Martin Fullard talks to International Confex’s Event Director Duncan Custerson on his journey into events and how his and his teams’ approach has seen the show thrive


How did you get into the events industry?

I haphazardly stumbled into it professionally, although looking back I have always been involved in events in some capacity. As a teenager I set up a Facebook group called ‘Miss Royston’ after a beer with some friends, which was basically a Miss Universe in a small market town in Hertfordshire.

With little in the way of things to do, and plenty of scope for gossip, this exploded into thousands of votes coming in each day. My young entrepreneurial brain thought ‘let’s turn it into an event’. So, I set about sourcing a venue, finding sponsor partners for prizes, involving the local council and newspapers, and selling tickets for a charity.

The event ran for two years, and hosted over 500 people in a local pub.

I then moved to London and started a house music club night while pursuing a professional career in sales at EMAP. Eventually, I went from various print and online campaign sales roles into sales management in events. I soon became more and more interested in the delivery of the sales promises I was making.

What impresses you most about the conference and meetings industry? 

Its size, diversity and how it touches every part of business in some way shape or form. Not to mention the people who work in this industry underlining that knowledge and diversity. There are some awesome characters out there, and I have been lucky enough to form not only great business relationships but friendships too. 

What do you think was your biggest challenge when you joined the Confex team, how has the event changed in your time there? 

Everyone has an opinion of International Confex. When I joined in January 2018, I felt like a fish out of water, and maybe even suffered a touch of ‘imposter syndrome’. The show is the same age as me, so that is a little bit daunting.

I was discussing Confex with industry leaders who were attending it when I was still playing kiss chase at school.

I listened to them for a long time and took all opinions on board while adding my own logic and forming my own ideas of where the show should head, and then driving it in that direction through development and tweaks.

The industry is constantly evolving which keeps it exciting but what is interesting is that there is a broad range of active participants from all generations. So, while new apps and technology develop and enable a new type of event professional, there are also ‘old school’ experiences and opinions that are still extremely valid.

Networking of old is to meet up and grab a coffee or beer, and to discuss matters face-to-face, exchanging numbers and emails. With networking apps and a younger generation with smartphones glued to their palms, it makes sense to connect through channels that resonate with them, before, during and after an event. As long as this is a catalyst to face-to-face interactions, I’m all for it.

Is it more about creating partnerships than simple transactions for exhibition space?  

Absolutely. The best business comes from forming strong partnerships and mutual understanding, right? While there is certainly space for transactions and business to be agreed both at Confex and after it, it really does feel like a meeting hub for the industry and helps form enduring bonds.

I find myself meeting industry contacts, closing business or developing partnerships at trade shows across the globe, and despite a number of these businesses being based here in London, the exhibition hall remains the ideal place to meet them. Events are an opportunity to meet new people and to extend existing relationships.

What’s on the content agenda this year? 

What isn’t? We have an Event Tech Dragons Den, a dedicated speed networking hub, the Confex passport scheme offering some fantastic prize give-aways.

Having had a sneak preview of some of the stands, our exhibitors are really bringing their A-games in 2020. The content is absolutely jam packed, just check out the schedule.

How has International Confex performed over the last two years; has it seen growth? 

I’m pleased to say that International Confex is performing extremely well commercially; both 2019 and now 2020 have hit their targets. A large part of the reasoning behind the move to ExCeL London in 2020 is based on outgrowing the floorspace at Olympia.

Both 2019 and now 2020 have broken records in the revenues achieved since Mash Media bought the show in 2014.

The 2019 event achieved a 69% on-site rebook, which is a pretty strong testimonial for the delivery of last year’s show and the subsequent business generated for our exhibitors. We are really excited about the next steps for the show, there is certainly more to come.

How do you think the events industry is viewed in the eyes of the wider public; do they think it’s more about weddings and parties than business events?

Do you know how many times I have tried to explain to my mum what I do, and she still has no idea. That is probably an extreme example, but there are certainly a lot of people out there that don’t think about the events industry in much detail, but most likely attend a relevant exhibition, product launch, off-site meeting or conference without thinking about the planning or team which created it.

Equally, there are plenty of professionals out there that have regular input into the events industry but don’t consider themselves event professionals. The industry is certainly full of multitaskers, be it within an events job title or not. If you find yourself multitasking check your remit and you might just want to add the #eventprof to your next LinkedIn post. 

What challenges does the industry face in 2020?

From my perspective there are lots of positives ahead with emerging technologies popping up almost weekly. At some point this may become an interesting landscape between those that specialise and those that integrate and offer a range of solutions.

Change is coming. The political landscape has left the UK in a state of limbo, and we wait now to see how our future relationship with the EU turns out. This will have an impact on staffing in the events industry, especially the government’s plans to proceed with an Australian-style points system for immigration and the associated salary cap. Language skills is something the UK needs urgently, and it will be interesting to see how, or if, the government listens to our concerns on these matters.

Security is another issue that the industry must reassess. After the terrorist attacks at Manchester Arena in 2017 and Fishmonger’s Hall in 2019, event organisers cannot afford to be complacent. We are taking this issue seriously, and on Day 2 at Confex this year, Figen Murray, the mother of Martyn Hett, who was killed in the Manchester Arena, attack, will be talking to event professionals about ‘Martyn’s Law’, which aspires to improve security at events. I urge you all to come along.

The one thing that will never change about the events industry is its resilience and capacity to embrace change.