We Are Living In A VUCA World And We Need To Fix Our Relationship With Uncertainty: Bhupinder Singh

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In an exclusive interview to Exhibition Showcase, Bhupinder Singh, CEO, Messe Muenchen India shares his insights on the present times & the road ahead

“With multiple events being either postponed or cancelled, the impact of COVID-19 on the trade fair industry has been tremendous. As exhibition organisers, we like to plan things way in advance and hence it is not just uncertainty that’s impacting us but also our relationship with the uncertainty. My learning is that we are clearly living in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world and we have to fix our relationship with uncertainty. Most businesses know how to handle the normal but its times like this that makes assumptions of the business clear to you, some of our business assumptions are getting challenged now! The impact of the pandemic was felt in all our trade shows in the first quarter of this year. Many of our Italian, European, Asian partners from other countries were unable to participate in the trade shows due to the travel restrictions. We have also postponed most of our upcoming trade fairs of 2020, a few were also cancelled.”

Bhupinder Singh

ES. MM India was one of the first organisations in the industry to announce work from home. How successful was it in terms of productivity of employees?
Bhupinder. We started the Work-From-Home initiative on March 18, 2020, and the whole process was put together swiftly. I recollect, discussing the possibilities of working from home with my Human Asset Management Team on the morning of 17th March and simultaneously directed all teams to gear up for this eventuality. At MM India, the health and safety of our team is our prime concern. Many members of our team travel long distances to get to work and it is imperative for us, to not expose them to any risk.
What followed then, was swift execution of our Business Continuity Plan. Our well laid out IT infrastructure made this transition smooth and allowed for seamless communication with each other from day one of WFH. I must admit that the first few days of the lockdown was exacting on most of us, both personally and professionally. The crisis demanded modification in our modus operandi and praxis. However, the team rallied together, and I am very happy that despite the extended lockdown, we have kept our team engaged. The Human Asset Management team has organised several town halls to gain feedback on working from home experience. We constantly keep a check on the mental and physical health of our team through mental health surveys and webinars that boost positivity and build bonds. Prominent speakers, counsellors and doctors have been engaged to strengthen motivation and discuss health and personal issues, if any. We also organise Fun@Work events once a week.

MM India has proved, that people can bond efficiently digitally as well. A Play, Learn and Grow Program at the company, gives us a chance to display our talent and keeps the learning wheel turning. I strongly believe that the lockdown is the best time to invest in training and developing the team. We are all set to roll out online training classes for skill upgradation during lockdown. As you can see, we have plenty on our plate during the lockdown and we are reinventing ourselves to face the challenges with agility and speed. Within 10 days of the lockdown, we were hosting eminent speakers from the industry and had a growing audience. Working from home has not restricted us, it has just propelled us to innovate and think out of the box.

ES. How is MM India engaging with its various audiences during these times? How do you measure its success and what feedback have you received from your audience?
Bhupinder. I have no doubt in my mind that exhibition companies need to be even more considerate to their customer’s requirements; I believe the ones who will realise this will survive and have a better chance to thrive moving forward. Companies who only think about themselves with a myopic view will struggle in the long run! First, safety of everyone is paramount. We can only make positive contributions to business if we stay healthy and avoid spreading the virus. Business continuity is key. We focus our efforts on staying in touch with our customers every step of the way. Our telecon pipelines are full and we are constantly in touch with our exhibitors and other partners to understand their business challenges and their plan of action hereon. Through our webinar series, we connected with over 50,000 people in over 30 plus webinars in just 8 weeks, which is special in many ways. We also had the pleasure to host several central ministers at our MM India webinars series. The webinars organized by MM India also provided an excellent platform to engage the audience and connect competence from across sectors.

Lastly, to the extent we can, we provide a helping hand to not only each other but also to communities around us, our business partners, and support partners. This is the moment to demonstrate grace under pressure. Many people and companies have been hit harder than Messe Muenchen India. And it is in times of crisis that heroes are born. In all modesty, we want Messe Muenchen India’s values to shine at this difficult hour.
So far, we are proud and inspired by the way our company has risen to this challenge – with flexibility, resilience, we have operated with speed and more importantly, with a caring heart. Messe Muenchen India team also contributed part of their salaries to the Maharashtra CM relief fund to support the relief measures.

ES. Some organisers have announced virtual shows. Is MM India working on going virtual anytime in the near future with any of its existing shows or introducing a new one?
Bhupinder. There is immense uncertainty over the commencement of the trade fair industry as well as the expected negative economic impact on the onsite exhibitions. In the last 2 months, the Indian market has seen various plug and play solutions providers for virtual expos and many organisers have opted for these solutions for various reasons – to generate some additional revenue, to stay connected with the business community, to keep their staff occupied, etc. Many organisers still see these solutions from the glasses of short term “stop-gap” arrangement till the normalcy commences and until onsite exhibitions restart. While there is nothing wrong with the above approach; what must be kept in mind is the exhibitor fatigue caused due to substandard experience on many of these virtual exhibition platforms and more importantly the lack of value creation for the participants. If these platforms only create a scenario where the organiser “takes it all” and leaves exhibitors and visitors dissatisfied; this outcome can hurt the brand equity of such exhibitions and despite short term gain, may dampen their long term relationship with their customers.

