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The Big Interview: Emma Cartmell

Martin Fullard talks to Emma Cartmell, CEO, CHS Group UK, about the forthcoming Conference and Hospitality Show, which takes place at the first direct arena, Leeds, 30 April

With exhibitor space sold out by Christmas, 30% of which are new, and with registrations up 50% from 2018, the Conference & Hospitality Show is set for a happy 10th birthday. Emma Cartmell, the show’s CEO, tells us about the show’s growth story and how eventprofs, or ‘Rockstars’ as Cartmell calls them, have shaped the show.

What brought you into the events industry?

I fell into the industry when I was exhibiting at an event as a supplier in the energy industry. I was inspired and fell in love with the idea of putting on events, great speakers, and sharing knowledge, the energy, the networking and the events community. I love learning and the idea of knowledge sharing excited me.

There was a big redundancy programme at work, I got my redundancy package and set up my own events company. 

I still have that love and passion for learning and the possibility it brings. My business coach says that you should never be the most intelligent person in the room. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about being on the AEO Board is who can I learn from, as well as the contributions that I can make to the industry.


What’s the story of the Conference & Hospitality Show and its growth?

That came through relationships. I did a lot of work with Royal Armouries in Leeds, they had a show called ‘The Big Wow’ which had potential for growth, but didn’t really fit with their existing business model, and gifted it to me.

We took it right back to its roots, back to the exhibitors and asked what it was that they really wanted from a show. There were three key themes that came through from the research. Firstly people felt there were too many students, so we took them out but introduced the student volunteer programme with Leeds University’s event management course. It created a great opportunity to give undergraduates valuable ‘hands-on’ volunteering. We now work closely with Huddersfield University and our student volunteers often pop up a couple of years later as fully formed event professionals.

We also heard there was too much distracting entertainment. We introduced the welcome party and post show host party, but keep the day clear for business, which is essentially what exhibitors are paying for. Finally, feedback told us there were too many exhibitors paying different prices for their stands. We made a promise never to negotiate on price, so every exhibitor has the same experience.

By CHS 2011 the brand had doubled in exhibitor and visitor numbers, and by CHS 2013 the show had outgrown its Royal Armouries home and moved to Elland Road, home of Leeds United Football Club. National venues started to take notice and by CHS16, the show moved again to first direct arena and the Rockstar event was born.

Moving to the first direct arena was a huge leap for us. Our costs quadrupled so we had to build a three-year sales plan and set profit targets. We lent on our supporters in the city, chiefly Leeds Hotels and Venues Association (LHVA) and Conference Leeds, to help get financial support from Leeds BID – they bought in to our three-year plan and helped bridge the gap – we now deliver over half a million pounds of economic impact to Leeds – much more than we could have done at our previous venues.

Any plans to expand the show or take it to two days?

The show is loved by a lot of people and we have lots of people who have been to see us every single year since we launched. We’re always making improvements year-on-year, not making it bigger as that isn’t always better. We sold out by Christmas, so it is tempting to move to a bigger venue and sell more space, but the most important thing is that exhibitors get return on investment.  It’s much-loved as a one-day show, so we’d only expand if the venue could no longer hold the growth in visitor numbers.

How have event professionals changed; what are the things they’re looking for these days?

People haven’t changed but there are more constraints on our time and that can make attending events difficult. It’s our job to make sure there is enough content. Not too much content so they haven’t the time to get around all the exhibitors and not have a good time, but not at the expense of our core, which is a trade show where you can make quality contacts and future business.

Event professionals are looking for that extra that you can’t get online. Sensory experience and face-to-face meetings, building relationships and finding solutions. Ours is a very collaborative industry and taking part and being in the room, being able to ask questions, work in partnership, share ideas and discuss solutions, you can’t do that online. Building those relationships, sharing feedback and ideas, that’s invaluable and at its best face to face.  We are also finding that when people do come – they’ve researched it’s the right show for them, they are more discerning, because of the time restraints – and they come with a purpose.  


What does the UK events industry have to be proud of?

Creativity and innovation. The UK is much more focused on the customer journey, from what I understand, than international shows. We are also more committed to sustainability and we saw some great examples of this at International Confex. While we’re proud of that, we can always do more. 

How do you see the events industry changing in the future?

People deal with people and that hasn’t changed, and I hope it never will. How we start, maintain and grow a network hasn’t changed. Social media and digital has changed how we connect though. We are predisposed to share what we know and make it available for others.  

Where I’ve seen change over the last 10 years is a greater awareness in mental health and wellbeing. It’s a key strand to our show this year. When CHS first began, work/life balance was a myth and we didn’t talk about mental health.  

Ten years ago, my phone never stopped buzzing, ringing, or flashing with notifications and calls. While the rise of the mobile phone has made communications and productivity easier, faster, cheaper, it has come at a cost. I’ve recently read Tanya Goodwin’s book ‘OFF, Your digital detox for a better life’.  Since taking heed of her advice (and blocking time out of my diary to focus) my life is much calmer, and my productivity has increased beyond imagination.

How do you spend your free time?

I do a lot of walking and hiking around God’s own country of Yorkshire where we are spoilt with lots of beautiful countryside and coastlines and it helps me to switch off. I also love cooking. As a business owner, I’m constantly working, but I find a walk on the beach around the Yorkshire coast, or spending all day in the kitchen cooking, really help me to solve problems and to switch off.