Elsa Harbourne of m&i On How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine
Published in
9 min readJul 4, 2022


Engage your audience: No one wants to spend 3 days at an international event feeling bored and disengaged. Take your attendees on a journey of engagement that begins with your marketing campaigns, and follows through to your pre-event communications and, most importantly, the event itself.

As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elsa Harbourne.

Elsa Harbourne is the Director of Marketing & Technology at m&i. Forget everything you thought you knew about trade shows because m&i in-person events are far from traditional. This company is loved for their bold and entirely unique formula — combining business with compelling experiences! Say goodbye to fruitless business meetings and hello to a world of high-energy global events, where networking and new experiences go hand in hand. At m&i, they use state-of-the-art matchmaking technology to help attendees do business. Meeting & events professionals can meet their AI powered matches face-to-face at their global in-person events. They call themselves the Cupid of the MICE world, and help attendees find their best matches!

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Pure chance. I grew up in a remote part of France and always had a drive to explore the world. However, the tourist life didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to be in with the locals, a part of the fauna. I loved the idea of being able to communicate with the whole world, so I studied languages and got to study and work abroad. After spending time in Edinburgh, Barcelona and Montreal, I settled in London in 2007. At the time I was learning the ropes of the music industry and festival events, when an old friend called me with a job opportunity to work at m&i, inviting buyers to attend MICE networking events. Fast forward 13 years and I’m now Director of Marketing & Technology for that same company.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

There is no time like the present, and I’m lucky to have recently joined the team at RendezVerse, working on the first Hotel & Events metaverse. It’s a hugely exciting and interesting topic and I’m delighted to work on making the metaverse a reality for the MICE world.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of our previous marketing campaigns involved the team dressing up as pop stars and replicating famous albums or single covers during a photo shoot. The idea was to rename the song and to make the meaning applicable to the Meeting & Events industry. Think Spice Girls and ‘MICE up your life’ or Elvis ‘Let me tender, Let me meet’. One of the posters was Amy Winehouse: ‘They’re trying to make me go to IMEX and I said NO, NO, NO’. It was a controversial poster because it was about a competitor trade show, but what made it even more controversial is that I thought it would be ‘funny’ to send this as an email to the whole industry the week before IMEX Frankfurt. When our Sales Team tried to organize their pass for the event, the IMEX crew told them the whole team was blacklisted. It took our CEO speaking directly to the IMEX CEO to resolve the issue, and the team went to the show with their tails between their legs.

What was I thinking? Good question. We entered the MICE markets as disruptors, and I probably embraced the rebel model a little bit too hard. But I genuinely thought it would be funny.

I learnt that you should always respect your peers, even if they are competitors (also don’t try to be funny when you deal with a large audience, unless you possess genuine comedic skills). I now really look up to Carina Bauer, IMEX CEO. She saw through the silliness that day and I think she’s a great leader.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I have a few people to be grateful for, starting with Heri Kashema, our Director of Sales, who got me an interview with m&i 13 years ago.

But they are two people who influenced my career. One is Sofia Quintero. She was the instructor of a digital marketing course I enrolled in. She was part of the hottest tech start up in London at the time and was an advocate of the lean analytics movement. She was so inspiring and made such a strong case for the importance of marketing in companies. At the time, the company was still in the mindset of growth through aggressive sales. As I started my new role as Director of Marketing at m&i (directing only myself), this was the inspiration and the motivation I needed to make the company invest in a real marketing strategy.

The other person is m&i’s CEO, Richard Barnes. Back in 2011, he wanted to hire an experienced marketer but put his trust in me and allowed me to grow my skills and the department. What began as a one-man band is now a fine-tuned Marketing & Technology team with 20 members of staff.

Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?

m&i specializes in networking trade shows with a twist. Born from the desire to make business more joyful, help the industry become more efficient and move away from traditional exhibitions, we’ve crafted a formula of 1–2–1 meetings combined with unique destination-focused activities, connection-building opportunities, and exciting nightlife experiences. Why? Because our core belief has always been that the strongest business partnerships are made when people are relaxed, having fun and really getting to know each other as humans. We’ve seen the success of this human-to-human approach over the years, and it has generated countless fruitful business partnerships over the years.

