"Great Desire for Trade Shows"

Interview with Michael Degen, Executive Director Trade Fairs of Messe Düsseldorf

MEININGER'S has spoken with Degen about risks for a trade fair in times of a global pandemic, if size matters and if he is afraid of competition. And of course, we discussed the upcoming ProWein, its international focus and digitization issues as well as its biggest challenges.

Reading time: 11m 30s

Michael Degen at Meininger Verlag (Photo: Ekaterina Seredenkova)
Michael Degen at Meininger Verlag (Photo: Ekaterina Seredenkova)

Michael Degen's trade show portfolio also includes ProWein, with which he has a special relationship. From 2012 to 2016, he was acting head of the trade show and will do so again after Bastian Minger's departure at the end of May. 

How badly has Corona affected Messe Düsseldorf?

Dramatically and completely, of course. Because we have done almost no business for two years. You have to understand that in our business the big financial outlays happen before the fair. In our preparation phase, the big costs are incurred in marketing, advertising and in the technical areas. That is why it has been very, very painful for us that we have repeatedly prepared trade shows in the last two years, only to cancel them at short notice. As a result, the entire trade show industry was on the brink of collapse. We must now move on. We no longer have many opportunities to wait and see. We are optimistic that this will work out well, and the results of Pro Wein will be positive.

How high were the financial losses in the last two years?

Extremely high. We have trade shows that take place every two or three years with a turnover range between just under 300 and over 550 million euros. If that cannot be realized over two years, then it is drastic and significant. A trade show company with 600 employees has very, very high overheads.

What effects did the postponement of Pro Wein have? Did trade fairs have to be canceled that would have taken place in May?

No, we postponed a trade show that will now take place in June. This was in an industry where that doesn't play such a dramatic role. At ProWein two years ago, we were still naive and thought: "Yes, okay, it's not possible in March, we'll move it to the end of June. At that time, however, we had received feedback from the industry that June is in no way a favorable date. The fact that we are now grouping postponed trade shows around ProWein shows the importance of ProWein for Messe Düsseldorf, which has developed enormously over the last ten years.

The fact that we are now grouping postponed trade shows around ProWein shows the importance of ProWein for Messe Düsseldorf, which has developed enormously over the last ten years. 

Do you have the feeling that you'll reach your limits with ProWein at some point in terms of size? A visitor often manages only a third of what they set out to do in advance, and let’s not even think about the hotel situation in Düsseldorf.

A trade show can never be big enough. But I understand what you mean. In the past, we looked at the competition between Vinexpo and ProWein more than we do today. The question is always: Who is number one? Who has the most exhibitors, the most visitors and the most international visitors? Who is the most important trade show? We are constantly treading a fine line here in order to take this into account, but on the other hand to prevent precisely the effect that is behind your question. Of course, we are at the forefront of the battle over hotel prices and logistical issues.

In my opinion, we had reached a level in 2019 where we said: "That's good now, and there's no point in bringing the next 1,000 Italian or French or German winemakers there”. Without referring to their individual quality! But if we deliberately downsize, that would be an argument for all those who then say: "Look, the Düsseldorfers, they don’t want to follow the demand now for whatever reason." Then there are waiting lists with exhibitors who say, "Yes well, if the Düsseldorfers don't want it, then we'll just go somewhere else." That is the bandwidth in which we operate.

Aren't you afraid that now, with competition from Wine Paris and increasing digitalization, exhibitor and visitor demand has reached its maximum?

Maybe that's the case. But then it is up to us to define the state of the art through the service and the quality of the visitors. We all don't know how visitor flows will change at international trade shows in the next few years. Will it continue to be the case that Canadian or Asian buyers travel to Düsseldorf? It would be nice, but on the other hand, being aware of this, we also have a ProWein in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong. These are satellite events that are intended to represent the core brand, and are of course not as big as in Düsseldorf, but if one consequence of the pandemic is that the number of intercontinental business trips is declining, then we have an answer to this, at least in terms of the strategic concept.

Are there any plans for a satellite trade show in the North American market? Ten years ago, you had already flirted with this, but acknowledged the obstacles of the American market.

When people talk about North America, they naturally mean the USA. The different regulations in the individual states make it difficult. The fact that the import regulations are defined differently for each state has an impact on the visitor and exhibitor structure. As an exporter, I basically always have to have this catalog of 50 pieces of legislation with me and ask myself, "Can I fulfil these requirements, or do I only meet them in maybe ten states?"

It’s systemic and has not changed in ten years. We would be ready to do something immediately, but it hasn't happened yet. Of course, it would be easier for us with a partner who is established in the market. That's a tried and tested model in the trade show industry.

USP of ProWein: It stands for a very, very high level of internationality on the exhibitor and visitor side.

What do you see as your unique selling point (USP)?

