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How do we reimagine events post Covid-19?

Dr. Andreas Winckler, Messe Frankfurt’s Chief of Information Technology, talks frankly with Telekom’s Stefan Bott.

Messe Frankfurt is the world's largest trade fair, congress, and event organizer with its own exhibition grounds. Telekom’s Business Solution Accountant, Stefan Bott, caught up with Dr. Andreas Winckler to learn how Covid-19 is driving the trade fair’s courageous digital transformation and re-launch and the alliance of “analog & digital”.

Dr. Winckler, how hard has Covid-19 hit Messe Frankfurt, and where is the land in sight?

Dr. Andreas Winckler, head of IT at Messe Frankfurt.

Dr. Andreas Winckler, head of IT at Messe Frankfurt.

Like the entire event industry, the pandemic has hit us hard. We have not been able to stage any of our leading international trade shows at our home venue in Frankfurt since March 2020. The situation remains volatile, but the growing vaccination rate in Germany and worldwide, as well as relaxed travel conditions, are giving us renewed courage to look ahead with cautious optimism.

To this end, we are in close contact with our industries to continue offering them the best platform for their current needs – whether digital, hybrid or in person. The first on-site events have already taken place successfully. More high-profile events will follow this year with Formnext, and numerous guest events such as the Frankfurt Book Fair, Discovery Art Fair, and Health & Food Ingredients.

You are aiming for sales of 500 million euros in 2022 — coming from 733 million in 2019. What is the reason for this rather measured confidence? 

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, it has been virtually impossible to generate sales in Germany as before. Messe Frankfurt was also only able to realize events outside Germany to a limited extent. A positive example in this regard was China, where the first events already started in the summer of 2020. The decades-long growth of our group of companies was abruptly halted.

However, our long-term strategy of global diversification into different markets is benefiting us greatly at the current time. We cover all relevant markets around the world with subsidiaries and sales partners and are ramping up business again wherever possible. For example, the first trade shows in China, Russia, and Japan were launched much earlier than here in Germany.

It was not only politicians who advised companies to “strengthen their digital capabilities to be able to further develop their business models in times of the pandemic”. Has Messe Frankfurt followed this advice?

It goes without saying that we use digital workflows for our services and are constantly developing them further. But the pandemic has undoubtedly given digitalization a major boost, both for our customers and for us. After all, it was a matter of being able to offer virtual events from one day to the next while at the same time maintaining our work options. The support of our IT service providers also went into areas that had previously been of little importance to us.

Can you give us an example of how you have developed your business model?

Examples of the further development of our business model include the Hypermotion and Automechanika Frankfurt Digital Plus trade fairs, which were just launched in September. But 18 months ago, it all began with an intensive and, regarding our 29 locations worldwide, international search according to the motto: What is still possible, what is no longer possible, and what do we need?

And if — to take an obvious example — you have a predominantly office-based work environment worldwide, this is associated with a certain volume of VPN licenses.

It was precisely this volume that we had to expand in a very short time to equip our employees with home office workstations. We embarked on a company-wide field trial that we would hardly have dared to undertake without Covid-19 and without agile and flexible service providers at our side. Now we can see that it works and that our courage has been rewarded.

Do you think COVID-19 also had its good points?

Dr. Winckler, Chief of IT at Messe Frankfurt, gesticualting while talking.

In some respects, yes. Today, a year and a half later, we can't say that we invented the digital trade show, and everything is going well. The key to providing services that are both individual and cost-effective was already in effective digital processes and data flows.

However, Covid-19 has clearly been the driving force behind the corresponding implementation. We have introduced new digital offerings for trade show formats for product staging, knowledge sharing, and algorithm-based matchmaking. With this hands-on experience of our digital and hybrid trade show formats to bridge the pandemic phase, we expect the digital factor to enrich our physical events as an integral part across trade shows even after Covid-19 – before, during, and after the show.

Does that mean digitization has been able to fulfill expectations as a “beacon of hope” in your industry?

Here, we must consider two developments that seem contradictory at first glance. On the one hand, Covid-19 was definitely a pacesetter for our own digital transformation as well. We would not have taken up this pace so quickly as a pure management decision in “healthy times.”

