 160 exhibitors including Airbus UK, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and others when it took place last month. It also drew SME stand-holders showcasing everything from the sealant used on space crafts to ceramics installed on satellites. 

How then has the UK commercial space industry arrived at a situation whereby next year, these major bastions of British engineering, plus a broad supply chain of independent businesses are being asked to pack up their stands in London’s docklands and travel just 50 miles to exhibit all over again, seven days later?

The answer, unfortunately, appears to stem from a recent breakdown in the relationship between Space-Comm Expo’s organiser and its former joint-venture venue partner.

Farnborough International helped Hub Exhibitions to get Space-Comm Expo off the ground in June 2021, after it had been delayed due to the pandemic lockdowns. Together, they’d developed the show into a successful enterprise, which supported the UK Government’s commitment to grow Britain’s space economy.

Hub Exhibitions’ managing director Rob Sherwood says he came up with the idea for a trade show targeting the UK commercial space industry in 2019. 

Having researched the sector, he saw that exhibitions such as Space Tech Expo Europe, held in Bremen Germany were attracting increasing numbers of exhibitors, whereas space-related businesses in the UK had barely any trade show representation, despite the Government’s lofty ambitions in this growth market.

“I took my idea for an exhibition focused on the commercial future of the UK space industry to Farnborough International because it is part of the ADS Group and has strong links to the Government,” Sherwood recalls. “They were interested so a joint venture agreement was drawn up. Farnborough would curate content, carry out operations, manage our ‘Meet the Buyer’ programme and promote the show through its channels and connections. We owned the IP and were overall responsible for exhibitor sales and visitor marketing.”

It was undoubtedly a successful partnership and each year, according to Sherwood, Space-Comm Expo achieved double-digit visitor growth.

By the March 2024 edition, Sherwood says that pre-registration had grown by 17% on the previous year and exhibitor revenue had grown by 40% compared with the 2021 launch event. But seemingly, behind the scenes all was not well. 

In late 2023, according to Sherwood, Farnborough requested to exit the joint venture agreement and replace it with a more ‘transactional’ arrangement.

Within weeks of signing the new deal, Sherwood alleges that Farnborough International’s CEO Gareth Rogers asked to buy the Space-Comm Expo. At the time, in Sherwood’s opinion, it was clear to him that if he didn’t sell, Farnborough would launch a rival event for 2025 and he’d be shown the door.

With the buying and selling of any exhibition, a value is calculated based on revenue. A multiplier is then applied to account for future worth.

It’s never an exact science and with any business transaction, if one party doesn’t agree with the other’s valuation, a sale is unlikely to occur.

By the new year, the sale of Space-Comm Expo was dead in the water.

ExCeL London gave Sherwood an 11-12 March 2025 tenancy to move to the capital and on 30 January 2024, Farnborough announced that its in-house run International Space Show would take place a week afterwards, from 19-20 March 2025.

Sherwood describes how he felt: “As a team, two months out from our 2024 show we should have been looking forward to it. But, all we felt was stress and a sense of foreboding that we had to stage Space-Comm on what had become a business competitor’s turf overnight.

“A year’s worth of hard work goes into making an exhibition work. Our Hub Exhibitions team had so much to be proud of in terms of the quality of pre-registered visitors, and the companies that had rebooked or taken stand space for the first time. But I felt for my staff because it wasn’t a nice position to find ourselves in. Ultimately, we couldn’t wait to pack up our things and get the hell out of there.”

Sherwood says he left Farnborough with a ‘fantastic’ rebook and strong anecdotal support from exhibitors that moving Space-Comm to London would grow the show, attract more international visitors and bring it closer to the Government.

He has also recruited Farnborough’s former Aerospace event producer Ruchi Nema as Hub’s new head of content and Hyve Group’s former government relations manager, Genevieve Richards as Hub’s new head of government relations and B2B programmes.

However, EW has seen evidence that during Space-Comm 2024, venue sales staff were inviting exhibitors to leave their stands and speak to them about the Farnborough International Space Show away from the exhibition floor.

And when some visitors to Space-Comm Expo accessed the venue’s free wifi, they were targeted with an email marketing message from Farnborough International’s CEO Gareth Rogers, which, in part reads:

“I know that there are choices to make about which show you should attend in 2025, so I want to talk briefly about our values and purpose.

