Attendee safety must be paramount — online community of event planners addresses multiple theft incidents at IBTM Barcelona 2018

Last Friday, I opened my LinkedIn page and saw a post from Andy Hammond, Director at Elite Event Connections and founder of the Events Industry Elite group on Facebook (currently with 260 members), concerning what happened at IBTM in Barcelona this year. Since the show, which took place from 27–29 November 2018, several event professionals who attended have been reporting about their negative experience and stories of the rife crime this year at key event locations: FIRA Barcelona (event venue), Opium Club (where the evening networking took place) and hotels, where a traveller was robbed while checking-in. IBTM is organised by Reed Travel Exhibitions. 

The Events Industry Elite group on Facebook, which Andy founded and moderates, was the first media outlet that picked up on this event, and group members were sharing their stories and cautioning other members to be careful, to leave valuables at the hotel and be vigilant. It was not a case of only one theft but seemed rather to be an organised group of criminals targeting IBTM participants.

The following is Andy’s post: 

‘Although I didn’t attend IBTM World this year in Barcelona many of my Events Industry Elite networking group did and have been sharing their stories of the crime (pick-pocketing, card-cloning, thefts of iPads, muggings) that seemed rife this year. It’s always had a bad reputation for this, but this year seemed to be much worse. Surely either a change of destination or much much better security needs to occur before next year’s event.’

At the time of writing, his post on LinkedIn had generated 63 likes, 69 comments and a total of 15,000 views. The Event Industry Elite Facebook group has 26 likes and 34 comments to date on a post of the attendee whose bank account was robbed, and several large amounts of money stolen.

After reading this update, I shared my thoughts in a private chat with Pauline Kwasniak, the founder of TurnedSee, who attended the event as a hosted buyer this year. She also left a comment on the original LinkedIn post ‘Absolute disgrace what was happening in that night club this year. I’m in the middle of sending a long email to you guys at IBTM (if you are reading this). As a female supporting, lecturing and mentoring young female immigrants who want to work in our industry I feel disgusted. I attended IBTM by myself few years ago as first-time buyer in my 20s without a network back then. I didn’t know people but I wanted to go and make connections.. . Many girls would be the same this year. However, it was dangerous in that club this year. Girls felt unsafe!!!! Our industry is 80% female so can we please start acting like it??? I love the IBTM show, but you have to also manage where you invite/recommend buyers to go to. Consider safety!!!!!! I recommended the club experience to so many people and felt absolutely stupid afterwards. I sympathise with many male friends as well who were robbed. Thank God someone is finally talking about it. Thanks Andy!!!! You are the man. I brought my colleague too for the first time and her bag was stolen too. As a leader of an organisation is my responsibility to ensure safety and IBTM should also feel the responsibility for their guests!!!!”

There is still no official statement from IBTM and no mention in the industry press regarding the incidents. 

As a result, we have decided to bring up the debate and address the problem for two reasons. First, to raise awareness around the topic of safety and security while travelling for business, and second, issue a call for IBTM to take action and tighten security around the venues and ensure that delegates feel safe and secure next year. 

We hosted an Instagram Live discussion, where Pauline and I had a video call and Andy joined via the chat. 

Planners felt unsafe and meetings cancelled  

After reading all the comments and speaking with Pauline and Andy, a few key issues were mentioned by event planners. Several people wrote that this year specifically they felt unsafe attending the show. Pauline said that she felt unsafe in the light of all the theft that had taken place, and specifically, because her employee had her bag stolen at a reputable hotel’s bar. When something like this happens at the start of a show, attendees will not have a positive experience for the rest of their stay. Robbery incidents negatively affected business this year, too. Meetings were cancelled due to delegates having to go to a police station to report incidents, as one Event Industry Elite Facebook group member mentioned. 

The need for a close and exclusive evening venue for IBTM delegates 

The main target venue was the Opium Club, which was recommended by IBTM for evening networking. Visitors reported that their wallets, watches, iPhones and bags were stolen, and cards cloned. A delegate commented in the Facebook group that he saw three people in ten minutes being robbed. According to Pauline, no policeman was visible in the club. 

Several contributors online agreed that the Opium Club should have been closed exclusively to IBTM attendees. That was the case for one year in the past, but then the following year IBTM opened the club after 12am for locals. For many IBTM participants, particularly those on hosted buyer programmes, midnight is roughly the best time to arrive at the club, after finishing client dinners and networking receptions with the group. 

IBTM should take action and address what happened this year. If it stays untreated, there is a danger that it might be even worse next year

IBTM should acknowledge what occurred this year, at least by starting to respond to all the exhibitors and delegates online who have had their items stolen. As a professional industry, we expect an official statement acknowledging what happened and providing feedback on what actions will be taken for next year. Discussed during the video call, Pauline stated that ITBM should provide a safety group for attendees and a response unit, with a phone number, email address, Facebook group, and point of contact for visitors to report these incidents, particularly for first-time visitors, to reach out and seek immediate help.

The non-first-time visitors to Barcelona shared online their past experiences. Knowing that there is petty crime in the city, and in some cases being victims to theft themselves in the past, they were better prepared this time, leaving visa cards and passports at home/ hotel room, hiding cash inside bag pockets and not leaving phones on the table.

Barcelona is a top 10 destination for incentive travel, delegates are ready to take the risk, but security must be tightened  

Past participants to the show commented online that the show is good, and that the city is amazing. Several people argued that it is thanks to Barcelona that the IBTM is so successful and that the city attracts the right buyers year on year. This year in particular, the qualification process of hosted buyers has been focusing on quality over quantity, and two Tier 1 destination exhibitors confirmed to me that this year was the best ever for them.   