On the other hand, the forced complete shift of events into the digital space has made it clear to our industry that the physical business encounter will retain its function for business success, perhaps even expand it. We hear from many clients that the role of events as a place to build and maintain international relationships requires face-to-face, physical interaction.

What does this mean for the future coexistence of “analog & digital” in the practical trade show business?

There will be more advances in the integration of digital elements in the future. But there is also a trend emerging against a purely digital event world. That's a good thing because if the “new normal” of the past 18 months were to permanently define the framework of our corporate purpose like a corset, the trade show event industry would cease to exist.  

That would be fatal because over the 780-year history of Frankfurt as a trade fair venue, one thing has remained the same: People want to look each other in the eye and build trust. And for this purpose, the physical trade fair has been the format par excellence.

If the core business of a trade show organizer — staying with the image of the corset — were to be slashed to a wasp's waist, it would be the end for the entire trade show location in Germany with five of the ten largest trade show companies in the world here.

What gives you hope?

Dr. Andreas Winckler, head of IT at Messe Frankfurt and Andreas Bott, Business Solution Account manager at Deutsche Telekom.

Dr. Andreas Winckler, head of IT at Messe Frankfurt and Andreas Bott, Business Solution Account manager at Deutsche Telekom. 

The strategic relevance of digitization is increasing, and I see its dynamism in terms of technical development and social acceptance as both an opportunity and a challenge.  We need to harmonize this because the vast majority of our customers desire to return quickly to the essence of an industry platform that claims to bring supply and demand together and helps shape the respective innovation cycles. It is also a platform that creates industry identification for the key players and the many small and medium-sized companies and understands that emotional experience in personal relationships is irreplaceable. Providing our customer groups around the world with a continually improving and consistent offering, therefore, requires a progressive alliance of “analog & digital.”

“Progressive” is a good keyword. Where does the soon-to-be 50-year-old WLAN have its raison d'être under the trade show sites’ re-launch regarding concrete technologies and services?

Trade show participants must be able to be digitally connected on the trade show grounds. In terms of WLAN, we have one of Europe’s largest campus hotspots here at Messe Frankfurt. But every technology for data transmission has its strengths and limitations: Bandwidths and security, illumination and availability in halls that are built differently at every trade fair, and international roaming costs still play a role for our trade fair guests.

The differing requirements become clear when you compare the needs of a person traveling in exhibition halls with those of an exhibitor operating the booth. The variety of offerings on the exhibition grounds are advantageous for our customers. WLAN and wired connections have a right to exist as part of the trade fair infrastructure even after the introduction of 5G.

To what extent are your data centers of importance now?

“Data protection” and “hyperscalers” are the key words here. Frankfurt is not only the third-largest trade fair venue in the world. With our subsidiaries in Russia and the USA, among others, Messe Frankfurt recently generated a third of its sales in foreign markets. 

We always think of our events internationally, and now organize more than half of all our trade fairs in our subsidiaries. This means that we want to make our digital offerings accessible in all countries.

And we realize — like all multi-national companies — that not every application is accessible in the same way from everywhere in the world. Preferences in some countries are to be considered the de facto standard there, and the approach to data protection differs significantly globally.

Services from the cloud and targeted regional collaborations will increasingly complement our offerings from the two globally distributed data centers in the future.

On a completely different topic, quite a few of your 2,600 employees may well have learned to appreciate their home office since the beginning of last year. What are you doing to bring these colleagues back — to make their jobs more attractive?

That's definitely a topic we are dealing with. As in any company, collaboration among colleagues also thrives on communication and personal exchange on site. In recent months, we have learned that digital and remote work well, and what we miss is the human connect. Now we need to make the most of these insights.

Digital functions will continue to make remote work possible for Messe Frankfurt employees to a certain extent in the future. This creates scope for making face-to-face encounters in the office, in meetings, and workshops more effective. The sensible linking of the two will be decisive for the attractive design of our future workplaces.

Photos:
© Guido Schiefer Fotografie 

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About the author

Thomas van Zütphen is a long-term observer of the IT-TK industry and has led T-Systems’ customer magazine (previously known as Best Practice) as Editor-in-Chief for the past 15 years.

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