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COLOGNE, Germany: Losses in the millions, cancellations of events and a completely new strategy—these are just a few of the hurdles and achievements Oliver Frese reports on. He is the COO of Koelnmesse, which is traditionally responsible for the organisation and implementation of IDS. In an interview with Dental Tribune International, Frese explained how the organisers have managed to get the world’s leading trade fair for the dental community off the ground despite the COVID-19 crisis and to ensure its sustainable success as a platform for innovations and market trends.
Mr Frese, the trade fair business in Germany and worldwide has experienced considerable losses in 2020. What are the prospects for the industry this year and next?
For us as a trade fair organiser, the past one and a half years have been, and still are, without question the most difficult so far in our more than 90-year company history. Many events had to be cancelled or postponed to the coming years. The financial losses are in the range of hundreds of millions of euros. And yet, crises always have positive sides. We used the weeks and months intensively to rethink the trade fair as a marketing instrument, to develop new tools and forms of communication, and to accelerate processes that we had already initiated. Here, I am referring in particular to the area of digitalisation.
This year, for the first time in its long history, IDS will be held as a hybrid event—on-site and online. What are your expectations of this format and how has it been received so far?
The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the digital transformation of the trade fair industry, which was already clearly on the horizon beforehand. In the future, we will move in a hybrid way between the two worlds. The focus of an interdisciplinary knowledge exchange and information transfer will be on the digital level. The business communication involving personal experience and person-to-person exchange will remain the great plus of the fair on-site.
We have rolled out this strategy to IDS 2021 and want to give trade fair participants who cannot travel to the fair the opportunity to discover attractive exhibition stands and products and to get in touch with their contacts via innovative channels. The concept has been well received by exhibitors and visitors, as evidenced by the current ticket registrations for IDSconnect.
“People don’t just want to see the product digitally—they want to experience it”
Hybrid also means double the effort and increased costs for hygiene programmes for organisers and exhibitors. Isn’t it possible, therefore, that exhibitors will concentrate on smaller events in the long term and/or migrate completely to the digital space?
No, quite the opposite! It has been clear that our customers want to return to the exhibition halls! Sensory experience and personal conversation cannot be replaced by digital features in the business world. Even at very digital-savvy events, like the ones we have in our Koelnmesse portfolio, the underlying feeling is clear: digital works very well, but first and foremost we want a trade fair platform where we can meet in person.
Participation in trade fairs has traditionally been one of the most important marketing tools in the dental industry, sometimes accounting for the largest budget. Will this change in favour of digital marketing strategies and what does this mean for trade fair companies?
In our opinion, this will not change much in the future. Since it presents new possibilities, digitalisation supports everyday professional life, facilitates processes, opens new business models and ensures more efficient business. But business transactions will still continue to take place in person in the future; people don’t just want to see the product digitally—they want to experience it. And the business relationship based on partnership is also based on trust and respect, which you don’t build up through digital meetings. The personal conversation continues to have top priority for us and our work. After all, it is only in conversation that I find out what moves and drives my customers. This also applies to the dental industry.
What developments do you foresee for large trade fairs with a large international audience?
There will not be a one hundred percent return to old ways and patterns of thinking—that would not make sense either. On the supply side, the events will be able to regain their former size and strength in quantitative terms, but the type of presentation and the exhibition stands will change so that the physical experience in the hall and digital communication are equally guaranteed. The demand side will also hopefully pick up in numbers in the medium term as the pandemic is overcome. However, the international reach will be much more extensive than before when the digital offerings take hold. For our customers, the basis for their business will be larger.
“The greatest challenge is certainly that of linking the physical trade fair with digital services”
Currently, around 830 exhibitors are registered for IDS 2021. Will there still be a need for large exhibition halls?
IDS 2021 will certainly be different from previous IDS fairs owing to COVID-19, and on the one hand, we are working hard to ensure that the difference will be almost imperceptible for our participants. On the other hand, it is also in the interests of our customers to notice certain changes owing to the current framework conditions. In reality, we need more space in order to ensure all currently required measures and official regulations for the protection of exhibitors and visitors. Beyond the current year, it is not the size of the hall that will be decisive but rather its flexibility for the hybrid future of the trade fair business.
In your opinion, what will be the greatest challenges for the trade fair industry in the coming years and how can they be overcome?
The greatest challenge is certainly that of linking the physical trade fair with digital services, because that is what our customers expect today. In recent months, we have devoted ourselves even more than before to the development of hybrid and digital trade fair experiences, up to and including the year-round online presence of our trade fair brands. Because the big plus of the hybrid event is the digital reach well beyond the trade fair period. We must clearly work on this additional potential for exhibitors and visitors and continually expand it. Then it will be a classic win-win situation for everyone.
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