January 2024

Leads on two of the world's biggest convention centre expansions steer postgraduate research  

By Melanie Hall

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Postgraduates working towards a career in global meetings and tourism, hospitality, events and aviation (THEA) had the chance to hear from two international events executives with glittering backgrounds to set the scene for a key part of their master's research.

Eighty students on five University College Birmingham degree programmes, all accredited by the University of Warwick, got to attend a virtual talk from Janet Hamilton, general manager for the Cairns Convention Centre in Queensland, Australia, and a physical talk from James Rees, executive director for conferences and events at ExCel in London.

Both guest speakers led on recent expansions of their award-winning conference centres, with students now tasked with preparing a feasibility study on the multi-million pound projects as part of their degree.

Janet, who was the programme manager for special events for the Sydney Organising Committee of the Olympic Games in 2000, gave her incredible talk to students working towards the Global Meetings and Events Management MSc International Events Management module.

During the talk, she shared the story of how flooding and cyclones in the area around the venue - which has won World's Best Convention Centre twice - threatened to bring the expansion to a halt.

Arbaaz Damad, an international postgraduate from India, said: “It was an excellent presentation and session with Janet.

"It gave us detailed information about the Cairns Convention Centre expansion project and its return on investment, as well as Cairns as a destination that has a great opportunity for the future.

“Helping me to understand more about feasibility studies and their importance, Janet shared great knowledge and boosted our assignment with lots of information. I hope to have more sessions like this in future.” 

Guest speaker James Rees

James, previously events manager across Wembley’s stadium, arena and conference and exhibition centre venues, managing international conferences and concerts for artists such as Madonna, as well as the FA Cup, gave his talk on the £220 million expansion of ExCel to students on the Event Strategy module across the International Hospitality Management MSc, Hospitality with Tourism Management MSc, International Tourism Management and Aviation Management MSc degrees.

The expansion will make ExCel the largest fully-integrated conference and exhibition centre in Europe when it opens in October 2024.  

Parvathy Presanna Sreekumar, also an international student, said James' talk had given her confidence in where she would like to go in her career and that she'd chosen the right subject areas.

"We've been studying ExCel and learned about performance indicators etc, but to see James in person, hear his story and how he got to where he is really inspired us," she said.

"We also got to ask him questions about things we couldn't find online. For example, I got to ask him exactly how long it took for the expansion to see a return on investment. He was so down-to-Earth and gave me real understanding of where I needed to start to get my career going in the right direction."

Leila Edwards, senior events management lecturer at University College Birmingham, said: “It was amazing to have these guest speakers on board, both of whom provided such useful, detailed insights and information, including challenges following Covid such as skills shortages and last-minute bookings. 

"Cairns is considered the gateway to Australia's Great Barrier Reef and, from Janet, we learned about the importance of the indigenous island people, the traditional owners of Cairns, the centre's core values and their commitment to excellence. From James, we were given a unique opportunity to receive high level insights, learned about the significance of the project to London, the local community and key stakeholders, as well as their sustainability initiatives.  

“Both speakers have a huge passion for the industry and pride in their incredible venues, city and people and sessions such as these provide invaluable learning opportunities for our students, highlighting the contribution event venues can have on the host community and industry.

“The talks provided students with first-hand information about the projects and destination context, which they can reference within their assignment. We are very grateful to both industry guest speakers."

Guest speaker Janet Hamilton

Glittering events careers

As well as working on the Olympic Games and running the Cairns Conference Centre for five years, Janet was project director for the Volvo Ocean Race and Commonwealth Games event in the Melbourne Docklands precinct. She is also a board member of the Australian Business Events Association.

James has over 25 years’ experience in event organisation and major venue management, beginning his career as a conference organiser for the UK-based Water Research Centre before moving into venue management at Wembley.

In his role today, James is also responsible for helping to promote ExCel’s parent company, the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (ADNEC), to international event planners hosting events in the Middle East.

University College Birmingham offers a range of courses in events management, hospitality and tourism, with graduates going on to work everywhere from five-star hotels to aerospace operations, while students such as James Whiting go on to launch their own multi-million pound businesses. Find out more about our Department of Hospitality and Tourism.

In pictures: Events postgraduates hear from the experts

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