MICHAEL DEHN, Managing Director, Messe Frankfurt South Africa

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ES. You have more than two decades of trade show experience, please share with us your past experiences and achievements that shaped your journey as a successful leader in this industry?

Michael Dehn. My first encounter with trade exhibitions was as a student reporter for our school magazine ‘WILD’. Equipped with my press accreditation, I would visit trade shows in Frankfurt and write about them. When the time came closer to think about career choices, I looked into mechanical engineering and industrial design but at the back of my mind, I was always fascinated with trade exhibitions as a window to the world. Once the decision had been made to join the exhibition sector, the second decision I made fairly quickly was that I wanted to see the world. Fortunately, I found people within Messe Frankfurt who gave me the opportunity to move around in my early years due to which I ended up in Dubai by pure chance.

We are currently planning nine exhibitions in 2022, with Solar Power Africa starting mid of February and followed by Automechanika Johannesburg and Futuroad. We then host the creative industry at Hobby-X, a business sector that has flourished in the last 18 months.

As a global hub for businesses, Dubai proved to be the perfect counterbalance to my German education as it taught me to take risks and identify and convert opportunities. India, on the other hand, taught me the right combination of structure and flexibility. These are two completely different markets and experiences and the people I met there shaped my overall learning experience.

ES. Messe Frankfurt South Africa organizes many large-scale events such as Automechanika Johannesburg, Futuroad Expo, AERO South Africa, etc. How many trade shows are you planning for the year 2022, given that the epidemiological situation will be favourable?

Michael Dehn. We are currently planning nine exhibitions in 2022, with Solar Power Africa starting mid of February and followed by Automechanika Johannesburg and Futuroad. We then host the creative industry at Hobby-X, a business sector that has flourished in the last 18 months. After that we run AERO South Africa in cooperation with Messe Friedrichshafen through our new JV fairnamic. Then, in the South African winter, we run the Festival of Motoring at the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit, Boatica in Cape Town and All Fashion Sourcing later in the year. Our last event will be an exciting new launch: Economic Zones Africa Expo (EZAE), a trade show for governments and investors.

ES. Since the start of the pandemic, we have developed and implemented a wide range of hybrid and digital formats. What, in your opinion, could be the advantages of this type of event in the future and how Messe Frankfurt South Africa would implement such format in its shows?

Michael Dehn. We have so far seen many variations of

formats that range from pure networking platforms to product catalogues to full simulations of exhibitions. The appetite of customers for the most comprehensive virtual solutions has been quite low, and many of the functionalities remain almost entirely unused.

I would be very selective in the functionalities and focus on three core aspects:

  • The relationship aspect between buyer and seller (networking)
  • The supply side (seller presents product)
  • The demand side (buyer defines needs)

I came to realise that it depends very much on the industry as well as on the event format: some industries are much more used to digital platforms than others. Some formats lend themselves much better to a digital platform. The more conference/content driven events can be organised either virtually or as a hybrid event. In the medical field this is now very much accepted. The more product-driven exhibitions do not do that well online and the moment they can be back in full swing, they will probably return to mostly physical encounters.

ES. Overall, what is your view of the future of the major trade fairs in Africa?

Michael Dehn. It would be presumptuous of me to even try to answer this question at this early stage. However, I would like to add, that South Africa remains one of the high-priority markets for most businesses. The region is growing and with the recently signed African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) there are tangible opportunities for investments. Coupled with a growing middle class, a robust consumer market and strong growth prospects makes it a credible destination for major trade fair brands in the years to come. We are right now on our road show across East Africa to promote our Q1 shows and the appetite to source from South Africa is immense.

ES. Please share your experiences as General Manager of Messe Frankfurt India? What situation do you foresee for the Indian exhibition industry as physical exhibitions have started to resume?

Michael Dehn. I came to India with an open mind, willingness to learn and the hope that I could apply my previous experience to the opportunities and challenges in this market. I instantly felt part of our company and not only my colleagues in India, but also our various partners and stakeholders proved to be supportive and engaging.

As an emerging market, the business environment in India is extremely competitive and you always have to stay one step ahead in order to grow. But even in a price-sensitive market like this: once you are able to demonstrate reliable performance over and over again, your customers thank you with their loyalty. It was rewarding to see this and I am taking many precious memories and experiences from India to Africa.

The role of General Manager as I see it, is being in-charge of building momentum for the exhibitions and the entire psychology around of it. You get the flywheel moving and ensure that it keeps moving at a good speed. My prediction for our industry in India is that exhibitions will be back, rather sooner than later, and while customers appreciate the tough times we as an industry were going through, they expect bigger and better performance going forward due to the growing importance and reliance on face-to-face networking, more so after the pandemic-induced limitations. And at Messe Frankfurt, we are prepared to work hard towards this goal.

ES. Much like the rest of the world, the exhibitions and events industry has undergone a lot of change in a short period of time. What have been the major changes that you have seen during your time in the industry?

Michael Dehn. I would say that some aspects of our business have changed fast and some aspects are not changing fast enough. I don’t miss the times of paper exhibitor manuals and countless forms by fax. I would certainly wish for more

seamless user experiences and smarter analytics. There is still a lot more potential when 100% of your audience carry a smart device with many sensors around.

On the other hand, when you look at a floor plan of an exhibition in 1921 – 100 years ago – and you see 9sqm booths, 3m isles etc, that’s when you realise that some things have not changed, have not needed to change.

ES. In your opinion, what does the Exhibition industry need to improve and what are some challenges surrounding this sector?

Michael Dehn. To me it is one thing: The total and radical focus on convenience and user experience. And while this sounds very straight forward, it is also one of the hardest things to achieve.

ES. What are your expectations for your upcoming shows in Africa in terms of performance? How many other projects do you expect to launch in the coming days?

Michael Dehn. My expectations for our shows in terms of performance will be to get an answer on the question: “How much have you missed us?” My main mission at this point is to achieve stable growth. We have just launched the Economic Zones Africa Expo (EZAE), which will take place in Q4/2022.

ES. What is your leadership style?

Michael Dehn. I have been given more and more independence over the years and I noticed that it is appreciated when this independence and trust is passed on – of course together with the necessary accountability. I focus on sustainable long-term growth, pricing, user experience and compliance.

ES. How do you manage your professional and personal life? We would like to know, what keeps you busy when you are away from work?

Michael Dehn. This question comes at the right time: I have never faced a more challenging balancing act between professional and personal life than an international move. We are right in the middle of it, so I can’t tell you yet how I do it. Time will tell. What keeps me busy away from work: we love going out of town with friends for BBQs, hiking, swimming etc. The most relaxing time I spend in my workshop, working on small projects (woodworking, metalworking) or teaching my daughter a new piece on the piano.