All photos courtesy ATOMIC unless otherwise noted
At first glance, Rob Barber’s career is a string of seemingly unrelated industry jobs. He’s worked in the furniture, tech, car rental, and live events industries. “It’s been a lot of places. My career’s taken place in a lot of different shapes and sizes,” says Barber. But it doesn’t take long to recognize the throughline: innovation, creativity, and a respect for those people who share those values are woven into his career, regardless of which industry it’s taken shape in.
Now, having spent nearly 15 years with ATOMIC, a live event production and design company, he has found the place where that innovation and creativity can blossom. During Barber's time as Vice President of Modular Systems + R&D, ATOMIC has worked on the sets of some major events—the Super Bowl, iHeartRadio, MTV, Catersource + The Special Event, you name it—shining as a leader.
He is also a prolific international speaker, with engagements that include Catersource + The Special Event, IMEX, and ILEA Live Conference, to name a few. His work has won awards and been featured in several publications, and if all that weren’t enough, he’s a genuine, thoughtful individual who has left quite a mark on the live events industry.
It is for his years of innovation and dedication to improving our industry that Special Events has named Rob Barber the 2024 Special Events Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.
A stage set for the 2019 Grammy Legends Awards.
A series of unique jobs
Barber had his formal education in furniture design and began his career as a furniture designer and maker. But when that job didn’t pay the bills, he did a 180 and went back to school for computer science and business management. He then began working as the IT director of an agricultural company, spending 25 years developing his business and innovation skills. In fact, it was here he patented an invention you’re probably familiar with: the Eggland’s Best brand stamp, that prints logos directly onto eggs.
After his time in IT, Barber moved on to work as Vice President of Avis Car Rental for the state of Pennsylvania. He spent time learning the dos and don’ts of running a rental business, and eventually, through a mutual friend, met the previous co-owner of ATOMIC, who hired him to grow their rental division.
Barber knew right away that there was something different about ATOMIC. “It was really a match made in heaven, to be honest with you,” he told Special Events (SE). “I knew almost right away that this is where I wanted to be.” He continued, “The reason I say that is, I really was being brought into this as this person who could be innovative and really not have his hands tied.”
As a company that does live event production, design, set construction, and modular rental scenery, the freedom to be extremely innovative and free-thinking is a high value at ATOMIC, and that freedom is what made Barber thrive. “To really be given the bandwidth to run and do what you think, the responsibility of that is super energizing to me.”
In the next few years, he was set to the task of opening several locations across the globe and co-leading the development of 12 new product launches per year. Straight out the gate, they told him they didn’t think he could actually meet all these goals, which only fueled his fire. “One of the best ways to get me to do something is to tell me I can’t do it.”
That was in 2010. Since then, Barber has worked on 12 product lines and 110 products, and has contributed to 28,802 shows, and on top of all that, his team celebrates 13 industry-related design awards along with multiple patents. He’s worked with top-tier, A-list clients, including NBC, Warner Bros., Discovery, Hulu, The Talk, and Ellen, as well as on tours for artists like Madonna, Usher, Elton John, Miranda Lambert, and Mötley Crüe. He’s even led a team that started a new company during the pandemic.
ATOMIC’s Pippa Supercolumn and table toppers could be spotted at the Opening Night Party during Catersource + The Special Event 2022. Photo courtesy WASIO Faces
If you ask Barber what he’s most proud of over the course of his career, he’ll tell you about Spacekit, a modular wall art system company that he and his team started at the peak of COVID-19, but he’ll wrap that conversation in high praise for his team.
When it was clear that the pandemic was only beginning, the ATOMIC team set out to find new markets to apply their skills to. But instead of switching gears to make hand sanitizer or gowns, they had a better idea.
“We’re a bunch of creatives and we need to create. And even though, with live events, we wouldn’t see it for probably two years, we’re gonna create,” Barber told SE.
Barber and his team took everything they’d learned about creating modular systems over the past years and applied that knowledge outside of live events, developing a system of interior design products for homes and businesses.
“The reason I say I’m so proud of it is because I never saw a team pull together more than they did then, and we were energized, smiling, and creative in the middle of a worldwide pandemic when there was no reason to be laughing and creating. We all had so many difficult decisions in front of us, both personally and professionally, yet it was powerfully therapeutic for our entire team. I’m really proud that we found such strength and purpose in the midst of such adversity. ”
If you ask Rob Barber what he’s most proud of over the course of his career, he’ll tell you about his team that designed Spacekit, a modular wall art system company that he and his team started at the peak of COVID-19.
