As the new executive director of IFES, Uta Goretzky faces a few tough challenges. One of them is to make sure that the live communication industry – her patron and paymaster –keeps pace with an ever faster transforming society, its communication tools and its communication habits.
With currently over 250 members in 36 countries, IFES (in full: International Federation of Exhibition Services) is the most important international network of service suppliers to exhibitions and trade shows. What started in 1984 as an initiative of a handful stand constructors with international projects and worries about a pending EU directive on temporary and mobile constructions that could seriously hamper their operations, is today the main gateway for stand constructers and service suppliers who venture in (large) trade shows abroad.
The core mission of the association – sharing knowledge – translates in both conceptual insights and very practical advice as in clever shortcuts. All of them delivered and shared among peers and friends during the IFES World Summits.
“The exhibition industry has always had a strong international orientation,” IFES executive director Uta Goretzky says. “The international mobility used to be much more outspoken for exhibitors, visitors and show organizers than for the service industry however. National, regional and local legislation govern many of the activities during the set-up and tear-down of a trade show and this proved to be an important obstacle for the international expansion of stand constructors. IFES was established with a double aim: exchanging knowhow and knowledge among peers – that was the short-term ambition – and harmonizing rules and regulations at venues across the world, which proved to be a very long-term ambition. Remember we are talking about the early eighties: no mobile phones, no e-mail… Whenever a team on-site bumped into a problem, the first thing they had to do was look for a landline phone or a fax. Today, vast information resources are permanently available to anyone with a 3G-connection, although this does not imply the hunger for advice and clever shortcuts has been satisfied.”
Uta Goretzky graduated as a master of economics at Münster University and started her career as a project manager with FAMAB, the German association of direct business communication. It was there that she discovered the importance of live meetings for the vitality of a professional body to the fullest.
Uta Goretzky: “My first assignments with FAMAB were mainly focused on market research. Germany has an organization – AUMA – that is worldwide and deservedly considered as the number one reference for data on the live communication industry. But no one could give an adequate answer to the question what the economic weight of MICE-activities was. What expenditures does it generate? At the benefit of whom? What is the added value industry-wide? What effect does the trade show industry have on employment?”
“FAMAB has some 250 members – a majority of them stand constructors – and they were very eager to make their economic significance visible in one way or another. And not only that: they wanted to discuss the outcome and share the insights.”
“This is where the strong meeting culture of FAMAB came from: Summer meetings, regional meetings, award ceremonies, general meetings, active participations in other events… They all help to create value for the members. And they all add to make IFES’ promise come true: if you use the knowledge that lives within the network, you are one step ahead as a professional.”
Insights in the economic effect of an industry are often a weapon in the hand of lobbyist and PR-officials whose main mission is to optimize the working conditions for the industry they are serving. That was not different for Goretzky’s career with FAMAB: soon she became the organization’s press officer and spokeswoman and developed a strategy to strengthen the position of the organization.
FAMAB was among the first association to broaden its horizon beyond trade shows and integrate other disciplines like business events and brand communication in an inclusive concept of Direct Communication.
Uta Goretzky: “It looks as if the exhibition industry has been hardly aware of the fact that content is its real pot of gold, until the moment other media developed claims on the concept of content marketing. In the meetings and exhibitions industry, content is a pivotal concept: it is what thrives these industries. If you do not have content, you do not have an exhibition or a meeting. FAMAB has taken a very strong position in this discussion, underlining that content marketing is a multidisciplinary activity that stretches over a broad field of business communication tools, including exhibitions and meetings.”
Whether you call it Walhalla or Mecca, for decades Germany has been – and still is – the number one destination for trade shows. Although she is born and bred in the German state of North-Rhine-Westphalia – with the venues of Düsseldorf and Cologne at only a stone’s cast away – her perspective on the live communication industry is by no means Germano-centric.
Uta Goretzky: “I attended IFES Summits around the globe and every new experience challenged my perception of quality. When I started in this business, the internet was still in its infancy. Trade shows were an important – if not the sole – buying/selling opportunity. Today, their role has shifted. Some really big, well established, international events have simply disappeared because they were not successful at redefining their new role. Others have found a second youth and are flourishing more than ever before. Furthermore, live communication has become a truly global business: new players like China, Thailand, Singapore, India and Brazil develop their own portfolios and their own live communication culture. This internationalization is reflected in the IFES membership base, although I think we should push it even further. To date, there are some blind spots in our coverage. As an executive director, I have the ambition to fill out the blanks.”
IFES’ main event is the annual Summit, which typically attracts between 250 and 450 attendees. The next destination for the Summit is Istanbul, this year’s Summit was held in Vienna and earlier editions took place in New Delhi, Cape Town, Brussels, San Diego, Prague and dozens of other cities around the globe.
Uta Goretzky: “We are not the Olympic Committee, so we do not have this phenomenon of ten destinations competing to host our event. Typically, we have two or three candidates that are invited to write a proposal and submit it to the Summit Committee. As soon as the host is selected, a local organization committee starts working on the project in close cooperation with the management office. The local committee takes care of program outlines, logistics and technical issues, the headquarters fill in the program.”
“We have a very international board of directors and I believe this is reflected in the issues we raise during our Summits: they are as diverse as the audience. The way live communication evolves and the pace at which it evolves, depend to a considerable extent on the audiences it is serving. For attendees, the IFES Summit is a unique opportunity to benchmark with peers: how do Brazilian exhibitors and visitors use social media? How do Indian stand builders face environmental issues? What is the impact of social and societal trends on the way we create live communication events?… Whatever the pedigree of an attendee, taking part in a Summit is taking a deep dive in a pool of inspiration. Sharing knowledge and fostering international cooperation are key elements of the mission statement of IFES, and during these few days both get a huge boost of energy.”
Pair of shoes
For the time being, IFES importance and relevance to service suppliers with international ambitions seems hardly affected by the information highway that supposedly made our professional lives so much easier.
“Companies who operate in the live communication industry have to keep a close eye on both conceptual, rather abstract developments and on very practical matters that relate to rules and regulations. My native country Germany counts 14 states and every state has its own sets of regulations that apply to venues, stand construction, risk management in crowded places et cetera.”
“Building a stand in a foreign country is slightly more complex than buying a pair of shoes. Would you buy a pair of shoes from someone you had never met before? Maybe! Would you trust an important, time-critical stand building project to a stranger? Certainly not! During the IFES Summits, all these company names get a face, individuals forge friendships and build up trust. This is an effect that you cannot have but in meeting face-to-face.”
“As we understood the importance of these one-on-one encounters, we ventured one step further and developed similar networking opportunities for the people who have to work together in building up or tearing down a booth, the project managers. The Next Generation Leaders Forum, formerly called Young Professionals meeting, has the same bifocal approach of conceptual and practical issues. It is about sharing knowledge and insights, but it is about sharing clever shortcuts too.”