In this episode, IMEX CEO Carina Bauer discusses the meticulous planning required to execute large-scale events with her hardworking team of 83. Bauer took on the monumental task of revamping IMEX Frankfurt, which underwent a significant technological shift and a much-anticipated rebrand after two decades.
Bauer talks about IMEX’s diverse global audience and how the brand’s objectives transcend mere attendance. She also shares key learnings from Frankfurt that made it easier to overhaul the American version of the event, plus a few details about the new group website coming after IMEX America in October 2023.
Here’s what you’ll hear about in this conversation:
[00:00:10] Rachel Moore: Welcome to Event Experience by Bizzabo, the podcast where we bring the best and brightest Event Experience Leaders together to share stories, tips, and lessons learned from creating some of the world’s biggest events.
I’m Rachel Moore, your podcast host.
This week, we grabbed some time with Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group, to go behind the scenes of a pillar event for our industry, IMEX Frankfurt. Join us for a virtual trip to Germany as Carina reveals how her team did more than execute a giant tradeshow for over 12,000 attendees; they also overhauled their technology systems and launched a rebrand! It’s yet another example of the mighty goals we can achieve as we design each Event Experience.
[00:01:00] Rachel Moore: We’re all back with Event Experience, the Bizzabo podcast for event planners. I am so pleased today to be sitting across microphones from a very tenured event planner and leader for what is probably one of the most recognizable events and names in the events industry.
I am referring to IMEX, which I did look up for those of you who haven’t looked this up. It stands for Worldwide Exhibition for Incentive Travel Meetings and Events. If I wanted to add my own meaning to the acronym, I’d call it, “I Must Experience” because I have been able to attend an IMEX event. I am speaking today with the CEO of IMEX.
We’re talking today with Carina Bauer. Carina, welcome to the podcast.
[00:01:46] Carina Bauer: Thank you very much, and I loved your alternative explanation for the acronym. I think I’ll use that.
[00:01:52] Rachel Moore: You know, looking at your history, you’ve been the CEO of IMEX for — am I counting this correctly — 21 years?
[00:01:59] Carina Bauer: I’ve actually been with IMEX for 21 years. I’ve been the CEO since the end of 2009.
[00:02:05] Rachel Moore: Well, still, that is a very respectable tenure. Talk to us a little bit, if you don’t mind, you know, as the CEO of IMEX, what all does that entail? Like what is under your domain?
[00:02:15] Carina Bauer: I always say that being CEO is being a jack of all trades but everybody obviously has their specialty and areas of focus and areas of expertise if you like. I ran all of our marketing and partnerships and what we call special projects prior to becoming CEO and all of our PR.
And so I’m still very heavily involved in that side of the business. And I think that’s very important for any kind of pan industry event. But really all of the departments at the show from sales to hosted buyer program to marketing and then all our more internally faced focused departments like finance and IT, and transformation and people and talent, they all kind of sit under myself, and obviously we have fantastic people in place running each of those teams.
[00:03:08] Rachel Moore: We’re speaking with someone who’s not only gotten their hands dirty, if you will. Getting, you know, the events and the marketing and everything done, but also now you’re overseeing the teams and the people. Which, and, and if I may ask, how many people work at IMEX? What size team are we talking about here?
[00:03:22] Carina Bauer: Yeah, we have a team of 83 people.
[00:03:24] Rachel Moore: I would’ve thought it would be bigger considering the size of the events that you put on. But that’s, I’m impressed. I’ll just say that.
[00:03:32] Carina Bauer: Yeah! They’re very busy. It’s interesting, you know, it’s both a large team and as you say, when you see the size and scale, not just of the event themselves, but I think the amount of projects and initiatives and side events that we have that we organize around them as you say, is a very hardworking team.
[00:03:52] Rachel Moore: With this season of the podcast, we are asking each guest to focus on or help us zero in on one particular event. Carina, what are we going to be talking about today?