According to the Global DMC Partners 2018 Global Destination Index, who published a list of top 10 meeting and incentive destinations, Barcelona is number 7 due to its popularity. This list was compiled based on analysing data from over 6,000 meetings and incentive programmes across 2018 and 2019 in over 500 destinations that Global DMC Partners represents.

Experienced travellers who regularly attend the IBTM and book group events to Barcelona, know that the city has been always known for pickpocketing. This issue is highly unfortunate, particularly with respect to the show being overshadowed by this element of crime. Valerie Kosh, Managing Director at C-Wise Group, commented that ‘Barcelona has been among the top 10 events and incentive destinations for as long as I member, and both event planners and clients/ delegates are always willing to take the risk and extra care of their stuff in exchange for the experience they get. I also believe that IBTM attracts some great industry players because it takes place in the beautiful city… Higher security would not be a bad idea.’ A recent interview with Melissa Critchley, the founder of NY based Critchley Events LLC, confirmed that Barcelona is also a popular destination among US buyers. 

We cannot allow something more serious to happen – security must be tightened! 

Knowing that there is pickpocketing and petty crime in Barcelona, does not mean that we can maintain business as usual while mitigating the risks. From the overall discussions and feedback from victims of theft, this year seemed to be worse than usual, making attendees feel unsafe and targeted. And the danger is, according to Andy, that ‘if it stays untreated, it might be even worse next year, and we can’t wait until something very serious happens to take action. We can’t allow something to happen, an industry professional be beaten into a coma or a female to be raped before something happens.’

Female business travellers need to be recognised and extra safety provided

My discussion with Pauline also extended to female safety on business trips. Female travellers are vulnerable, and while there is a debate about solo female travellers, it ceases when it comes to female business travellers. It is assumed that a female business traveller is more safe and protected because her travel is being taken care of by her organisation. Yes, the ticket and accommodation are booked by an official body, but then she is alone on the trip to take the commute. As a result, female business travellers need recognition, particularly by companies who have large numbers of female staff, and in female-dominated industries, such as the events industry, in particular. Secondly, there must be measures in place to ensure that female travellers feel comfortable and safe at all times. That can be something such as providing an extra allowance to take a taxi back home, for example. 

What is the solution – moving the show to another destination? 

According to a recent The Guardian article ‘Why Barcelona is a street crime hotspot – and how to beat the thieves’, currently, the penalties for a petty crime in Spain, such as a theft of property valued under 400 EUR, are very minimal. Thus, criminals get away with their crimes relatively easily, re-offend and the low fine for petty offenders of approximately 50 EUR is seen as a ‘tax’ for them rather than a serious warning. 

This article goes on to share readers’ stories, tips regarding how to beat the robbers and common tricks that smugglers do to distract the victim: the push-and-shove technique in crowded places, theft on public transport and popular transport routes (e.g., to the airport), the ‘kerfuffle’ and distraction techniques, ‘bird dropping on a shoulder’ and the ‘selfie stick’ trick next to the cash machine, recording the PIN while a traveller gets cash, and then stealing their wallet. 

Most importantly, do not fight the thieves back because they can be extremely dangerous and part of a group.    

With the rife crime, the solution is not only with IBTM to find. It is a bigger problem that must be addressed at the government level together with the city council and local police, but if they are not doing enough to solve this issue, then, as Andy added in his post, the show must be moved to a different destination. We cannot compromise on the safely of our delegates, and take risks.

The new landscape for MICE trade-shows 

I asked Pauline whether she will be attending the show next year. She loves the show and attended it several times in recent years. But she does not fancy her documents being stolen. Now, there is a large array of shows that she can attend and meet buyers and suppliers. The smaller shows and forums, in particular, are gaining in popularity. Most importantly, security is also paramount for her employees ‘if I don’t feel safe and can’t guarantee it for my staff, then no, I will not be attending next year. Today the choice of shows to attend is big.’

Lessons for all event organisers and business travellers 

What happened this year at IBTM Barcelona is a lesson for all organisers to take note and have safety procedures in place. One of the tips for tightening security is to ensure that the venue is exclusively hired for the delegates, and no outsiders are let in. On a personal level, personal travel documents should be left in the hotel or well hidden on the traveller in a travel belt because restoring them is an administrative challenge, particularly for expats and immigrants. 

Immediate actions that can be taken including putting in place safety procedures, with a web page, emergency phone number and Facebook group, where people can reach out and get support. Reed Travel Exhibitions must stand behind these initiatives if they want delegates to come back next year and have a positive experience. 

The collective power of online communities 

As an industry, we have a voice, and we need to solve this before it is too late. We need to represent the industry in a positive light and make delegate safety a priority. For next year, we hope that IBTM will take higher security measures across all venues and place high safety measures in place. Big thanks to Andy and the Events Industry Elites Facebook group for the quick response. It makes me personally more confident to know that I can turn to this group for help and advice. We should always keep sharing and informing our peers about such incidents in the future.

We are very grateful that the first reaction to these events came from the Events Industry Elite Facebook group, where event planners, mostly from the UK, who were victims or know someone who was, warned others to stay vigilant. This response demonstrates the collective power of our wonderful community and industry and people who care to make it a safe and positive environment to work in.

Attendee safety should be paramount! 

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1 Comment

  • Sina 6 years ago Reply

    Thanks for sharing! I personally didn’t hear any of those stories this year but I totally agree that venues for networking evenings like Opium should be closed for the public. I saw many people there, who are not part of the show and I can imagine the ibtm participants might be an easy target for them.
    Another tip is to take off your badge once you leave the Fira!

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