This has various aspects. One is the strategic conceptual dimension of ProWein. We stand for a very, very high level of internationality on the exhibitor and visitor side, and from this claim the visitor can also expect that in principle every wine-growing region in the world is represented in Düsseldorf. The other aspect is the whole trade fair logistics, for example that the trade show grounds have good accessibility, that you don't have to squeeze through the aisles like sardines, that hotel beds are available in Düsseldorf - even though we have no influence on that, of course.

The basic willingness of all those involved is because there is a great desire for trade shows. At the moment, of course, there is the personal view that one person says it has to be held now, and another says that it is still a bit too risky for them at the moment with the current Covid situation. But that has nothing to do with fundamentally questioning trade fairs as such.

What are your plans in the area of digitization?

Digital solutions to complement ProWein are changing our business. For example, that exhibitors and visitors can arrange to meet in advance of the trade show, in the matchmaking pool, that the information provided by the exhibitors is made available to the visitor on the ProWein website in advance. This is much more extensive than it was a few years ago.

The aim is to offer something individual to the different themes and industry worlds. We have to develop a standard that is open enough to ensure ProWein-specific elements. On the other hand, we are also trying not to build 20 individual solutions within Messe Düsseldorf now. That would not be feasible in terms of costs.


What about hybrid solutions? Many trade shows have now started with this format. Messe Düsseldorf has resisted them so far. Will it stay that way?

In principle, we are hybrid in that we make the current offerings available on the Internet in parallel with or as a follow-up to the trade show. For example, the forum events that run live at ProWein and which we make available online afterwards.

At Medica 2020, we switched from an analog to a purely digital format at very short notice and found that visitors then look at the program selectively. Normally, they would walk through the halls for three hours and say, "I'm going to see if there's anything inspiring somewhere, or I'm going to visit this or that. Of course, that doesn't work in the digital substitute format.

What are important points for you this year in terms of content?

We have our two trend scouts Stuart Pigott and Paula Sidore again, they are our official trend scouts for the third time now and are organizing a trend hour in the evening. In addition, for the first time we are offering a project specifically for gastronomy, Urban Gastronomy we call it in New German. Together with Tony Askitis, who has his own stand and does workshops and tastings there for beginners, professionals and advanced professionals.

Do you see any particular trends?

One trending topic is climate change. Then alternative drinks, such as Hard Seltzer or alcohol-free. And also the question, has Corona changed the taste.

We now have 5,500 exhibitors from 62 countries.

What is the feedback from exhibitors in the southern hemisphere? Do you notice a change in demand there?

Not really, to be honest, but we have a very good response, especially internationally. We now have 5,500 exhibitors, where we had 6,900 in 2019, but that is totally in the green zone, and the internationality is not suffering, it is still 62 countries. But it is of course true that everyone was forced to adapt a little.

For example, the biggest concern of Australians right now is the dispute between China and Australia. In this situation, they have to reorient themselves. Because it probably won’t go back like it was for a while.

Are there other countries where you say, what a pity they're not coming this year?

No, not really. South Africa maybe, but that's a special case. Ukraine and Russia are of course also left out. The Ukrainians want to come - and we will keep the area free for them until the end and support them however we can.

You now have 5,500 exhibitors. Many had certainly already registered and didn’t cancel. So, it's amazing that you now have 1,400 fewer than in 2019.

The number is very much defined by the number of co-exhibitors. What is visible are the joint stands, and it is important for us that everyone returns. Whether there are 30 or 35 co-exhibitors under one roof doesn't really matter to us. In the end, that's the PR question: "Can you announce more exhibitors then?" More important for us, because it concerns the monetary aspect, is the occupied space, and the rented area is more than satisfactory.

Interview with Meininger's WBI and Weinwirtschaft (Photo: Ekaterina Seredenkova)
Interview with Meininger's WBI and Weinwirtschaft (Photo: Ekaterina Seredenkova)

But is it a special situation that this is the first ProWein in 20 years that is not fully booked by exhibitors?

That’s not quite right. The joke is that we increased the occupied area because we had planned six-meter-wide aisles out of a sense of caution. The main aisles are much wider than before because we didn’t know at the time of planning which corona protection regulations would be relevant for us. What was an obligation under the conditions at the time is now a voluntary option. Of course, it would be nonsense to say now, "Because we're allowed to, we'll make the aisles narrower. "

What Corona protection measures remain in place now?

From a formal-legal point of view, not much. But we are making the recommendation for some things that we have all kind of internalized. We don't have to do 3G or 2G, we don't have a mask requirement. However, we still recommend wearing a mask. It is then up to each person. We ourselves will do it. After all, we are not only in the role of the organizer, but as an employer. And as an employer, we feel more comfortable if our colleagues continue to wear masks at the show. Another thing that is no longer necessary, which we had at the last fairs, is the limit on the number of visitors per day. That's a big benefit. Any ticket can be used on any day at short notice, and there is a season ticket again.

Do you regret the postponement in retrospect, considering Wine Paris was able to take place in February after all?