[00:04:01] Carina Bauer: Yeah, well, I thought it would be interesting to cover the event that we just had, which was IMEX Frankfurt 2023. It took place at the end of May. We did a complete technology overhaul for the whole business that we launched at that event. But also we did a refreshed rebrand. That was the first time we’d done that in 20 years.
And that launched at that show as well.
[00:04:24] Rachel Moore: My goodness. Well, it sounds like there was a lot going into that, so let’s dig into this because as we do with each guest and with each event or activation we’re talking about, you know, it all starts with goals, right?
Can you talk to us a little bit about IMEX Frankfurt 2023. You mentioned the rebrand. You mentioned a tech overhaul. I’m sure those play into this. What were your overall goals to achieve with this year’s edition of IMEX Frankfurt?
[00:04:49] Carina Bauer: Yeah, well, what we actually did, we spent a lot of time last year doing quite a lot of strategic planning for the next sort of three to five years. And we came up with kind of six areas of focus for the business. Did a lot of brainstorming around those and then picked six strategic priorities for this year.
And three of them were more outward facing for our shows, and three of them are more inward facing in terms of our operational processes and our people and culture. So our three strategic priorities was A) the rebrand, B) was a systems and tech overhaul, and C) it was launching our net zero strategy.
And those really sit above the individual KPIs and goals that each of our teams have. And really the goal for our shows with IMEX Frankfurt, IMEX America are always fundamentally the same, which is to bring industry buyers together with industry suppliers to do great business and to advance the industry and to have a higher purpose of really creating a positive impact in the world through bringing people together and through good human connections.
So we always have that as our fundamental goal and some of our sort of smaller KPIs around things like our net promoter scores or are number of exhibitors and obviously number of buyers, but more importantly than that is like the ratio being correct between the buyers and the suppliers and the number of appointments that are being made.
So those are sort of the smaller, tangible KPIs that sit under these sort of very strategic, bigger goals.
[00:06:34] Rachel Moore: That sounds like a lot to accomplish. The rebrand systems and tech overhaul sounds like a big deal.
With those being part of your goals for this year, did you feel like that was a big reach? Did it exponentially increase like the amount of work that would normally go into IMEX Frankfurt?
[00:06:50] Carina Bauer: Yeah, I mean, it was really hard. I won’t sort of mince my words. But the thing is, with a show like IMEX, you know, it’s very large. We do it twice a year. Everything we do is connected from the sales to the intermediaries we work with to bringing the hosted buyers to the appointment system. So for us, we couldn’t do one little bit at a time.
It was an all or nothing. And so to change our foundational systems, the way we work so fundamentally, and also the way our clients work, there’s just no getting around how hard that was. We had been talking about it for a long time, we’d been working towards it, of course, also for a long time.
We started work on it properly in 2021. So it wasn’t that it was done suddenly, but whenever you actually turn off one system and turn on the other, you know, everything changes. And so that was a challenge. And obviously, you know, now that we’ve done that, we can move into sort of more incremental improvement of those systems, which is where we’ll start seeing the real gains. And our clients will see the gains.
In terms of the rebrand, we’d been working on that for 18 months. The team did it completely internally and they did a phenomenal job and they worked on it steadily for 18 months. But it was also a huge amount of work because again, you know, with a rebrand, everything changes from the website to the app to your headed paper if you still have that too.
And then I think we have 500 signs on site, something like that. So, I mean, it was a big amount to do and we had a lot of discussions as to do we launch at the beginning of the year and then work on all the signage and, you know, all of that side for the middle of the year, or do we do it all at once?
So yeah, you know, no easy decisions with things like that. And I think the other thing that I’d say, whether it’s something like a rebrand, so for us, reprinting all those signs. We then wanted to look at the sustainability of them. How can we have longevity? So how can we make them work better for us?
So then that led to a way finding project, or if it was systems, it was rather than just replicating what we were doing before, how can we use systems to help us? How can we automate things? So, the difficulty, I think, with some of these things, is like it’s a multiplier effect or a domino effect. And that’s what really leads to the extra work as well if you wanna do it well.