Farnborough International Space Show is 100% owned by ADS Group, a not-for-profit organisation mandated to support the UK space industry. This isn’t a business – it’s mission-driven, a powerful catalyst for advancing your interests. In short, we’re in it for the right reasons – it’s who we are, what we do and how we do it. This matters.”

Media 10’s finance director, Steve Woolmer visited Space-Comm Expo 2024 at Farnborough International. After logging on to the venue’s Wi-Fi he received the marketing email.

The full version of Rogers’ message can also be read on LinkedIn after it was posted by the venue and reposted by Rogers himself.

Media 10’s CEO Lee Newton was shocked by what he and other exhibition organisers are calling Farnborough’s ‘aggressive tactics’.

Newton says: “As organisers, we need to trust that when working in a venue they are on our side, helping to grow and protect the show that’s paying them rent, rather than openly trying to damage a rebook or commercially hurt an organiser during the tenancy.

“This goes against every best practice principle of how organisers and venues need to work together. It’s like sharing your sweets with a friend and after a couple, they take the whole packet.”

Douglas Emslie, chairman of Cuil Bay Capital and Raccoon Media Group agrees: “As an industry, we need to help and support entrepreneurs who take big risks when setting up businesses and running shows. Hub Exhibitions is a small business and for whatever reason, Farnborough has decided to go head-to-head within a fortnight against an organiser who originally took a business to them.

“We should be encouraging entrepreneurs to get out there and have a go. From my perspective, this is a discouragement. It’s a warning of what can happen when joint venture agreements go wrong. This is not what we need to build our industry. If you were an entrepreneur, on seeing this, why would you now launch a show with Farnborough?”

Divorce in any situation can be messy and often complicated. Plus, there are always two sides to every story.

Farnborough’s Exhibition and Conference Centre stages more than 55 B2B and B2C annual exhibitions, conferences and events, and Farnborough International has other successful ongoing partnerships with organisers, including Automation Events, headed up by Andy Entwistle to run The British Motor Show.

In February this year, Farnborough acquired 48% of Automation Events, replacing Cinch as Entwistle’s joint venture partner, having hosted the four-day August show since 2021.

“I’ve always had a very good relationship with the Farnborough team. I’ve always found them to be fair, reasonable and very supportive,” Entwistle says. “I couldn’t have resurrected The British Motor Show without them. Without their support and backing, the show wouldn’t be where it is today.”

When the Automation deal was announced, Farnborough’s CEO Rogers said: “This is an opportunity for us to take everything we know from running first-class B2B exhibitions and conferences, and support Andy and his team in growing The British Motor Show and cementing its position as an unmissable family event for the South of England.”

Yet, when we asked Rogers for an interview and put questions to him about the events surrounding the launch of the Farnborough International Space Show, he declined to comment. Instead, we received the following statement:

“At this time, Farnborough International is unable to provide comment due to ongoing legal considerations. We very much look forward to giving a full account of this episode once the situation is resolved.”

For Sherwood, the shadow of what happened when the relationship with his former joint venture venue partner broke down still looms large.

Farnborough International is pressing ahead with its competitive 2025 exhibition. Moreover, because of its March timeline clash, organisers on the outside looking in, such as Emslie and Newton believe that ultimately, exhibitor and sponsor brands won’t stand for the current status quo of two rival shows in the same two-week period.

“UK space businesses aren’t interested in a fall-out between two rival exhibition organisers. They’re only interested in having a platform to grow the commercial space sector,” Emslie says. “There will have to be a resolution.”

Joint venture partnerships between venues and exhibition organisers are more common overseas than they are in the UK.

Perhaps, globally there are more stringent and rigorous contracts in place. Or maybe, greater experience has taught the international exhibition community how to avoid an apparent situation like the one between Farnborough International and Hub Exhibitions from escalating in the first place.

However, with Farnborough unable to publicly discuss its launch show strategy and what allegedly happened during this year’s Space-Comm Expo, it is difficult to determine the way forward.

Why for example can’t Farnborough International and ADS Group incorporate a commercial space exhibition into July’s Airshow if it’s so keen to bring its efforts to enhance the UK space industry in-house?

Until the exhibitions industry gets more answers, to misquote the classic film Apollo 13, “Farnborough, we have a problem.”

UK Space, the trade association for the British space industry and supporter of both exhibitions planned for 2025 was also approached for comment but did not respond.