You might be forgiven for thinking that Chester, UK, is an odd place for a magazine like CMM to be published and yet this unassuming city with a population of just 118,000 has been a hotbed of business publishing talent for over 20 years.
Situated in the North West of England, Chester is better known as a tourist destination. Visitors come from all over the world to walk around the Roman built wall defenses, dating back to 75 AD, which have been largely left intact. In addition, and this time uniquely, Chester is also famous for its ‘Rows’. Dating from medieval times, the Rows are a kind of two-tier shopping street where the upper shops can be browsed by strolling along covered, balconied walkways built on the front roofs of the shops below. Many theories abound as to how this came to be. No one really knows but everyone sees the advantage when it’s raining.
Being less than an hour’s drive from both Liverpool, ranked seventh largest city in the UK by population and Manchester, ranked eighth, just how did Chester, ranked fortieth, become the pick for modern media publishers? The story is an intriguing one.
In 1989, Ed and Michael Aster, successful business-to-business publishers of pharmaceutical manufacturing magazines based in Eugene, Oregon, recognised that the creation of the Single European Market would open up the opportunity to publish pan-European trade magazines using the same business model that was working so well for them in US. The Asters had a long-time friend and business partner based in nearby Telford, UK, who would help them open their new European office. More as a matter of convenience over any strategic decision making, the recently created Chester Business Park was the location of choice for Aster Publishing. In the space of three years Aster Publishing rocketed from a single pan-European magazine to a total of five publications and two highly respected international conferences and increased its UK-based staff from three to over 30.
In January of 1993, as Aster Publishing continued to experience exponential growth, two hugely significant events took place.
Firstly, the Aster brothers sold their extremely profitable company for a top dollar figure to the much larger publishing house, Advanstar Communications based in Cleveland, Ohio. Advanstar had almost 100 US titles and organised a dozen market leading trade shows. The organisation was desperate to acquire a European hub to spin out international editions and the purchase of Aster Publishing presented the perfect opportunity.
The second event was going to have even greater repercussions. The arrival of the World Wide Web. It was not immediately apparent as to what kind of impact, exactly, the internet and the advent of the era of desktop publishing would have on the trade magazine industry. Advanstar continued to grow a strong European portfolio and increase staff numbers. By 1997 it employed over 90 UK personnel. By the end of that year the company started to notice that the revenues being generated were no longer justifying the constantly spiraling costs and the true effect of the internet could now be felt as customer’s print advertising budgets hemorrhaged into essential website construction and increasingly, online marketing products.
Advanstar plunged into frantic cost cutting as sales targets were missed and inevitably the axe began to fall on staff. From 1999 onwards Advanstar parted company with over three quarters of its Chester-based workforce, releasing experienced editors, publishers, sales directors, production managers, circulation managers and other highly trained practitioners into the jobs market. Many staff who had been with the company since the early Aster days were entitled to rewarding severance packages. This was all the impetus it took to see a number of former employees take business ideas that Advanstar could no longer support and use them to launch their own companies. As quickly as these new ventures established themselves they found an immediate and vulnerable staffing resource from whom they could plunder even more of the best staff Advanstar had remaining, worsening the company's plight still further.
Today, Advanstar still runs a modest office on the Chester Business Park alongside the impressive Rapid News Communications Group offices. In the city centre there is Future Publishing Solutions Ltd and, of course, Publisher of CMM, MST Global Ltd. In the suburbs and surrounding areas there are any number of freelancers to be found offering editorial and production and even circulation development services. Of course, it’s terribly incestuous and there is always plenty of gossip and rumour with nearly everyone having worked with everyone else at one time or another. Ed Aster is now a successful wine producer in New Zealand. I wonder if he realises that the legacy of Aster Publishing Inc. is a thriving media communications industry in Chester, UK.