[00:09:27] Rachel Moore: By the way, I love the new logo.
[00:09:29] Carina Bauer: Thank you very much. We also love it, especially the connection to, you know, that shaking hands, sort of icon in the middle and the center of it really aligns to our new purpose, which is about building human connections. And it’s fresh and light and joyful and fun. So yeah, we are really pleased with it and we are just incredibly lucky to have very talented designers internally who are able to do that.
[00:09:58] Carina Bauer: Yeah, so on the exhibitor side, the majority of our exhibitors are destinations. So countries, cities, convention centers, hotel groups who are focused on the group business destination management companies and groupings of them. Cruise lines. Obviously event tech is very strong as well. And really the whole supply chain for the business events industry globally.
And then on the buyer side, our target audience is really anybody that is organizing large or internationally rotating events of any types, so from your association planners to obviously the event agencies, hotel booking agencies, in-house corporate planners, incentive travel managers, even through to exec PAs who might actually be responsible for significant event spend.
And then also marketeers, either corporates or agencies and brand agencies who are doing a lot of brand work, strategic work with brands and are utilizing events as a really important part of that marketing mix. So it’s very broad. We try to cover every sector, and it’s very global. Our buyers come from about 80 different countries.
[00:11:17] Rachel Moore: Wow. How many attendees are you aiming for, and then how many attended this year?
[00:11:22] Carina Bauer: Yeah, so we had about 12 and a half thousand attend, but we don’t actually have an overall attendance target because obviously that includes all the exhibitors and it includes industry professionals, press, et cetera.
Our major target really is around the number of hosted buyers and then what we call attendee buyers, who are buyers. We qualify them, but we don’t pay for their flights and accommodation to attend. And really our targets are around them because we know that we need to get a significant number of the right buyers on the show floor, meeting with exhibitors to hit every other target.
Like our NPS score and our appointments and to know that the business is being done. So that’s the main target that we actually focus on.
[00:12:10] Rachel Moore: Let’s talk about those attendees. If you’ve got an attendee walking up to the doors of IMEX Frankfurt for the first time, what is their experience? How are they taking in that event?
[00:12:21] Carina Bauer: Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question. I mean, the feedback that we hear is that it can be quite overwhelming for attendees the first time they arrive if they are just an attendee and not with a sort of a hosted buyer group, which is more of a micromanaged experience or not with an exhibiting company.
So one of the things we actually did this year, and we’re doing more of it for IMEX America, this October is really try to focus on giving guidance to those first time attendees. So we did some webinars pre-show for them. We also had some guided tours for them on the first morning as well. And we have a page on our website now dedicated to first time attendees to try to give them a bit of an idea of how to prepare.
Then what to do when they get into the show. Because like any event, big or small, it is all about the preparation. And if you can spend a little bit of time in advance working out maybe who you might want to meet, connecting with them via the app, booking in some business appointments, looking at the education listings, working out what you’re going to attend, looking at the different activation areas where you can have some fun and maybe do some networking. All of those things you know, you don’t have to spend hours. But to do that pre-show on the website in the app makes a massive, massive difference, I think to people’s overall experience. And we do have a few lovely industry people who are always happy to, you know, be, be mentors as well.
So because otherwise I think you can arrive at an IMEX and it’s a very large show. There’s a lot going on. It’s exciting, but if you haven’t done that preparation, it can be hard to know maybe where to get started and even how to go onto a stand and start interacting with the exhibitors if you’re not used to that environment.
So, attending some of our webinars and being part of that tour, meeting other people, I think is really valuable for first timers.
[00:14:19] Rachel Moore: I would imagine that probably leads to far more productive and far more enjoyable or fulfilling experience for someone to attend and have invested in attending.
