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"Meeting In Person Won't Be Outdated For A Long Time" - An interview with Julia Uherek, Vice President of Messe Frankfurt

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For those involved in creative hobbies and crafts, it is inevitable sooner or later to get to know the names of the trade fairs and exhibitions organised by Messe Frankfurt: Ambiente, Christmasworld and Creativeworld. These events are just as important a global showcase for the consumer goods segment as, for example, the NAMM Show in Anaheim for the industry of musical instruments or Prolight + Sound in Frankfurt for the professional stage, visual and sound technology market: the most important players present their latest products, their portfolio for the current year, and could find new partners as well, and on the other hand, visitors can discover the latest innovations and get fresh inspiration from a range of presentations on creative techniques, trends and the role of sustainability in craft hobbies. In the following interview among many interesting topics, we asked Julia Uherek, Vice President of Messe Frankfurt, about why the consumer goods market needs a trade fair trio of this size or how a company that organises hundreds of exhibitions, fairs and other events worldwide can recover after years of quarantine.

Although there is an event in the company's calendar not only in Europe, but all over the world from New York to Hong Kong, the end of the year - when our conversation took place - is particularly busy for the Messe Frankfurt team, as in addition to the December events, they are already preparing for the 2024 season, which starts in the second week of January with the three-day Heimtextil trade fair and exhibition, while Ambiente, Christmasworld and Creativeworld, which provided the occasion for the interview, took place at the end of the month, between 26 and 30 January. 

Why does the consumer goods, decoration and creative hobby sector need this kind of big international meeting point?

Julia Uherek: This fair is the European consumer goods fair and covers the entire world market. The predecessor of the current events can be seen as the Frankfurt Springfair, which was an event with a similar profile and a general focus on the consumer goods market in the 80s and 90s. Since then, the economy has become globalised in many ways, with the emergence of many international suppliers and a growing supply in all markets, so that after a while we could not provide enough space for everything and everyone. As a result, more and more segments got their own event, including office supplies, decoration, paper and packaging, and became Paperworld. We continue to organise events under this name in China, India and the Middle East. But in Europe, in 2010, we created separate events for the retail consumer goods sector, because this sector has grown so fast, so many companies have emerged that it has justified it.

Otherwise, in some areas, the opposite trend is happening, with some markets shrinking, a good example being the office supplies segment, due to increasing digitalisation. As the market consolidates, end users start to use new products in new ways. Whereas not so long ago we typically worked from offices, today office supply manufacturers need to cater to the needs of the home office as consumer priorities have changed, and retail itself has changed. With the Ambiente-Christmasworld-Creativeworld trio, we have created a "one-stop shop" event in the global consumer goods market, with product categories that end users typically look for at the same time, so they can be perfectly combined in stores or online shops. If a consumer looking for, say, tableware, typically also looks for decorative items. Having three events at the same time is a huge benefit for retailers and for the visitors too. 

Were there other factors involved?

Julia Uherek: For example, businesses today have to be much more efficient. We have now learned how to organise meetings online and as a result, people travel less. After periods of recession, many in the industry need to save money to reduce costs, for example for business travel. We thought that by creating a triple 'one-stop shop' exhibition covering all segments, we would create a meaningful event that everyone should come to. Where all the relevant product groups are available in one place, without having to travel to another event, possibly thousands of kilometres, as we have exhibitors from Japan and South America.

And if our partners know that they can meet buyers from all over the world in one place, it's more attractive for them, because there are more, more effective networking and business opportunities than if someone has to travel all year to every specialised trade show around the world to showcase their products. This was also an important aspect of organising the three fairs at the same time, and is particularly important for the creative hobby and craft industry, as Creativeworld is the only event of its kind in the world that is truly international. There is a similar event in the United States, but it is only focused on the US market, so the really big players in the overseas market, like Michaels Stores or Home Depot, who are some of the biggest buyers in the hobby and craft segment, also come to Frankfurt because they know that the full international hobby and craft range is available here. Nowhere else are all the brands represented, and this is the great strength of our “Frankfurt Trio”. The Covid period has already been mentioned several times, which must have been particularly difficult for you, because, like other events, Ambiente, Christmasworld and Creativeworld have been out of the way for years, and we are talking about hundreds of international events. How did you manage to get through these years?  