A creative connection
Barber is the first to admit that he’s taken an odd, nontraditional career route. But he agrees that creativity is the thread that has strung each experience together.
“Ever since I was a child, and long before school, I just had this obsession with tinkering and building things, but it’s almost like a Lego® mentality, it’s this modularity in all things.” From computer code to design sets, the key word for Barber is modularity—he's always searching for that lowest common denominator. That’s what makes ATOMIC the perfect fit, and that’s what he carried with him in the launch of Spacekit.
“We’ve all been there I think at one point or another, it doesn’t matter if it’s an umbrella or, I don’t know, something that you use at home every day, and you’re like ‘Why can’t somebody make this better?’” He and his team obsess over that room for improvement, and while it's the company’s philosophy, it’s also his personal philosophy: “The more pain points I can alleviate for you, as the client, as the human, the more you want to work with me.”
While he wears a lot of hats, these days, the majority of his clients are in the live events world, and he’s familiarized himself with the challenges of live event production that don’t need to be so challenging. He knows that event pros are constantly battling client budgets, and the biggest pain points are shipping, labor costs to install set pieces, hiring special carpenters, you know the drill—and he's eliminating those challenges by designing and building modular products that can be rented, no tools required. “You and I can build them on a six-pack of beer on a weekend and we don’t have to be talented to put them together,” he jokes. “It’s all designed to pack like Pringles® chips.”
For Barber, creativity is a way of living, and the inspiration comes from both being out of his element and in it. Traveling is one thing that inspires him: “My best ‘ah ha’ moments always seem to happen when I'm on the road. It's the total immersion in new countries, cultures, values, and expressions that gets my creative juices flowing.” But by the same token, he finds inspiration in his everyday world, often where he least expects it. “Inspiration is everywhere,” he says, “and it can come from the most unexpected places. Like, the up-close, center-most pattern of a sunflower or the precise geometric shape of a bee's honeycomb.” With his eyes wide open, creativity finds him anywhere.
Rob Barber and his wife Deborah receive the 2019 Medal of Honor during the 37th Commencement ceremony for Pennsylvania College of Art & Design, where they gave the commencement speech.
The decision to give back
Years ago, Barber and his wife moved from the suburbs to the city, and in doing so, made the conscious decision to take an active role in their community and industry, where they could give back and connect more.
He serves locally on the board of the Lancaster County Community Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to growing Lancaster County through philanthropic giving, as well as, nationally on the board of the Parnelli Awards, which recognizes achievements in the concert and touring sector. And his latest contribution includes a recently published essay in the book, Lights on Lancaster by John R Gerdy.
“I've had the opportunity to speak both domestically and internationally on the topics of design, creativity, and leadership and I'll be speaking at CS+TSE in February 2024. I've even had the opportunity to deliver the commencement speech at the PA College of Art & Design Graduation Ceremony, something I would have never imagined.”
Barber’s topics often cover creativity, teamwork, and design thinking, giving his audience a glimpse into his mind and the ways he’s found success. (See opposite page to learn about his session at this year’s Catersource + The Special Event.)
While public speaking doesn’t come naturally to Barber, it’s just one more area to challenge himself and navigate creatively. “Truth be told, I've always been super-nervous at the thought of any kind of public speaking. So about five years ago I set the goal of facing that fear. I'm proud of the gains I've made but there's always room to improve.”
It’s easy to see how facing fears, looking for improvement, staying open to inspiration, and valuing teamwork have made Barber the industry leader that he is today. “It’s just been a super wild ride,” says Barber. We are honored to name him the Special Events Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient and excited to keep watching his career shine.
Hear from Rob Barber in person at Catersource + The Special Event!
Join Rob Barber as he unpacks some invaluable tips, tricks, and lessons learned from over a decade of crafting product lines, killer products, and over 28K electrifying shows. With game-changers and a touch of storytelling that'll revolutionize your workflow, this session promises to reshape your perspective in ways you never saw coming. Don't miss out!
It’s Time to Celebrate
Join us in celebrating this year's Leadership Award recipients at our annual Awards Ceremony on Thursday, February 15th at 5:30 p.m. on the Keynote Stage.
Considered by many to be the Oscars night of the events and catering industry, during the Awards Ceremony the Leadership, ACE, Gala, and CATIE awards are bestowed upon the best of the best in our industry. Cheer on the nominees and applaud award recipients as they take the stage to accept our industry’s highest honors!
Congratulations to this year's winners and we look forward to celebrating with everyone this February!
More information can be found at https://informaconnect.com/catersource-thespecialevent/