[00:14:27] Carina Bauer: What I would say is, you know, where possible to try to attend if you are a qualified buyer as a part of a hosted buyer program because what I always say is, say our hosted buyer program, we brought in, you know, just under 3,100 hosted buyers to Frankfurt and we’ll bring somewhere in the region of three and a half thousand or more to IMEX America this year.
So that’s a very big program, but people tend to experience that program in small groups of 10 or 20 people. And so they are micro experiences within that whole large event and whole program. And that really helps you have a curated experience where you’re looked after by what we call an intermediary or a group leader.
You’re sort of experiencing the show with a group of peers, you might have wraparound events like breakfast or dinners, networking events around what you want to do, your appointments and your education. And so that if you are qualified buyer is a really fantastic way to experience a big show like IMEX.
But if you’re coming on your own, I would just say, you know, go onto our website, look at that first timers page, and sign up for the webinars when we get closer to the show and sign up for the tours and you know, we, our team are kind of there to help guide people through.
[00:15:45] Rachel Moore: I know you’d mentioned about the systems and tech overhaul, I would imagine that had some impact on the exhibitors coming in with how they were going to be able to facilitate their presence on the show floor. Did you have to do some new onboarding with them as far as like what that overhaul meant?
[00:15:59] Carina Bauer: That was massive. Yeah, it really was because, you know, we had the same systems for 20 years and we have very high retention, which is wonderful. And our exhibitors were used to our systems and what it could do and what it couldn’t, you know? And even where it was maybe not hitting exactly what they wanted, they kind of understood its limitations or how they could get around them or whatever.
So yeah, suddenly it looked different. It performed in a different way. It had new features. And whilst that was great, in many ways it was just a learning curve for everybody. So it was challenging. And of course there were ways sort of the system was behaving or we were interacting with it that we didn’t expect or they didn’t expect.
So there were a lot of learnings as well and changes that we’ve made for IMEX America as a result of that. But, you know, on the whole, it was really positively received despite the difficulty of that change because you know, our exhibitors could see how much more it gave them ’cause it provided a much more personalized approach to the show.
Everybody had a profile, you could see who was coming, connect with people directly with individuals rather than just company to company. And also on the show floor what we gave was everybody free lead scanning for buyers and exhibitors via the show app. And so that was massive as well.
So there were lots of benefits, but boy, it was really challenging to actually go through that learning process. And of course, our team. We’re learning at the same time. So they did a really extraordinary job to support in, in particular our exhibitors through that.
[00:17:38] Rachel Moore: A quick follow up on that as well.
Do you hold IMEX Frankfurt at the same facility every year?
[00:17:43] Carina Bauer: Yes, we do. So it’s been at Messe Frankfurt since 2003.
[00:17:48] Rachel Moore: I would imagine having that kind of relationship over two decades would probably help alleviate some of the obstacles because you’re used to working in that same space with that same team on a yearly basis to say, Hey, we’re gonna overhaul the system is in the tech can you help with this?
[00:18:04] Carina Bauer: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it certainly helped this year with the amount of change that we went through. But yeah, it helps every year. I think the great thing about being in the same venue every year is that you can constantly optimize the experience of the show because you are not learning a new space and the flow of the space every year. So yeah, it’s really valuable when you can sort of incrementally improve in that way. And as you say, you know, some of the team there we’ve worked with for 20 years or almost 20 years, and we know how they do things. They know how we do things, and that is really, really valuable.
[00:18:42] Rachel Moore: Do you anticipate any major differences with how you executed Frankfurt with the rebranding and the system overhaul, or, do you think it’ll go a little bit smoother in America because you’ve done that already?
[00:18:53] Carina Bauer: Yeah. I would say it’s already going smoother, yes. So yeah, we learned a lot of lessons very fast for Frankfurt. And so we were able to implement those very fast after the show for IMEX America. And we are doing more development on the systems to just improve certain areas so that things are easier to manage and to do.
