The world leader in audiovisuals also chooses Barcelona. Mike Blackman

 © Frederic Camallonga

Mike Blackman is a cosmopolitan executive, a fine speaker and an even better public relations person. He has brought Integrated Systems Europe (ISE), the world’s largest audiovisual trade fair, which he created 20 years ago, to Barcelona. He knows everyone and everyone knows him, and he has become a regular guest at the city’s business and social events. He has felt welcome here and, beyond ISE, he is striving to ensure that more audiovisual companies from all over the world choose Barcelona as their headquarters.

“I used to like this city. Now I love it”, pronounces Mike Blackman from the rooftop of a hotel on Passeig de Gràcia, one of his favourite spots in Barcelona, boasting views of Tibidabo, the sea and Montjuïc, where he explicitly points out the historic Fira site.

Blackman is the founder and CEO of Integrated Systems Europe (ISE), the world’s leading audiovisual exhibition. In May 2022, it made its debut in Barcelona with extensive media coverage and a clear intention to exert an impact equal to or greater than that of the Mobile World Congress (MWC). And it has done so by playing its cards very well.

In early February 2020, Blackman said goodbye to Amsterdam, after organising five editions of ISE there, and announced a promising new chapter in Barcelona. That same week, the MWC, scheduled to be held a fortnight later, was cancelled, when a global economic slowdown was declared with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. ISE’s arrival was therefore delayed by two years, although nobody knew that yet at the time.

Despite the first hard knock from the lockdown, Mike Blackman never stopped coming to Barcelona and meeting with everyone, literally. He has taken tremendous care of his rapport with all those representing the authorities, entities and institutions that could help him: politicians, the usual sacred cows and the new leaders of civil society, and, to some extent, people on the street too. And he has been richly rewarded. He knows everyone and everyone knows him, and he has become a regular guest at the city’s business and social events. “I’m bowled over by the way the people of Barcelona have welcomed and looked after me. I didn’t expect it. Having people invite you into their home and introduce you to their friends is a gift. I think these people are wonderful, they help me in my business and support us to grow.”

Blackman first came to Barcelona in the 1990s, when he organised a Mackintosh (Apple) computer conference for MacWorld at the Palau de Congressos convention centre, and although he remembers it was a very small convention, he enjoyed the city. He has been involved in the world of technology trade fairs and conferences for decades. His father passed on his love of computers to him and his brother.

Born in Guyana (South America), he grew up in the UK and remembers being good at mathematics and economics at school. However, he did not see himself as an economist, so he decided to go into marketing. He initiated his career at the publisher of The Financial Times newspaper and quickly moved up in the world of publishing related to consumer computing, which at the time was an emerging sector. After a stint in the consultancy sector, he set up ISE in 2002.

Since its outset, ISE has become an unmissable show for the audiovisual sector, an industry that is undergoing a profound transformation. “You now no longer need the equipment you used to need, there are efficient and affordable solutions for creating content.”

During the pandemic, he found it difficult to organise a colossal event months in advance… without knowing what could happen a few days later. Instead, the entire audiovisual solutions industry exploded to enable teleworking, which is changing cultures and the game rules around the world. This universe of new virtual opportunities is key content for the audiovisual technology trends show, in a world where it is becoming increasingly difficult to discern the boundaries between what is real and what appears to be real.

At the ISE edition in May in Barcelona, a hologram of Mike Blackman welcomed visitors and was a sensation. But Blackman himself is mindful that, in the pyramid of human needs, connection and rapport with other people is important, something that a hologram, for the time being, does not solve. He recalls a meeting in 1996 with a company organising virtual presentations that claimed that trade fairs would die: “And here we are! We are lucky to be in the audiovisual sector, we bring together the best of both worlds”. Without going into too much detail, he acknowledges that we will do things in the metaverse, but he also believes there is still much to be developed.

Although he is the one causing a stir, behind ISE is a team of 35 people, spread between Amsterdam, Barcelona and Munich, where Blackman initiated the project and where he lives with his family. It is in this global conception of physical and temporal space that he asserts the ISE is not just a fair, but an event: “Our impact on the city should not just be for the duration of the fair; we wish to go beyond that and to become part of Barcelona’s ecosystem. We want to support local audiovisual companies, we know what Barcelona City Council, the Generalitat Government of Catalonia and ACCIÓ, initiatives like Tech Barcelona, etc., are doing. We want international audiovisual companies to come to the Catalan capital and to open their headquarters. For instance, we have already brought Asian companies that want to grow in Europe”.

Mike Blackman is a cosmopolitan executive, a fine speaker and an even better public relations person. He is particularly adept in the art of socialising and saying things quite clearly: “We expect support and recognition from the city: we are mindful of the fact we cause mayhem for a number of days. We draw thousands of people, which gives rise to traffic problems, so we have to ensure there will be enough taxis and take care of the environmental impact too; public transport solutions must be in place. This is how we want the city to help us. In some places, you are promised everything initially and when you have signed the contract, then nothing happens. In Barcelona, it has been the other way around. Barcelona is a good place to be: everyone has welcomed me with open arms”.

 © Frederic Camallonga Mike Blackman during his stay in Barcelona © Frederic Camallonga

In the short time he has been here, he has noticed what he believes to be one of the locals’ shortcomings: “The people of Barcelona don’t value the charm and value of the city enough”. Even so, he knows where he stands: “I understand the reaction to overtourism, which is why we are so concerned about what we can do for the city. ISE is a professional fair, which is not accessible to local people, so we have to think about offering them other things [that take place beyond the exhibition venue].” For the 2022 edition, ISE gave Barcelona the gift of a giant mapping at Casa Batlló and another in Plaça d’Espanya. These two street light shows enraptured thousands of people, became trending topics on the internet and also turned out to be an unrivalled promotional campaign for the city. “We’re already exploring new ideas for next year, something spectacular to give to the people.” Blackman would like to continue in Barcelona in the long term as long as the hotels are on side. What he means is that we must ensure hotels and airlines do not try to make a killing off these events by hiking up the prices: “We have to make sure that it isn’t too expensive to come at the time [of the event], which deters visitors from coming back”.

He says he often discusses the city’s strong and weak points with John Hoffman, the CEO of GSMA-Mobile World Congress: “Taking his advice has helped us. MWC and ISE have a similar audience, but Blackman maintains the companies exhibiting at MWC and ISE are different, or at least the approach is taken from different angles and perspectives. “We have synergies, we don’t compete. We are two very big shows; we might overlap by 10%.”

We now know that MWC has renewed its contract until 2030. Blackman claims he had no doubt it would, even months before it was announced: “MWC is one of the reasons why we are in Barcelona”. Mike Blackman will know exactly what strings to pull if he wants ISE to remain in the Catalan capital beyond 2024. The international visibility and influence provided by these events make many other cities around the world vie to host them.

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