The Covid period has already been mentioned several times. It must have been a particularly difficult time for you, since, like other shows, Ambiente, Christmasworld and Creativeworld had to be postponed for years, and we are talking about hundreds of events worldwide. How did you manage to get through these years?

Julia Uherek: It was indeed a very difficult period for us. We had to do without fairs here in Frankfurt for almost three years, which was a terrible frustration for us. The whole team worked very hard during these times, too, and we tried to keep our optimism and hope that the time for face-to-face meetings would come again soon. Colleagues kept looking for opportunities to organise another event, but then there was always another wave of COVID. It was as if we had to keep stopping while we were moving to rethink what we wanted, when we would be able to host our partners around the world again, to meet again and do new business.

We were sure that we would not dismiss anyone. We held on to all our employees during this time because we were confident that life would return to normal sooner or later, with fairs, exhibitions, inspiring meetings, and we knew that when it did, we would need our staff. Time has proven us right, as the reception to this year's returning events has been overwhelming from exhibitors and visitors alike. The entire international market was looking forward to seeing each other again, to seeing how the market had evolved over that time.

On the other hand, we were confronted with something we hadn't thought about before: that strange winds can blow sometimes. During the years of the epidemic, we rethought our business model, we worked on our processes and our services. We didn't believe in online exhibitions before, where you could walk around with an avatar in front of digital stands, but we used platforms like LinkedIn for digital interaction. Along the same lines, we created digital matchmaking platforms to provide a meeting point for industry partners, suppliers and traders, and today we combine these platforms with live events. This improves the flow of information and makes it easier for trade show participants to keep in touch with each other, organise meetings or - because this sometimes happens due to busy event schedules - catch up online. On another platform, retailers can order from suppliers all year round, even when there is no exhibition, and we also have a content platform to provide inspiring ideas and information to our partners all year round. So, we have added new platforms and services to our huge events portfolio.

How do you see the situation after the difficult years? 

Julia Uherek: In total, we had more than 154,000 visitors from 170 countries, our venues were packed to capacity, and that's just the number of professional participants. Life has come back to us, and it was clear that everyone missed these events after all the online meetings. For my part, I am sure that meeting in person won't be outdated for a long time. If you're going to do business, it's very important to see who you're doing business with. E-mail, telephone and video calls are a substitute for many things, but you cannot shake hands with your business partner through them and you cannot touch the product they have made; all of which are important factors when you are making a decision, and that kind of experiences also strengthen the relationship. We're adapting to the changes that come with the digital age, but we also believe that these events will be with us for a long time in the consumer goods market.

This is perfectly understandable, as any encounter is also a chance to build valuable relationships and learn something new.  

Julia Uherek: We also cover it in our technical presentations to give direction to exhibitors and visitors, and other exciting aspects influence the way the market works.

What are some of the programmes that are not to be missed on the "Frankfurt Trio" in January if you are most interested in what is happening in the world of creative hobbies and crafts? 

Julia Uherek: I'm happy to say that all our major exhibitors are back for the 2024 show year, even those who weren't there last time or even in the years before Covid, such as well-known brands like PEBEO, Koh-I-Noor or Clarefontaine. We also have some exciting new exhibitors, such as Novus Dahle who are mainly known as an office supplies company, but now have a range of products for the creative hobby and craft market and are looking to expand into new areas.

In addition to the exhibitor stands, there will of course be other varied programmes for visitors, an important part of which is the Creative Trends lecture series, where we will present the most important news from the world of creative hobby materials and craft techniques, along three themes, which are worth getting to know as a professional participant and visitor. We are seeing a strong demand from craftspeople to create things that are relevant to their perceived industry trends. There is a strong vintage feel in the craft market right now, for example, so we will have a presentation on how to combine old solutions with new techniques in the creative industries, how to create new things from discarded materials, say a bedspread from the seventies, so we will provide visitors with sustainable creative ideas. But you can also talk to the workshops, learn craft techniques, learn about products made sustainably from materials and ethical style, and the list goes on.  

As far as I can see, your explicit aim is to educate and inspire those who attend your events. 