In terms of the rebrand, obviously we got so much great feedback about the rebrand. And so that’s obviously given our team a lot of confidence. But now, you know, the amount of work they have to do for America is the same as what they had to do for Frankfurt because they’ve got to look at all the way finding all the signage. But even then it’s a bit easier because again, they know how the brand works. They know what’s gonna look good. And the websites, ’cause obviously with a rebrand you redo your websites as well. So we’ve only got one more website to launch. That will be after IMEX America. We actually launching a new group website as well.
So yeah, so we are kind of getting there with all those changes. So it definitely feels calmer and smoother and we’re much better positioned to really help our clients through those changes. But there’s so much demand for the show IMEX America, it’s just kind of blown us away really.
And I think that is just a really amazing sign for the industry.
[00:20:15] Rachel Moore: We have a few more questions to ask you about you personally to get our audience a little chance to get to know you a little better. Carina, can you name an item that you forgot for a work event that caused you some panic?
[00:20:27] Carina Bauer: Something that I forgot my wallet. Oh my gosh. I could travel to Germany once without my wallet. So I did panic slightly at that, but that was interesting. And a work event, I mean, I regularly forget my business card. Oh. So I’m always the person who’s like, you know, I walked out the house without them.
But in terms of IMEX and putting on our events, you know, we are pretty organized, so there’s never been anything absolutely mega that I can think of that we’ve forgotten.
[00:20:59] Rachel Moore: Is there anything you’re listening to, watching or reading these days that you can’t put down? Doesn’t have to be work related.
[00:21:07] Carina Bauer: So I do like listening to podcasts, especially when I’m traveling. And a podcast that I really love is called The Culture Lab and that’s by a lady called Aga Bajer.
And so anybody that’s interested in how to build a better work culture, I would really recommend that. But actually I find that it’s even broader than that. It’s kind of like a mindset changes and she has great interviewer ease and she is a great interviewer. So I really enjoyed that one.
And I love Freakonomics as well. Because it’s just really broad topics. In terms of reading, I read a lot, but I just read a lot of trash novels and I love that on holiday and, and as I’m going to bed. Just really easy stuff.
[00:21:49] Rachel Moore: Is there a particular social media post or a piece of media or a hot take about events that you found interesting lately?
[00:21:59] Carina Bauer: Oh goodness. There’s so much that flashes before our eyes. I mean, I have to say, do you love Julius’s posts? Yes. He’s always honest and insightful and provoking. And I like his post because he knows how to generate very interesting conversations under them. And so I would probably pick his.
[00:22:18] Rachel Moore: And finally, where can our listeners find and follow you online?
[00:22:23] Carina Bauer: Yeah, so I am on LinkedIn. I am on Instagram and Twitter.
I am on Facebook, but I don’t use it that often, so Facebook usually just has my Instagram stories. But yeah, mainly LinkedIn and Instagram I would say. So if they just search for Carina Bauer, I’ll come up.
[00:22:52] Rachel Moore: We asked Carina for her best piece of advice for our SkillUp segment, and her words inspire us to be the change agents the event industry needs.
[00:23:00] Carina Bauer: I think obviously, you know, everybody organizes very different events. I think the main thing for me that the Pandemic showed us, and also where we are now as an industry is showing us, is that we need as event planners to be very comfortable with speed and agility and I think if there’s a skill to learn, it is about how adaptable are you as a person and in terms of your skills and to keep learning because things are changing so rapidly in our environment, in the world at large, that there isn’t one thing you can learn today and then you are good forever. So the best thing you can do is get really comfortable with constant learning, constant agility, and to just not be afraid of change really. And to be that person in your organization or for your clients who can absorb the challenges in change and always try to be the solution finder and see the path forward because there is always a path forward. That’s about mindset, is about constant learning and it’s about adaptability, and I think those are fundamental skills that are good probably in every walk of life, but certainly in what we do.
[00:24:23] Rachel Moore: Thanks again to Carina Bauer for joining us on Event Experience, and thank YOU for listening.
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On behalf of the team, thank you. We’ll gather again soon for a new episode of Event Experience.