MM India is always open to tread unexplored territories in order to enhance the exhibiting experience for our stakeholders, exhibitors, and visitors. We are exploring various new avenues that are safe and beneficial for all the parties involved.

ES. What according to you can our industry learn from this crisis? Is the any silver lining in this?
Bhupinder. As an industry we have been extremely successful and the fastest-growing markets in the world. But like it or not, “success is a lousy teacher”. It is clear that we may not go back to normal and those who know how to shape the new normal will stand to benefit from it. We are entering a new norm that redefines the way we look at businesses and alliances and only those who are brave enough to embrace this, will benefit from it.
As Winston Churchill said “Never waste a good crisis”, we have no other option but to look at this crisis as an opportunity. It’s here to teach all of us important lessons, make us wiser and sharper. Every crisis has its learning. This crisis has coerced us to push the envelope and to explore new avenues. The lockdown period has also made us aware of the true potential of digitalization. Working remotely has also given many of us time to enhance our skill-set through online courses. We might see in the future that the number of employees, the miles they commute, the public transport they use are all contributors to environmental concerns. This might trigger a paradigm shift to continue with partial “work from home” teams in the future. The lockdown also taught us that we need to think about conscious consumption and not compulsive buying.

ES. As the Hon Secretary of IEIA and as a leading organiser, what is your message to the industry?
Bhupinder. IEIA with the support of all industry stakeholders has played a vital role in further underlining the importance of exhibitions as growth engines for the Indian economy. Looking at post COVID 19 times, IEIA has conducted several forums, invited various central ministers to engage and highlighted that in light of the lockdown and the economic slump, exhibitions can prove to be an effective tool for economic recovery. As Indian exhibition industry patiently awaits to make its contribution to reinvigorate the economy, missing a mention in Unlock 3 “sectors” was indeed a setback for the whole industry as the industry was thoroughly prepared with a stringent standard operating procedures (SOPs) and guidelines to offer a “safe exhibition experience”. The ill effects of a prolonged gap in learning, innovation and interaction can limit our spirit to be the leading economic force in Asia as Atmanirbhar Bharat. Our industry has immense potential to bring back investments to our country. We have seen big investments made by UK, Korean and German companies in India over the past few years. An average of 15% of participant in most exhibitions are international.

This is the message that needs to be even more consistently and effectively amplified today to the government!!! IEIA is geared up to drive the next wave of awareness campaign until this message is heard and supported.

ES. As the leading exhibition organiser, what are your most pertinent issues and concerns right now?
Bhupinder. As a trade fair organizer, our prime concern is the health and safety of everyone involved in our trade shows. Secondly like all the other industry friends, we seek to get back to business as early as possible. However, at times of economic difficulties such as these, it’s even more crucial to constantly stay aligned with what the industry needs. If the industry needs a trade fair we will do our best to provide an even better ROI to the participants. But if our exhibitors, stakeholders, partners do not share the enthusiasm or are not in the shape to accept a trade fair; I think the we all need to respect that. Having said that, we are working with several partners to ensure and design trade fairs that enable a safe exhibiting experience for everyone at the fairground. MM India will strictly follow government directives and take additional safety measures as well to facilitate a safe and lucrative environment to conduct business.

ES. MM India recorded a very good 2019. Can you give the industry some insights about how MM India performed in 2019?
Bhupinder. 2019 has been an incredible learning journey for Messe Muenchen India. Our resilience and pursuit of excellence were rewarded with outstanding outcomes and double digit growth. This growth in numbers testify and reinstate that our approach towards business is in the right direction and that we will continue to work towards enhancing visitor and exhibitor’s return on investments. With the acquisition of leading shows like air cargo India and air cargo Africa, new tech shows like MatDispens, VRTech India, and shows that complement our existing portfolio like World Tea & Coffee Expo and PackMach Asia Expo during the year, we further augment our portfolio of trade fairs.

With this growth and positive developments, we needed a better work space, so, in 2019 Messe Muenchen India relocated itself to a new office with better amenities and smarter spaces to keep pace with the company’s growing needs. As a part of its expansion strategy, Messe Muenchen India established a new sales office in Ahmedabad to efficiently and closely cater to the clients in the state. Last year, has motivated us to achieve unprecedented benchmarks. Looking ahead, we aim to design even more effectual trade fairs that foster numerous business opportunities for our stakeholders, exhibitors and visitors.