No, because we would have had to have so many discussions in view of the case numbers, also with people who then rightly doubted whether it was right. Now the Covid numbers are decreasing. People have also become accustomed to the new freedom.

It was the right step; in January we had no other choice. If we had stayed with it, people would have voted with their feet. Then, in the end, many would have said: "Okay, you are incorrigible, but we'll cancel anyway".

We had to cancel the trade fair “Boot” in January, and that experience was helpful for us. At the beginning of December, we all swore, "We're in. The “Boot” is important, we need the event, you have to do it!" Of course, we were happy to believe that. Less than two weeks later, that collapsed in a flash, because Omicron created a new situation.

How do you then judge the success of Wine Paris, which took place in February after all?

At that point, it was more important that it took place. It went very well, and any trade show that takes place and doesn't end with everyone saying afterwards that it was the hotspot par excellence is good for us. You also have to realize that there are financial aspects to consider. We can't cancel trade shows at short notice without a legal basis. If the Corona Protection Ordinance prohibits us from doing that, then we have a legal basis to break the contract between the exhibitor and the exhibition company and meet in such a way that both are okay with it. But if that legal basis doesn't exist and we cancel, then all costs remain with us, and we have to refund all exhibitor payments.

The further away from Germany you are, the greater your commitment to ProWein. 

Is Germany's trade fair reputation its biggest asset against Wine Paris?

It's ProWein itself, I think. What we have achieved cannot simply be negated. Of course, there are different opinions about ProWein in different areas or regions. To put it simply, the further away from Germany you are, the greater yourcommitment to ProWein.

We have decided that the high level of internationality is the brand essence of ProWein. In case of doubt, this comes at the price of the German food retailer deciding for themself: "Then I don't need ProWein." Well, we then have to put up with that. That's less bad than us wanting to give everyone the feeling that ProWein is just right for you and you have to come.

Do you then communicate to German exhibitors that Pro Wein is not their national trade fair, but an international trade fair of which they are a part?

Yes, that is the case. You have to have honesty.

The hunter is more beautiful than the hunted. 

But you run a high risk when you focus so clearly on internationality. Paris is easier to reach, nicer airport, better hotel facilities, a more attractive city, and the trade show business is a volatile one. ProWein has developed fabulously, but do you run the risk that this will now develop in the direction of Paris?

Danger is perhaps an exaggeration, but of course we take any form of competition seriously. That has always been our philosophy. The hunter is more beautiful than the hunted. When you are number one, you are the hunted. That's not so nice, but we've learned to have to do that for ten years now.

How do visitor numbers compare to 2019?

That is not comparable. It would be frivolous to say what was in 2019, we now extrapolate. We have to wait and see. Those who meet in Düsseldorf in May want first and foremost that there is a trade show and won't immediately stand in the aisle at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday and say, "Look, there's nothing going on here!" Firstly, they want us all to come back together again. In the end, everyone sees what they want to see in the aisle. One sees a full aisle, and the other sees an empty aisle.

How many visitors would you be satisfied with?

I don't want to commit myself to that.

Do you have a sense yet of how it is with international visitors?

In Asia or China, of course, it looks difficult. We are confident that the world wants ProWein to take place again, and of course it's a good indicator if there is a good result on the exhibitor side. This also means that a relevant number of industry representatives from this country will be getting on the plane to travel to Düsseldorf. Why shouldn't visitors from the same country then also say, "Sure, let's do it then!"

What distinguishes ProWein from other trade fairs in terms of preparation?

Actually, ProWein can only be compared with one trade show in terms of character. That is Medica, where the greater part also takes place in joint stands. In terms of trade show logistics, that makes a huge difference. At the Caravan Salon, the Erwin Hymer Group comes and rents a hall. At ProWein, the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber comes and rents the same hall. The WKÖ is actually only the registrant, but then comes with 200 co-exhibitors. Where everyone needs a power connection, everyone has something special. That puts this monster number of 6,000 exhibitors at ProWein into perspective to some extent.

A huge difference is also the great desire of non-specialists to visit ProWein. I then always have to throw on the cloak of the unsympathetic one and tell many people in town, "No, you can't go there."

The interview was conducted by Anja Zimmer and Clemens Gerke. Translation by Susan Bail.

Messe Düsseldorf

Messe Düsseldorf is one of the world's largest trade fair organizers with an extensive portfolio of trade fairs in Düsseldorf and around the world. In 2019, the Messe Düsseldorf Group generated sales of €379 million, of which €70 million was generated abroad. It has 18 exhibition halls in Düsseldorf and a total exhibition area of 306,000 sqm. In 2019, 29 events were held here, including ProWein.

In 2022, Messe Düsseldorf will celebrate its 75th anniversary. The main shareholders are the city of Düsseldorf, the State of North Rhine-Westphalia and Industrieterrains Düsseldorf-Reisholz AG.



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