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Where Eagles dare: meet Graeme Barnett

It’s fitting that Graeme Barnett should be a Crystal Palace fan, a team created by the owners of the site of the famous The Crystal Palace exhibition building in 1905. Barnett has been at the sharp end of the events industry for some 22 years, and since departing Reed earlier in 2018, has moved on to a new challenge with International Confex.

How did you come to work in the events industry?

I was an exhibitor at Hotelympia in 1996, where I was an ad director on Catering Magazine. It was the first time I had exhibited, and our account manager at Reed looked after us really well and made sure our event experience was top class. I asked her how one gets into this events industry, so I sent her my CV and then two months later I got a call. The rest, as they say, is history.

What has changed the most in the industry during your career?

Certain aspects have changed, but it’s still about bringing buyers, sellers and like-minded people together at its core. Learning, meeting new people and doing business are the three pillars that underpin most live events, particularly B2B trade shows and events.

The application of technology across all aspects of business has been the most notable change, and certainly how we communicate, over the likes of email, smartphones and of course social media. With the latter, news and feedback is always live in the palm of your hand. There’s no sitting back and waiting for it to hit newsstands. This also means the voice of the customer is stronger and more powerful than ever before.

However, where we are light years ahead these days is data: how we collect and, crucially, how we use it, is essentially the backbone of what we do.

You spent 22 years at Reed, mainly on IBTM World. How did that show transform under your watch and what are you proudest of?

The show was always strong, but we really worked on galvanising our relationship with stakeholders in Barcelona. We created more experiences and improved the scope and range of exhibitors.

A key element was to increase the use of technology, such as live TV, and infuse that with a production partner to physically transform the environment for learning. 

I was proud to have developed our relationships with industry associations and over the years we shifted to a core customer-focused and less transactional model.

You’re now working with International Confex. How does it compare to IBTM, and what changes are you advising?

In many ways the two shows are very similar, but in others they are totally different. I’ve found it incredibly liberating to be part of a media company [Mash Media] rather than a giant FTSE100 events company. 

The Mash Media team is 100% focused on the meetings and events industry, magazines, websites, exhibitions and events 365-day connectivity with both the domestic and global community. 

The key is making International Confex the place of discovery, learning, knowledge and insight. The show is already a strong player, but we are now vying to create a different, ‘magnetic’ environment that attracts the meetings and events community. Delegates and exhibitors will feel the pull to attend an event that is more vibrant and creative, and a reflection of all that’s good about our industry. 

We are working on ways of expanding a participant’s professional network through quality networking and social events and creating relevant business generating opportunities on the exhibition floor (visitor to visitor, visitor to exhibitor, exhibitor to exhibitor). 

For me it’s about a very clear proposition which is well communicated across the industry and brilliantly executed. 

What do delegates want (or need) today that they didn’t five or so years ago, and how do live events help steer trends?

To be treated as an individual, put simply. Delegates want to have a more immersive experience and to be ‘wowed’.

We live in an on-demand world so flexibility, the ability to pick and choose what content they want, and when it suits them, has never been more important. 

Shorter more impactful sessions and a greater focus on sustainability are also commonalities across the sector and, of course, delegates want evidence of what the organiser is doing to make that event more sustainable.

What are the UK events industry’s strengths and weaknesses?

The events industry contributes £40bn to UK PLC annually and so plays a significant role in the economic wealth of the country. But perhaps that contribution and the wider, indirect economic and social benefits of staging events in the UK are not recognised by the broader government as much as they should be.

As an industry we have such amazing and unique venues, locations, destinations, and a diversity of natural and man-made backdrops, with a history and culture that arouses interest from all over the world.

The UK has world-class talent in event management, planning and logistics, and access to leading creative industries.

I feel we need to be a bit more joined up when it comes to attracting international events, in terms of stakeholders communicating to each other to make it as simple as possible for international organisers.

How do you spend your weekends?

I love getting out on the golf course at the weekends (my handicap is 13.7), and I love tinkering in my gardening. I’m a massive Crystal Palace FC fan so get along to Selhurst Park whenever the Eagles are at home. Of course, top of the pile is spending time with family.