Change embraced and challenge accepted!

Did you see Howard’s guest blog on the Conference News website recently? If not you can check it out here or we’ve been kind enough to include it below for you.

Brighton’s new head of tourism and venues, Howard Barden, reflects on his changing career and looks forward to shaping the city’s MICE offering in future.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in more than 25 years in the conference and events business, it’s the importance of embracing change and being flexible. Since moving to the Brighton Centre in 1994, I’ve had the pleasure of working in the heart of this vibrant city and, with a diverse range of clients that a large capacity venue attracts. From Robin Cousins and his skating compadres to Jessie J and latterly Ed Miliband and the Labour Party Conference, the centre really does have an eclectic clientele and this is something that brings home the versatility of the space and the need to provide a slick service whatever the event theme.

Working as a key member of the Brighton Centre team and driven by a passion and energy for conferences and events, I progressed to the position of Operations Manager, then onto Commercial Director and to General Manager for the Centre in 2011. As GM, I was responsible for overseeing all aspects of the venue and got the opportunity to focus on embracing change in the commercial sense – raising our standards, the quality of our service and facilities, and constantly striving to deliver excellence to all our conference clients and their delegates.

A huge part of this mission has been managing the £1m renovation project which has transformed the Brighton Centre into a modern conference facility for the city. Improved and extended spaces within the building, new furniture, signage, av equipment and fittings throughout the venue plus a technology investment which allows us to offer delegates fast and free Wi-Fi access across the building, have all combined to rejuvenate the venue. As a result, the Brighton Centre is in a great place. We’ve seen a significant growth in conference business and were proud to host the Labour Party’s Annual Conference 2013 and we are looking forward to welcoming them back in 2015.

Looking ahead, my new role as Head of Tourism & Venues at Brighton & Hove City Council will involve me working on behalf of the whole city, promoting all our venues and developing strategies to increase Brighton’s share of the business tourism market.  My role includes responsibility for VisitBrighton, the city’s official tourism destination unit and the convention bureau.  Both the leisure and business strands of VisitBrighton have already built strong partnerships with local businesses and work on their behalf to promote them to potential clients.  I see collaborative working as a great force for good and something which ultimately brings benefit to the local economy overall.

Over the past 12 months we’ve seen significant investment in some of our flagship venues, including the Grand Hotel, which has pumped over £2 million into improving its offering of high-end conference spaces and bedrooms, not to mention the addition of a luxury spa and top notch seafood restaurant. This kind of investment shows commitment and brings confidence to the city.  We’ve seen a real snowball effect, particularly along the seafront, where other venues are following suit and either starting or announcing their own refurbishment projects.

The city itself has changed rapidly in recent years and will no doubt continue to evolve with new hotels on the horizon, fresh attractions and facilities planned and better transport links for the conference industry to support the venue improvements that have been made.

As a destination, the city of Brighton & Hove has so much going for it that it’s an easy sell for me and I’m looking forward to the changes and the challenges that my role at the helm of tourism and venues will bring. Change embraced and challenge accepted!

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