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From the analogue event to the digital meeting point

Recently the global association of the exhibition industry UFI issued an invitation to its annual CEO forum. The topic at the top of the agenda was the digitalization of the exhibition industry. As one of the speakers, I was invited to deliver a keynote talk. As a result I have been asked a number of times to summarize the theses once again. I was glad to oblige and here they are:

Three steps of digital transformation

The steady advance of digitalization is irresistibly permeating all areas of society and industry. Whether Industrie 4.0, Smart Home, iBeacons, Connected Car or Mobile Payment – digital technologies are revolutionizing whole sectors. The exhibition industry is no exception here. To enable trade fair organizers to exploit the potential of this transformation there are three essential steps that have to be taken: identification of the potentials, development of strategies for the digital transformation of business models and implementation of suitable, customer-friendly technologies.

  1. Why is the trade fair industry under pressure to digitalize?

Quite simply: because most of our customers are already a step ahead of us in this. Companies are conducting a cross-sector digitalization of their business processes, their distribution and their marketing. To meet their requirements, trade fair organizers have to keep up and adapt to this development, unless they’re prepared to accept competitive disadvantages. The most important success factor here is speed. The fastest digitalizers go into the lead, even taking account of mistakes and setbacks. It’s not only about reflecting the digital transformation of industry in one’s own company. It’s also about future growth through new, digital business.

Trade fair companies basically have three possibilities in this respect:

  • The can found a digital subsidiary, such as Deutsche Messe AG has done.
  • The can declare digitalization to be a task for management and, like Koelnmesse, adopt a company-wide approach.
  • They can establish new digital business units in addition to the existing divisions, as we at Messe Frankfurt have done with the Dexperty division.
  1. How do digital business models arise?

In principle every successful trade fair makes use of the three elements of trading platform, exhibition area for brands, products and services, and a sector-based meeting point to exchange trends and expertise. Each of these three components can now be comprehensively digitalized. For example, by having an app to complement the traditional exhibitor catalogue, with a digital navigation system which guides visitors through the trade fair halls and by enabling exhibitors to communicate in social communities or via match-making platforms.

Even so, on the whole this does not simply involve replacing analogue facilities with digital ones – in most cases that creates little added value. The prospects of success are greater if the actual core of the trade fair business – forging new business relations – are transformed and digital meeting points are created.

  1. Where are the suitable solutions for achieving this?

When searching for the right action to take, the simplest advice is to be guided by your own digital consumer behavior: users prefer solutions which are simple, familiar and intuitive, and which offer them added value in the “real” world.

The central task for management is to create and offer this. And this involves digital customer experiences and completely new business approaches, not “better IT”. One of the most discussed questions concerns where this responsibility is best located.

The responsibility for implementation can, in my opinion, not lie with IT – its role is primarily to operate the in-house IT systems and processes and hence to be a central partner for corporate digital success. IT’s “customers” here are the company’s employees, not the company’s customers.

In order to implement such solutions, companies operating in other sectors create new digital management roles, such as a Chief Digital Officer, who advances the company’s digital strategy on the highest level, or they deploy interdisciplinary teams which are intended to forge ahead with the necessary transformation.

In the final analysis, digital transformation is also rocking some of the sector’s foundations and is confronting the trade fair industry with major challenges. In future it may not be the familiar trade fair factors such as exhibition area which determine the success of a trade fair, but rather the generation of new leads and the sales potentials fulfilled by our customers.

But there is no alternative to this transformation and, acting together, the trade fair industry will develop sustainable solutions. After all, hardly anybody can build on such experience in the creation of spaces where supply and demand come together as well as we can. But the prerequisite is that, in addition to the investment of billions in our conventional infrastructures on the trade fair sites, there will also be investments of an appropriate order in the digital infrastructures of our business. Alongside the real trade fair site, the physical venue, there must also be the “digital venue”.

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