Paul Colston talks to exhibition superstars Jochen Witt and Jimé Essink
Jochen, we last met as Shenzhen World readied for launch, a giant convention centre project (main photo) which your company played a key role in realising. Ironically, it is the Chinese market that is leading the way back for exhibitions post-Covid. How do you see that path in China and how have the last eight months affected your business plans?
Shenzhen World has set new standards in venue quality and it is a privilege for us having had the possibility to contribute to such standards over the last five years.
We are happy to see that the Chinese exhibition industry is recovering swiftly, mainly due to strict control measures and contact tracing. In any case, this trend is a good indication for the industry as a whole.
With a number of new projects, 2020 was a very good year for jwc in China, even though trips to the country were limited. The decision to establish a jwc team in China proved to be 100% correct.
With Asian countries leading the way back for events and offering some of the best solutions to dealing with the Covid issue, you have brought ‘Mr Exhibitions Asia’ on board at your jwc consultancy, Jimé Essink. Is that proof that you expect to be putting the greatest attention and emphasis on these markets in future?
Calling Jimé ‘Mr Exhibitions Asia’ is definitely no exaggeration; his achievements, his knowhow and his reputation are unique and remarkable.
Over recent years China has been the growth engine of the global economy and the main growth driver for our industry; we expect this trend to continue. So it is natural that the country is one of our focus regions besides Europe and North America.
Jimé, you have led events teams and businesses in Asia for many years, including at UBM/Informa and VNU Exhibitions in Asia. 2020 has seen you strike out as a consultant. Tell us about that decision and what you have been doing these past few months?
After 12 years in the job as CEO of UBM Asia and, respectively, Informa Asia, I thought it was time for a change. A change which would make it possible to spend more time with my family and move back to Europe. Jochen had approached me some time ago to join his consultancy, so that was an easy decision. The consultancy makes it possible for me to still contribute to the industry and to keep up my network. Covid completely changed my daily life: from one or two times per week in a plane to 100% at home, but I will be very happy when the world and our industry turns to more normal again.
Given your experience in Asia with big international organisers, how would you assess how those large companies have reacted to secure their businesses. Have they done well given the circumstances?
I think they have done well with regards to the shorter terms actions:
• Taking care that all H&S measures are in place
• Undertaking digital initiatives to remain in contact with key stakeholders
• Undertaking necessary cost savings.
The judge is still out for the longer term. Not much thinking has been done yet about the shape of the future events and how organisations should address these future customer needs. And it is not an easy question, of course.
How do you see the path forward for the full return of international exhibitions and tradefairs in Asia and how have strategies in that part of the world differed from areas that are still struggling hard with the effects of Covid-19 such as Europe and America?
China is already organising successful large-scale exhibtions, as do (on a smaller scale) South-Korea, Japan and Taiwan. China’s events are so successful, even in coronavirus times, since it has a huge home market, plus there are a lot of overseas purchase offices in China, so international trade is still taking place. Covid has to be under control globally, before China and most other Asian countries will more easily allow overseas buyers to visit tradeshows. Asia’s culture is quite risk averse, so it will probably take a long time before the shows in China will be fully international again. The country has good control of the pandemic as opposed to Europe or the USA, where perception of data privacy is questionable in this situation.
What are your goals for the future and how will you be dovetailing your skills into Jochen’s team of ‘exhibition superheroes’?
The composition of the jwc team is ideal: All members of the management and Board have long term practical experience in the industry and, with Gerd [Weber] as a former long term McKinsey employee. The focus of my activities will be on M&A, strategy, interim and crisis management, as well as marketing and organisation. I am very proud to join such a team of super specialists.
Jochen, you have consulted on some very large venue projects, but do you think the days of giant venues may be numbered? Is the way forward, maybe, for smaller, more flexible physical spaces for hosting events?
Again we need to differentiate. Despite existing overcapacities, I believe that mega venues in China still might be justified, depending on region and city.
The situation in Europe is different. The time of giant venues is over, not only because of Covid-19. The tradefair business in the most relevant EU-countries over the last 10 years is stagnant at best, in some areas even declining. Size and structure of many venues no longer conform to the market needs and many plans for their overhaul are not aligned with future market requirements. We are currently conducting several projects in Europe; the vast majority of venues will change structures to improve venue quality/ attractiveness at the expense of exhibition capacity.
You have expressed some strong views on the value of virtual/digital events. It is a truism that nothing can replace face-to-face business, but surely plenty of ground is being opened up for technology companies outside of the exhibition industry to take an increasing share of the traditional business. How do you see the balance shifting here and how can organisers and venues meet the challenges of monetising virtual and hybrid events?
The present focus of our industry lies on health and safety and virtual events; that is understandable in the current circumstances, but will not solve our structural problems. We need to find answers to a number of questions:
1. What will the event business look like post coronavirus, what are the likely scenarios?
2. What does this mean for the strategy and organisation of organisers?
3. What does it mean for the venues of the future?
At jwc we believe that f2f events, at least in Europe, will likely see further declining visitor numbers, fewer international visitors, more focused and regional events and more content. This development will be reflected in exhibitor participation. Digital will play an important role as long as we find the right balance between f2f events and virtual offerings, supported by data management and AI. Our view is that the companies that will be successful will be the ones that offer communication and matchmaking services independent of time, location and medium.
Monetising virtual events is not the priority; the focus must be to strengthen the f2f business with our virtual activities. Many current virtual events are one offs, expensive, with no holistic strategy and little value for the f2f business.
Technology and software providers will be of importance for both organisers and venues.
How do you see the challenge for the industry in terms of dealing with important issues such as fostering opportunity for young event professionals and keeping up the pace of progress with sustainability, despite the Covid backdrop?
Thousands of qualified people are currently leaving our industry or are laid off, resulting in a drain of experience and knowhow in the f2f business. At the same time qualifications are shifting: Digital and virtual activities will require a different breed of people (e.g. data analysts, AI experts) – a difficult situation for our industry as the competition is strong and we are not perceived to be the ‘sexiest’ business.