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How to keep our Rheingold


A discussion paper written by Ton Otten, Director International, Jaarbeurs VNU

Ton Otten
Ton Otten

In 2019 I read an article from the McKinsey Global Institute about Europe’s innovation challenge and the need to change the rules of the game [i]. The learnings I took from this article and the post-COVID challenges for the exhibition industry inspired me to make a bicycle trip this summer from Switzerland to the Netherlands alongside the borders of the river Rhine. This area is one of Europe’s most important economic regions and the home ground of numerous leading exhibition companies. The result of the trip is this discussion paper, which suggests undiscovered paths to strengthen our competitive edge in the digital field. Not by trying to play catch-up while hindered by a one-dimensional view on data, fragmentation and lack of scale, but by changing the game to build on our strengths.

Collaboration the main success driver

Europe has a history of collaboration across borders and connecting clusters of successful industries. One of the backbones of the European economy is the river Rhine, which flows through the most highly-developed industrial areas of Europe. The geographical location and natural conditions made the development of one of Europe’s most important economic regions possible. In 2019, the population of the Rhine corridor[ii], 12.1 % of the EC and Switzerland, contributed for 17.5 % of the GDP.[iii]

Small, medium-sized and big international companies shaped the Rhine economy, facilitated by governments, institutions, universities, and cross-border business networks to stimulate innovation, partnerships, entrepreneurship, and trade. Collaboration is one of the main success drivers of the Rhine economy, and investors, corporates, and SMEs were always aware of the fact that they needed to share expertise and work as partners to realize the region’s full economic potential. So far, the exhibition organizers were acting in contrast and underestimated the added value of ‘Rhine’ principles as a strategic asset! 

The pink elephant in the room

The Rhine river corridor, including the tributaries, is the home ground of Europe’s large-scaled exhibition centers, with 6 out of the 11 venues exploiting more than 100,000 sqm and reported a Euro 2.4 billion revenue in the pre-COVID year 2019. Frankfurt, Cologne and Dusseldorf are ahead of the pack, contributing 65 % of the revenue in 2019, and belonging to the five biggest venues in Europe. The revenue growth of the Rhine corridor exhibition centers was during the timeframe 2010 to 2019 3.5 % per annum, which was 30 % above the national GDP growth of 2.7 %. Despite this good performance, the pink elephant has been in the room a long time! The second half of past decade, 2015-2019, the economy accelerated, and the national GDP grew with 3.4 % per annum. At the same time the exhibition operators in the Rhine corridor were losing ground. The revenue was still growing but ended on 3.6 %, which was only 8 % above GDP level!

During the past decades most of the venues expanded their business successfully, managed to recover from the financial crisis and outperformed in 2019. The revenue growth was generally the result of the increasing volume of their cash-cows, geo-cloning of brands into new geographical areas and M&A activities. Like the automobile industry the ‘bigger=better’ principle dominated most of the decisions about the allocation of talent, resources, budgets, and other assets, mainly to support the cash-cows. Of course, it was not only tweaking the business, but lots of new product launches of the past decade are already forgotten and those who are still battling to move to the next better quadrant the BCG matrix are not the game-changers we need.

Digitalization the game-changer

Product innovation is more than the replacement of a brochure by a cool looking website and digitalization is more than the automation of daily routines. During the century of mechanization and automation businesses big industries were focused on volume and efficiency and the value-chains were dominated by conglomerates and shareholders principles. The historical barriers for innovative start-ups disappeared when we entered the digitalization area, the moment that capital was nearly for free and investors were looking for new ways to make a good return on their money.
Digitalization has emerged as a game-changer, like the automobile industry faced when Tesla proved that software is the motor of the value chain instead of the car manufacturing. From a customer perspective, the product quality and functionality at the moment of buying is going to be less dominant. But more important are going to be the software and the infrastructure to receive continuously, in a high frequency, new services and therefore new features. Services and features which are based on the end-user data, collected on a daily and global base. 

Digitalization as the enabler for a continuous up-stream of data and down-stream of services sounds like a perfect match to accelerate the ecosystem and to maximize added value. For some tech-companies’ already reality but for most SMEs, including the exhibition operators who were never really at the forefront of technology, a dream to work on. Tech companies continue to push their business models into more industries to leverage their network scale to expand into new technologies such as artificial intelligence. “Data access is as critical to ensure that new ecosystems can thrive. In fact, the value of a network is increasing at the square of its size; finding ways to achieve more access to data to boost size thus has a disproportionately large effect” (McKinsey, October 2019). 

Common interests

Exhibitors understand the value of sharing of customers with their competitors because it is an effective and less costly method to get in touch with existing and new buyers. You must give something to gain more! So far discussions about data in our industry were dominated by the point of view that we shouldn’t share our data, which is in contrast with the idea we are selling to our customers! It’s interesting to see that collaboration principle is out of scope when we are talking about digitalization and data, one of the most strategic aspects for the future of our business. This subject needs a broader and more deeper discussion, supported by an analysis of what we should arrange and organize in common, to take advantage of GDP growth and gain leverage. 

The exhibition industry has the ability to scale digital innovation, but we need to orientate ourselves on examples that are already working instead of walking the learning curve from scratch. “Examples set by the European Automotive and Telecoms Alliance, which includes telecom operators, vendors, car and truck manufacturers, and suppliers, may be only the beginning, as competitors in the automobile industry combine their research efforts and service offerings to achieve more scale in customer and data access. Such efforts in other sectors could enable small and medium-sized organizers, entrepreneurial companies and attract start-ups to pilot innovation at a larger scale within our supply chains through platforms to play a key role in generating radical innovation” (McKinsey, October 2019).

The roadmap for the digitalization

Denying our common interest, in the area we are facing, is maybe one of the biggest threats to put the exhibition industry at a structural disadvantage. To strengthen our competitive edge, not by trying to play catch-up while being hindered by fragmentation and lack of scale, but by changing the game and build on our strengths and jump on glaringly obvious opportunities. We could rethink data and user access to level the playing field for innovative companies vis-à-vis global-scale data platforms and connect data pools. We could aim to enable secure access for innovators to anonymize data pools they do not own and create scale around common standards. 

This discussion paper doesn’t want to give an opinion about what’s best for our industry but to push on the awareness button. A team of business leaders supported by a mixture of external experts needs to work on a roadmap for the digital future of our industry.

[i] McKinsey Global Institute: Innovation in Europe, October 2019 ttps://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/featured%20insights/innovation/reviving%20innovation%20in%20europe/mgi-innovation-in-europe-discussion-paper-oct2019-vf.ashx

[ii] The Rhine corridor includes the regions North-West Switzerland, Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, Rhineland-Pfalz, Saarland, Nord-Rhein-Westfalen, East Netherland, West Netherland and the following 11 exhibition venues: Zurich, Basel, Freiburg, Karlsruhe, Frankfurt, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Essen, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam.

[iii] Source Eurostat and Federal Statistical Office Switzerland


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