Big interview: The CEO IMEX Group, Carina Bauer

The world of diplomacy and the High Street’s loss is the meetings industry’s gain.

IMEX Group CEO Carina Bauer says her first ambition at the age of three was “to open a shop like Marks & Spencer, only bigger”. A few years on and the student Carina Bloom (as she was then) went on to ‘major’ in International Relations. “I thought I might want to do something in this field – perhaps in the UN,” she says.

The first big memorable event she was involved in was the EIBTM show in Geneva. “It was sometime in the late ‘80s and I used to go most years and enjoyed being spoilt as I made my way around the stands. I particularly remember the Egypt stand where they used to ply me with delicacies.

“We also used to spend most summer holidays in the US around IACVB (now Destination Marketing Association International – DMAI) and Meeting Professionals International (MPI)
annual conventions, so I became used to these events pretty quickly.”

Bauer comes from a distinguished family of business entrepreneurs (father, Ray Bloom, is IMEX Chairman and his nephew, Tony Bloom, is Chairman of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club).
Bauer joined the family’s coffee shop business straight out of university, throwing herself into the launch of a new chain, GoodBean Coffee.

“We expanded extremely fast, growing from one to 12 stores in under three years, eventually selling to Coffee Republic,” Bauer notes.

“I plunged myself into the business, hardly stopping for breath for the first year. I learnt a huge number of lessons about business, as well as time and people management. It took me by surprise that not everyone in the business was as passionate as I was and I had to learn pretty quickly how to motivate staff literally ‘clocking in and out’ of work.

“I also learned how to prioritise and cope with problems; in a 24-7 retail and catering business there is always something going wrong. I learnt a lot about myself and the fact that I can be a very hands-on person; I don’t mind getting stuck in and dealing with whatever needs doing, but that’s not always the best use of a manager’s time. It took me a few years to learn to delegate and to focus on the strategic view.”

After the sale of GoodBean Coffee Bauer did a ski season after which she knew she did not want to go back into retail and catering.

“It just wasn’t fulfilling enough,” she says.

The IMEX meetings industry show in Frankfurt had been launched and was then a year out from the debut edition. Bauer agreed to step in on a temporary basis for a staff member on maternity leave (she is still with the company).

“I had no clue about the industry or about organising an exhibition, but I knew that the team was experienced and I was really happy to learn,” she says, admitting that first year was “incredibly hard work”.

“I found that I had an aptitude for seeing the big picture at the same time as focussing on the details that make a difference and by the time I got to the first show I was totally hooked and had
no intention of leaving.

“The great friendships from colleagues and partners around the world make this a special industry in which to work.”

What would she be doing if she weren’t in the meetings industry? “I would probably have started looking at what I could have done within the sphere of international relations. Other than that, I’d probably go and work in a ski resort again, although I would probably end up starting my own business to keep my brain busy and so that I didn’t end up a complete ski-bum!”

Now Bauer is in charge of a team still getting used to overlaying two show cycles into 12 months. She says the launch of IMEX America in Las Vegas means working further ahead with things such
as branding and website developments running up to a 18-24 month cycle.

In the three months leading up to each show, the atmosphere in the Hove office changes almost on a weekly basis as the level of work increases. “I’d say that the very busiest period is probably two to three weeks from each show. By one week out we have, hopefully, done most of the work and it’s almost the ‘calm before the storm’.”

How has Bauer put her mark on the IMEX shows? “Hopefully by helping to cultivate an attitude of care for our clients, as well as attention to detail. I hope I’ve also allowed us to grow and improve faster by giving real autonomy and responsibility to the key people in our business.”  

What keeps you awake at night? “Almost nothing keeps me awake at night – often including my son’s screaming – I think it’s one of my strengths and definitely helps with jetlag!”

She is certainly wide awake to helping develop talent and new ideas and picks out the IMEX live experiment conducted by the psychologists from Meetology as just one area of industry best practice worthy of support. “The short sessions with visitors were designed to explore the differences between face to face and telephone communication, for example, and to show the impact of different forms of communication on the human brain. I find this behavioural science side of the industry fascinating.”

Sustainability is also a ‘top of mind’ issue for Bauer, be it reducing waste or aiding local community projects such as Maisha’s Sewing Project, creating skilled employment for African women living in Frankfurt. “I think it is important, given our size, status and international audience, that we lead by example and demonstrate what is possible when you have the imagination and the will to make change happen,” she says.

Another issue Bauer is passionate about is the need for the meetings industry to communicate its value more coherently, “not just in pure economic terms,  but also in terms of social benefits and knowledge transfer”.

She identifies a disconnect between what people or politicians experience at an event – such as the Rio Climate Change Summit – and what they understand and believe to be ‘the meetings and events industry’.

“We need to show politicians that there is a whole industry that sits behind an event such as the Rio summit and we need to use obvious examples and case studies to explain the positive outcomes that the industry generates worldwide,” she says.

If Bauer could change any particular law to make business easier in our sector, it would be to standardise VAT regulations across the EU, or reduce taxes on meetings, exhibitions and events.
“Speeding up visa applications for business events,” she says, “would make a big difference in many destinations”.

One joint initiative she is particularly proud of is the Future Leaders Forum which IMEX runs with Meeting Professionals International (MPI) and professional conference organiser and event management agency MCI to foster talent development within the industry. It has now grown to include 15 forums around the world each year. “We have educated over 5,000 students in the past 10 years and many are now working in the industry,” says Bauer.

“Of course there have been examples where alliances haven’t worked,” she adds. “We never quite managed to communicate the value of the CultureActive tool to the MPI membership, so we dropped it. We are sometimes a bit ahead of the curve.”

Asked to pick out favourite IMEX moments, Bauer selects the first morning at IMEX America in Las Vegas, watching the crowds build up, and then watching buyers stream in.

“It was very satisfying to see that the work that the team had put in for two years had come to fruition,” she says.

In Frankfurt, she picks out Celebration Hour at IMEX this year, “when around 80 of the stands turned the entire hall into a fantastic 10-year party.

“It was wonderful to see the different cultural expressions from destinations; but also wonderful to see how so many people from around the world were as excited as us about the 10-year anniversary and wanted to celebrate with us. The atmosphere in the hall was electric.”

Asked for her advice for destinations struggling to catch up to the curve, such as the IMEX Wild Card new destinations, Bauer urges them to work out what their USP is and which industry segment they are most likely to appeal to. “I’d advise simplifying the offering, targeting one type of buyer strongly, through shows such as IMEX, as well as becoming active in one or two appropriate associations. By focusing resources carefully they can make an impact quickly, even on limited budgets.”

Advance preparation is vital, according to Bauer, as is making any participation in  industry trade shows a key part of yearly marketing strategy. She urges exhibitors to have clear goals and to use available tools wisely. “All our research has shown that exhibitors who do this generate fantastic results. The approach must be a strategic marketing approach, rather than turning up and crossing fingers!”  
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5 trends To look out for in next 5 years:

  1. A focus on meeting design which incorporates different learning techniques and borrows from brain science and psychology
  2. Holographic technologies
  3. Near-field Communication changing the way we network and communicate at events; plus more personalisation of events
  4. Almost complete transfer to online schedules, with the ubiquity of tablets and apps
  5. Increased gamification and clever use of ‘edutainment techniques’ to engage participants pre- and post-event.

This was first published in the October edition of CN. Any comments? Email conferencenews@mashmedia.net

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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