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Q&A with Cathy Breden – Executive Vice President/COO of IAEE

At the start of the new year I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the most dynamic colleagues within our industry; Cathy Breden, the Executive Vice President / COO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE). Read what she has to say about industry trends, trade wars and the American business culture.

Tesi Baur: Please tell me a bit more about yourself and how you found your way into our industry.

Cathy Breden:One hears over and over again that they kind of just “fell” into the industry. I am a little different; I graduated university with a business degree with an emphasis on association management. For the most part I have worked for associations my entire career! And, as you might know, associations are the largest providers of post-graduate education, and many produce their own trade shows. I joined the staff of IAEE in 1995 and have risen through the ranks to the position I currently hold. In 2017, I also took on the role of CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR). I have seen an evolution of IAEE from a U.S.-focused professional society where individuals were members to being an international trade organization. We went from 3,200 individual members to a true trade association of 1,300 member companies representing more than 12,000 exhibition industry professionals in over 50 countries. At the same time, CEIR has evolved with a strong brand of producing independent, trusted and impactful research including the CEIR Index which measures the economic performance of the North American exhibition industry since the year 2000.

Tesi Baur: Currently many people are talking about trade wars and how that could slow down our industry. What is your opinion? Should we be scared?

Cathy Breden: Trade wars can certainly impact trade shows. We have heard of exhibitors backing out of participating, as well as visitors. In the short-term, savvy organizers will find ways to shift their strategy to maintain the health of their event and financial position.

Tesi Baur: 2019 has just started, what do you think will be the mega trends of our industry?

Cathy Breden: It seems the mega trends we are seeing have been occurring over the past couple of years. Research CEIR has conducted confirms the importance of data analytics to create customized experiences. We need to better understand our customers’ preferences and design our events to meet those wants and needs. Exhibitors should be viewed as partners. Trade shows are nothing more than a platform for buyers and sellers, similar to Amazon, Alibaba, etc. The difference is our platform is face-to-face. We are now seeing online companies opening store fronts. CEIR research confirms that 41% of the corporate marketing dollar goes toward exhibiting. That has not budged in several years. All this to say, trade shows are healthy. They are impacted, however, by trade issues, political tensions and especially the global economy.

With the digital world comes challenges. Organizers must be good stewards of the data they collect on their visitors and exhibitors. Two issues not discussed a great deal and need more focus is data protection/privacy and cybersecurity. More focus is also being placed on ensuring the safety and security of our events, working closely with the venues and security personnel.

Tesi Baur: Everybody knows America as the business powerhouse of the world. Tell me one fact about the American business culture people in the world might not know.

Cathy Breden: We must be careful not to stereotype a particular group of people, and be respectful of our differences. I find that when doing business in other countries, or individuals are in meetings here in the U.S., focus is put on our differences more than how we are alike. Both parties are trying to be respectful of business culture. For the most part, Americans are friendly and congenial, yet very competitive. We have a strong work ethic and many of us are lacking work/life balance. We like to get down to business and be direct in our conversations. Probably most important in the exhibitions industry, we like to work with people we trust their business ethics and with whom we can build a friendly rapport.


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