Julia Uherek: Yes, definitely. There is a trend in the creative sector on many levels that people want to create things themselves and as customers they are looking for products that have a story, that are durable and not mass-produced. So, craftsmanship is a big trend these days.

What has been the most positive, particularly memorable feedback from participants about the event so far?

Julia Uherek: Almost every minute was an inspiring moment for us and our partners because it was important for many people to be there. Many people said they had doubts about whether there could even be a continuation after the pandemic, but in the end, we received overwhelming feedback. We found new partners and new exhibitors, such as König + Neurath, a major player in the office furniture market. They were here for the first time, presenting their products on a small stand in the Work section of Ambiente, and they said they were impressed by the unexpected interest they had received and the many new contacts they had made. Such comments give us new impetus and, of course, an inspiring confirmation that we made the right decision and that we dared to change, rethink and move forward.

I'm not surprised, because it's one thing to survive a difficult period, but it's perhaps an even greater achievement if you can make a paradigm shift and renew the formula you've worked with before, because success is never guaranteed.  

Julia Uherek: There was some risk in organising the three fairs at the same time. We didn't know at the planning stage what the outcome would be, but in the end, everything turned out beyond our expectations. It was an amazing moment when on the first day there were long queues of visitors at the entrance. We had to bring the opening at 9 a.m. forward by 15 minutes because of the pressure from the public. And when we did open the gates, people stormed the event. I still get goosebumps when I think about it. After two years of being like a ghost town, it was a wonderful feeling to see our exhibition spaces finally full of visitors again.

If any company from Hungary would like to become an exhibitor in 2025, what is the best way to get in touch with you? 

Julia Uherek: There are many ways to contact us, but perhaps the most useful is for our prospective partners and exhibitors to explore Messe Frankfurt's venues as visitors for the first time, as their impressions give the most authentic picture. So, if you can, make sure you come to Ambiente - Christmasworld - Creativeworld from 26 to 30 January in Frankfurt! After the actual event, online registration for next year will start immediately, using a very simple form to fill in. Of course, you can also contact the Frankfurt team directly if anyone has any questions, but the easiest way for Hungarian visitors is to contact BD-Expo Ltd., the Hungarian representative of Messe Frankfurt, who knows everything about our events and can answer any questions you may have, from cooperation opportunities to visitor information and press accreditation. Although the event is a large-scale one, with over 4600 exhibitors expected this year, we are easy to contact and will be happy to help anyone who wants to experience what it's like to attend an exhibition and trade fair in Frankfurt!

Apart from the event's programme, what else it's recommended to look at if you're visiting Frankfurt in January? 

Julia Uherek: Frankfurt is one of the few European cities where skyscrapers are an integral part of the skyline, but at the same time, the reconstructed old town was opened a few years ago, which is a kind of reinterpretation of how the area looked before the Second World War. It's not that it has been rebuilt, because it was completely destroyed during the war; it's that a new part of the city has been created, based on old photographs, where medieval townhouses have been recreated using modern architectural techniques, you really have to see it! While there is plenty to do over the five days, if you want to get amazing experiences of the world of art, you can visit the Städel Museum or the Schirn Kunsthalle, both of which have unique collections from the universal history of fine arts. If you can, take advantage of the hours before dark to go up to the top of the Main Tower - Frankfurt's fourth tallest building and the only skyscraper in the city with a viewing point open to the public - and see how the city lights up when the lights go on everywhere at dusk - it's a fantastic sight!

If you had to sum up in one sentence, what would you say to the Ambiente, Christmasworld and Creativeworld audiences about the event at the end of January?

Julia Uherek: It’s warmly recommended to visit us for anyone involved in any segment of the consumer goods market. These events ensure a unique opportunity to discover new products, technologies and market players, to get fresh inspiration, and to make new contacts, because over the five days there will be an unprecedented number of key industry players from all over the world. What's worth noting is that the event is now a few days earlier in the calendar than in February, so I'll repeat the date, just for sure: 26-30 January 2024, Frankfurt am Main, Ambiente, Christmasworld and Creativeworld! Everyone is welcome.

You can read the previous articles of Colors & Ideas about Messe Frankfurt events - in Hungarian – here! For more information on Ambiente, Christmasworld and Creativeworld, please visit the social media platforms of the events, or the Messe Frankfurt and BD-Expo websites

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