Of course, any company that wants to stay relevant will know the importance of always moving with the times. Over the years, we’ve added virtual and hybrid events to our roster and, most excitingly, we’ve introduced AI smart-match technology, which helps delegates ensure they’re meeting the most relevant people for their business goals at all our events. There’s plenty more in the works from us though, so watch this space!

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

Time is our most precious asset nowadays, and a lot of time goes into researching potential new clients, setting up meetings, and flying around to meet prospective business partners.

At our events, not only do vetted professionals attend under one roof, making the best use of our delegates’ time, but our AI smart-match technology ensures that they meet the right people. For us it’s about quality over quantity. Meet the right people for you in a fun, relaxed atmosphere that’s conducive to great networking. Simple.

As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?

I think we are seeing a lot more last-minute buying. Whereas we used to be more organized pre-pandemic and had our holidays booked long in advance, now this idea makes us nervous. It’s the same for the MICE industry; a lot of the requests for organizing events are coming very last minute. I heard of a 4-week lead time for a 150 pax event in Sweden the other day. So, hospitality companies are going to need to have enough staff to cater to these surges, and it’s been a sticky point since the return of the new normal.

You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?

Before I had my son, I would have been all about experiencing an area like a local, spending time researching, speaking to people who live there, and finding the best hidden gems. Now, as a mum, my main priority is finding a beautiful resort and spending time doing very little, enjoying the beach, the local cuisine, and having fun with the family. I’m lucky that I still get to discover so many incredible destinations and venues when I travel for work.

Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.

Working for m&i has taught me a lot about the importance of connecting with a destination and that’s something we as a company are always striving to provide our delegates. All our travel events incorporate experiential elements where delegates can connect with a destination. But we also recognize the importance of connecting with yourself when you’re out on business. Therefore, we also incorporate a ‘Rise & Shine’ session each morning, such as yoga, a group run or a bike ride, so attendees can start their day feeling energized and ready to rock!

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

Engage your audience: No one wants to spend 3 days at an international event feeling bored and disengaged. Take your attendees on a journey of engagement that begins with your marketing campaigns, and follows through to your pre-event communications and, most importantly, the event itself.

Create lifetime experiences: Use the destination to your advantage. If you’ve travelled thousands of miles to a country and not experienced its unique culture or history, you’d feel really disappointed. We always incorporate activities that benefit the local communities around us and create lasting memories for delegates.

Add bonding opportunities: It can’t just be about strict business — for a professional relationship to truly last, people need the chance to get to know each other on a more personal level. We incorporate everything from shared experiences and afternoons by the beach, to dazzling entertainment when the sun goes down, so attendees can continue the business conversation and forge great friendships.

Provide time for reflection: We all appreciate a bit of down-time, especially at a busy event filled with new people to meet. Including some leisure time for attendees (and hardworking staff) to explore on their own time or catch-up with emails is essential to the promotion of good mental and physical health.

Make attendees feel valued: Treat your clients as important friends and do everything you can to make their experience the best possible on-site and pre/post-event. It’s also about the little touches, like branded merchandise, small welcome gifts, etc. At our events, we organize award ceremonies that show how much we love and value our attendees.

Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The MICE industry is wasteful and often generates a negative impact on our planet. The next step for all travel & hospitality professionals is going to be about offering sustainable solutions to their clients. At m&i, we are looking at how we produce our own events and are making changes to ensure we can impact the destinations we visit positively.

We hope this approach, together with thinking groups and education sessions on the sustainability topic, will help change our way of working as an industry.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

It would probably be a kids’ movement — something around offering free classes/workshops for kids on any topic (art, photography, programming, etc.). It can be hard to find your passion through academic programs. Not all kids have access to equal opportunities when it comes to education. Kids are our best hope for a better world. We need to allow them to discover who they are and become the best version of themselves.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can connect with me personally on LinkedIn here. If you’d like to follow our adventures over at m&i, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube or LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for joining us!



Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

Board Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC), Journalist, Best-selling Author, Podcaster, and Stage 3 Cancer Survivor