US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made an appearance at the Hannover Messe in 2016, US actor Christopher Lloyd was seen at German Comic Con, artist David Hockney attended the Frankfurt Book Fair and Dorothee Bär, Jan Böhmermann and Nico Rosberg were all at Dmexco in Cologne last year. Trade fairs try to increase their appeal with these famous guests. However, their appearance alone is no longer enough to lead a trade fair to real success. It is about creative speeches, lively discussions at the stand and good coffee, about innovative exhibition stands and flawless organisation. Today a poor concept can kill a whole trade fair. A well-known example is CEBIT in Hannover.
Therefore these “Messen” are increasingly turning into “Messtivals” – trade fairs with festival character. Today organisers design their trade fairs according to the principle of an open and interactive exchange. They want to create a relaxed atmosphere in which exceptional products and ideas are presented. A role model and source of inspiration is the world’s leading event of this kind: South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
Trade fairs in Germany
Let’s take a look at Germany: in Germany in particular, trade fairs are a part of brand identity, according to estimations made by AUMA, the German Trade Fair Association. A few figures: of the 15 largest trade fair societies worldwide, measured by revenue, seven are German, including the Messe Frankfurt (revenue of approx. 715 million Euros) which is by its own account the most international exhibition venue in the world. With over 463,000 square metres of gross exhibition space, the exhibition centre in Hannover is the largest in the world. In 2018, there were between 160 and 180 international and national trade fairs in Germany, with 180,000 exhibitors and 10 million visitors.
It is also a healthy market which is re-positioning itself in order to establish trade fair trends alongside digitalisation and to attract the young target audience.
Trade fairs which are turning into festivals
The deliberate change that is noticeable at many trade fairs is the complete alteration of the classic trade fair format in favour of a conference and event. There is a changing requirement on the demander side as well as a changing objective on the part of the providers. This means that attendees today are no longer just passive visitors to the exhibition centre, but function as active participants. Thanks above all to the technical opportunities offered by digitalisation and virtualisation, the offline world and the online world are combined together in an exhibition hall. Topics like Big Data, smart home, augmented and virtual reality, gamification, the sharing economy, marketing automation, biometric events and roboting are, like the visitors as well, important outside of digital trade fairs. That’s because by using augmented reality, for example, exhibition spaces can be brought to life. In this way the young target audience can be ideally addressed, and not just using the humanoid robot, Pepper, who makes an appearance at a number of trade fairs. What else is important in order to get the festival feeling at a trade fair? At the OMR there are food trucks in order to offer the visitors culinary delights in the lunch break, master classes for small-scale exchanges with experts, guided tours in order to take visitors directly to exhibitors who are relevant to the tour’s theme, and the concert in the evening. There is a tradition behind this. In previous years, on the first day of the expo popular musicians and DJs like Lars Eidinger, Oli. P or Absolute Beginner have set the right mood.
re:publica, too, which takes place from the 6th - 8th May, and Bits & Pretzels during the Oktoberfest belong to the “event” trade fairs. This year’s re:publica begins with a speech by the German President and then becomes a conference with keynote speeches by, for example, Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister and former hacker, or ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst. A new feature is the re:cruiting area in which there will be various formats for networking between potential employers and applicants. It is notable that these events never come to a standstill.
Bits & Pretzels is a three-day conference for founders and interested visitors. Here it is less about exhibitions and more about keynote speeches, workshops and start-up rivalries – and it’s all accompanied by sausages and pretzels. And you can’t go home without enjoying a session at the Oktoberfest.
Concert, partying, alcohol and a lot of show?
It’s fifty-fifty. That’s because businesses like OTTO, Facebook, Google, Ströer, Axel Springer or Adobe are happy to use the various “festivals” to display their products, inform visitors about innovations or to recruit new employees. Last year, 40,000 industry visitors flocked to Online Marketing Rockstars, and at re:publica guests heard 929 international speakers from 65 countries across 20 stages. Trade fairs are shows with content. Even today, the only thing that is changing is that participants are being increasingly included and can experience even more.
So to pose the initial question again: why are trade fairs changing? Because digitalisation is leading them to try out new approaches and new ideas.