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Exclusive Interview with Gábor Ganczer, CEO of HUNGEXPO on the future of the exhibition industry, the future of trade shows, and how they greeted the “new normal” in Hungary’s leading exhibition centre.

“These are certainly the most challenging times of my professional life”

Q: How do you personally perceive the cancellation of trade shows?

I have spent over 25 years in the tourism, hotel and event industry, and have lived through some difficult times, but nothing came even close to the graveness of what this pandemic has caused to our sector. These are certainly the most challenging times of my professional life.

As the CEO of Hungexpo, I was in charge of a very successful company in the past ten years with an amazing outlook for the future. Then, the pandemic broke, and we had to cancel our shows a year ago and have only been able to organise three exhibitions: Construma, Industry Days and Automotive Hungary in October. This year we had planned to restart our events in early spring, however, the second and now third wave of the pandemic has brought a total ban of events by the government. Therefore, our largest trade show AGROmashEXPO was organised only in the virtual space. We tried to persuade the government that our events are more similar to a shopping mall than a festival in terms of mass gatherings, unfortunately, without success. HUNGEXPO’s annual turnover has decreased by 80% last year, and the outlook for this year is still very uncertain. However, we managed to keep all our staff because they are our greatest asset, and when the pandemic is over, we will be able to jump ahead with our well qualified and trained team together.

Q: How has your company adapted to the new normal?

We reviewed our internal and business processes and introduced some new ones to be able to safely organise our trade shows, exhibitions and host other events. Now we have introduced a ‘Covid handbook’ which serves as a guideline to our staff and event organisers, exhibitors with safety measures.

On the digital front, our innovation was to substitute our live exhibitions by developing a new virtual expo platform, including a live chat tool and matchmaking functions. This new tool was already used this year at the virtual AGROmaschExpo. Furthermore, we are currently working on a HUNGEXPO app that will serve as a very user-friendly tool for all of our on-site events, featuring ticket-less entry options and cash-less services etc. We also introduced an in-house studio that is capable of hosting virtual events and conferences. This new service innovation is the direct result of the pandemic, however, it will last beyond it.

Q: Is it possible to use the exhibition spaces for other purposes when there are no trade shows or events?

Hungexpo has explored several ideas, we brainstormed with all our staff on a lot of ‘out of the box’ ideas. As a result, we are now targeting the TV and film production market, promoting ourselves as a shooting location/studio. There are some bookings for our spaces in this segment already, however it is not filling the gap.

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Q: What trade shows are you planning for this year, given that the epidemiological situation will be favourable?

We have two shows planned for June: Construma and Industry Days, and in the autumn we are scheduling Automotive Hungary b2b fair and a Home Design show for the public. The government is planning to organise the ‘One with Nature’ world exhibition for Hunting and Nature Conservation – a 3-week long event in September this year. In addition, we plan on hosting a new exhibition ‘Sustainability Expo’ in late autumn 2021.

Q: Trade shows have incredible multiplicative effects. Is the general public or government currently aware of these effects?

Currently, the government’s focus is on how to decrease the spread of the pandemic. Everything else is secondary, therefore, the whole event industry as such is shot down, trade shows and exhibitions are no exceptions. However, they have a massive multiplicative effect on the economy, but this is currently not a government priority.

Q: Does the government help you overcome the crisis, and how?

There are several means of government support, which our industry receives. To keep our workforce, we received some wage subsidies, while even a 0% interest rate credit was provided to SME businesses. Funds for innovation and development projects have been made accessible to companies in the business. In addition, we received some tax breaks for the fallout period. However, because our industry has come to halt for a year now, these measures are unfortunately hardly enough for survival for many of us in the industry. Approximately 20% of the sector is near bankruptcy. Our association for the event industry MARESZ has recently conducted a survey among its 100+ members and according to the responses, less than 50% of the event-related businesses were able to access any type of government support during this very difficult period.

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“We are now prepared for hybrid and more digital events”

Q: Can you give our readers your perspective on the exhibition sector in the global market?

Our sector was one of the first ones to stop operation when the pandemic broke, and it will be among the last ones to return to business in the new normal. Overall, this is all taking already at least two years’ time out of our life before we can restart.

As Hungary’s and Central Europe’s leading exhibition company, we strongly believe in the future of exhibitions. Also, we believe in live events, and I think this long period of missed live meetings and events show exactly the fallout in relationships that we all suffer in our personal and business lives. There is no doubt that once the world will overcome this health crisis, life will return to our beloved exhibition and events industry. We have certainly learnt and adopted several changes, like the virtual component to our events, that will further enhance the live events in the hopefully near future.

Q: Are virtual trade shows comparable to classic trade shows?

We have just closed our first-ever virtual trade show AGROmashEXPO. The four-day b2b event attracted 4000 visitors to 40 exhibitor’s virtual booths with 11000 visits overall. During the expo live contacts and chats were provided on our virtual platform, and an online conference also accompanied the exhibition. Plus, an online award ceremony and some other digital side events took place via our platform. This was a solution born out of the current COVID situation, with the most efficiency, effectiveness and engagement a live exhibition can provide.

Q: How have you adapted to the new reality of the meetings industry, which is much more digital and hybrid?

We recently developed our own studio, with all amenities and functions to be able to host virtual conferences with live streaming capabilities. This is an innovation we will continue to include in our services in the long run. We are now prepared for hybrid and more digital events, however, we see it as a complimenting service to live events, really.

Q: Who could be hired at this moment at your company? What would they have to showcase at the job interview?

On a positive note, HUNGEXPO has been undergoing a massive refurbishment and expansion project in the past two years. All our existing halls have been updated and received a 21st-century look, and in addition, two new exhibition halls have been added to the existing 5, resulting in 60.000 sq meters total exhibition hall space across 7 halls. Plus, a brand-new congress centre will be added to our site including 36+ breakout spaces and a 2000pax plenary hall. The construction project is due to be completed by September 2021. This huge project will enable us to host the most complex events, congresses and some of the largest exhibitions in Central Europe. We look forward to opening this new chapter in Hungexpo’s history and becoming even greater than before. Therefore, we are always looking out for talents with relevant experiences, great credentials, willingness to learn and the flexibility to adapt to the challenges of the future, whatever it may bring.