«The current “Stronger Together” message captures the mood of the industry perfectly» — Interview with Managing Director of ICE organiser Clarion Gaming, Stuart Hunter
We continue our series of interviews with prominent figures in the world of gambling, and our guest today is Stuart Hunter, Managing Director of ICE organiser Clarion Gaming. ICE London, 7th – 9th February, ExCeL London, is the world’s biggest B2B gambling industry event and features games creators, distributors, operators, retailers, innovators, trade associations, strategic bodies and regulators — representing every gaming vertical. The return of the major supplier brands to the land-based sector following a Covid-enforced absence combined with an across the board increase in the demand for exhibition space means that ICE 2023 will be the largest show on record featuring the greatest mix of products, services and solutions. Stuart provides his personal insight ahead of February’s event.
— Please, introduce yourself and tell us about yourself.
— I have been involved in the events industry for over 17-years and joined Clarion Events, which is the parent company responsible for ICE London in 2006. In 2019 I moved from the Consumer Events division of Clarion where I was responsible for several portfolios including retail and travel, to join Clarion Gaming and subsequently became Managing Director, responsible for the leading portfolio of events in the gaming industry, including ICE London.
It was very much a Baptism of Fire as the world then went into the Covid pandemic and with that the consequent restrictions on staging live events and international travel. Large parts of the gaming industry suffered terribly during this period as did we with the postponement of the 2021 edition of ICE London and the delay in running the 2022 show which we held in April. Some land-based businesses actually didn’t open for 18-months and are only just returning to pre-pandemic trading.
— How long does it take to organise ICE London and what stages does it consist of?
— We never stop planning and in many ways it’s a continuous process. Our experience gained from running April’s edition of ICE will impact aspects of what will take place in February 2023 and subsequent editions of ICE London. We always learn from experience particularly those areas in which we could have done better. It’s about harnessing the good points and addressing those areas which need improving. We pride ourselves on customer centricity which is integral to ensure that ICE meets the needs of the industry — our touchpoints for this span a year round program of insight and industry gatherings to get to the hub of the industry’s pain points and opportunities.
— You mentioned in one of your publications the participation of 8 focus groups. It must take a whole army of people to prepare large events?
The ICE team is actually quite small in number but it’s a very talented and experienced group which operates to the highest professional standards with an immense passion for the gaming industry. As Managing Director I have learned that it’s about surrounding yourself with the right people which is non-negotiable.
— Do you think anyone can register for these conferences? If not, tell us about the criteria for selecting participants.
— ICE London is free to enter but visitors must be involved in the industry, we do not allow consumers to participate. ICE VOX which is our conference and learning programme is pay to enter.
— You hold events in different countries, the Netherlands, the UK. Where is it more difficult to do, and where is it easier?
— Again this is about having the right people around you both in terms of the team employed by Clarion Gaming as well as the organisers representing the venue. We work closely with the organising teams at both ExCeL London and the Amsterdam RAI which hosts our highly successful iGB Live! Event. Each event has its own specific challenges, but as a wider business, we have extensive experience in delivering world class events in almost every major destination globally.
— Is it easier or harder to organise gaming events than other types of conferences, like medical ones?
— The events sector is highly professional and operates to very high standards — if it didn’t businesses would look for alternative ways of investing their marketing budgets. There’s a set of actions and requirements that apply irrespective of sector. However, one significant point of difference is the size of the equipment. Medical equipment is likely to be smaller than the gaming equipment you would find in a casino — for example. This impacts the complexity of the logistics programme.
— What difficulties do you regularly face during the event preparation?
— Events are meticulously planned, both strategically and operationally which is a mammoth task but richly rewarding, especially when you are custodians of what is the world’s biggest and most influential gaming event. Obviously there are challenges in each cycle, thankfully most are factored into our planning but occasionally of course, you are hit with a curve ball. Take COVID and the events in Ukraine for example, these have been challenges not faced before, and require a very specialist and dynamic approach.
— What interesting marketing campaigns have been launched to promote the events?
— ICE has always put a lot of effort into running campaigns that engage with an international audience and the nature of campaigns is more b2c than the conventional campaigns found in b2b marketing. Our ‘World Theatre of Gaming’ campaign celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare whose plays were famously performed at the Globe Theatre just a few miles from the ICE home at ExCeL, for the ‘ICE Sensational’ campaign we created a sensorium on the show floor and our ‘Discover’ promotion based on Jules Verne included a competition to win a long-haul flight. The current ‘Stronger Together’ message celebrates the return of all sectors of the industry post-pandemic and captures the mood of the industry perfectly.
— Tell us about the event or events organisation that you’re really proud of.
— Every event has its own highlights but overall I think getting ICE 2022 over the line after a two year absence was a great effort from everyone. At the time the world was faced by the spectre of the Omicron variant and exhibitors told us that they weren’t comfortable attending a large-scale event in February. We worked over Christmas 2021 alongside the senior management team at ExCeL to find an available date. To get the April slot we had to negotiate with six other event organisers which had those dates. It was tense, complex and challenging — but we succeeded in getting the world’s most important gambling show over the line — a significant landmark for the ICE brand and for the entire industry.
— If you can, tell us a funny story that happened while preparing for the event.
— I think the preparation of ICE 2022 in April was one of the most challenging the team had experienced. With such dynamic conditions, you need to find lighter moments to balance the stress and strain to be honest, so we always prioritise some social time together. Our post show team event was at a unique venue in London which mixes great food and drink with the sporting event of ‘darts’. It was a fun-packed and humorous evening where we could all relax a little and celebrate a difficult campaign. It was also an event where I had invited our new event Director Andy Ventris to join us for the chance to meet some of the team before he started formally at Clarion Gaming a month or so later. When he arrived, our operations team did such a good job of managing our private function, that they assumed he was chancing his way into the party and politely declined him from entering. We let him in eventually and he says he’s forgiven us for the unexpected ‘first impression’…
— Are you a gambler or do you only work with gambling?
— The gambling industry offers fantastic entertainment opportunities and I love my trips to Las Vegas. Closer to home the experience at London’s Hippodrome Casino and Les Ambassadeurs is superb. I have also had the pleasure of experiencing a wider mix of casinos in Europe this year when joining our partners the European Casino Association in a variety of events we support. I also think sports betting is in the DNA of the UK: I recall growing up, it was almost a given that at the very least you would indulge in betting on the ‘Grand National’ each year, even if you weren’t regular gamblers. Overall it’s a great industry and I consider a privilege to work on.
— What do you think similar events in the gambling industry will be held in the future? Do you think they will be online only or will the format of real life be always relevant?
— Online was an essential feature for virtually everyone during Covid and I’m not sure where we would be without it. However, when it comes to choosing between in-person and online there’s only one winner. You cannot beat the experience of sitting down with people, sharing a coffee or a beer, discussing opportunities, building a rapport and making the connections we need as human beings to do business. Online is hugely valuable but it cannot deliver the same empathy, effectiveness and buzz of in-person. I don’t often hear of anyone making a genuine business connection on-line in this industry, whereas at ICE next February, there will be tens of thousands for sure.