Karsten Lohmeyer

Interview with trade fair CEO Klaus Dittrich

"Messe München is becoming more efficient, agile and flexible"

In an interview with, Klaus Dittrich tells us how he experienced the Corona pandemic as CEO and Chairman of Messe München, how he steered his company through the crisis, and how he sees the future of the trade fair industry.

Klaus Dittrich is Chairman of the Board of Management of Messe München.
Klaus Dittrich is Chairman of the Board of Management of Messe München.

Hardly any other economic sector has been hit so directly and hard by the COVID 19 pandemic as the trade fair industry. Worldwide, more than 4,000 trade fairs had to be cancelled due to the pandemic - including ISPO Munich and OutDoor by ISPO 2021. Klaus Dittrich steered Messe München through this period.

Klaus, let's take a look back one and a half years. ISPO Munich in January 2020 was the most successful ever. Then came...

... the "full braking in the fast lane", as a Munich newspaper described it. ISPO Munich was followed by Inhorgenta, and then in March there was the lockdown ...

A lot of visitors fill the halls on the first day of ISPO Munich 2020
With a record number of visitors and exhibitors, ISPO Munich 2020 was the most successful ever.

With dramatic consequences for Messe München.

Yes, we have lost around 400 million in sales to date, which is around 70 percent in 2020 and 2021.

We have one and a half years of crisis management behind us with short-time work, suspended investments, a material cost savings program with around 900 individual measures and a complete restructuring of our organization.

You also had to part with around 25 percent of the workforce.

That was the most difficult part for me in human terms. We also removed an entire hierarchical level and halved the management from six to three people.

Personally, I am very grateful that we found good solutions for almost all of the 200 people affected and only had to make one compulsory redundancy.

Much learned at 24 online events

400 million euros in sales gone. 200 employees less. And yet you have issued the motto "We come back stronger" for Messe München. How do you come back stronger from a crisis like this?

By tackling and acting. Of course, we were initially in a kind of shock paralysis. But that lifted very quickly and we began to develop digital substitute products to maintain our presence in the market.

We have now held 24 online events as replacements for cancelled trade fairs and have learned an incredible amount along the way. Also what doesn't work.

Never waste a crisis
ISPO Re.Start.Days: Digitally shared insights have probably never been so important.

"We still need to build more digital literacy"

What have you learned?

First of all, we have to get much closer to the customer and understand his needs even better. For example, the CEO of a sporting goods company can definitely be found at ISPO Munich for four days, but he will certainly not sit in front of a screen for four days.

It has to be very clear for which target groups we are creating digital offerings with clearly defined added value.

For the employees behind the scenes, the ISPO Re.Start Days are also a new technical challenge. The picture shows the video direction.

We need to build a lot more digital expertise in our teams overall - for product conception, marketing and implementation. Selling square meters of exhibition space is something completely different than generating revenue with digital products.

And finally, in such uncertain times with so much change, we need to become much more agile and flexible. Courage and humility, I believe, are the keys to future success.

In light of this, "We come back stronger" is not lip service, but a strategic decision to become more efficient, agile and flexible.

Moderator Re.Start Days
Isabelle Mandeng moderated the ISPO Re.Start Days 2020

You were originally due to retire in January 2021, but shortly before the pandemic you extended your contract by two years. Do you regret that decision?

No, absolutely not. Of course, I had imagined my last two years differently. But I didn't regret it for a second and thought it was important to have someone at the helm of the company in this situation who had already experienced other crises and had the trust of employees and shareholders.

Nevertheless, it was not easy. I had many sleepless nights and have never communicated so much with the employees, for example in more than 20 video messages.

ISPO Re.Start.Days: the Industry Leader Panel.

"A trade fair is something different from a beer-swilling folk festival"

The Oktoberfest is cancelled. The IAA Mobility just took place, soon other trade fairs in Munich..

A trade fair with a well thought-out hygiene concept and registered visitors is something different than a beer-fuelled folk festival. We have fought hard over the past few months for this assessment by the authorities.

At the IAA Mobility, 3G applied: Admission only for vaccinated, recovered or tested persons. Everyone wore masks, many individual measures ensured the greatest possible safety.

During IAA Mobility 2021, up to 50,000 visitors were admitted to the exhibition grounds at the same time.
During IAA Mobility 2021, up to 50,000 visitors were admitted to the exhibition grounds at the same time.

We were allowed to have up to 50,000 visitors at the same time on the exhibition grounds and another 30,000 in the "Open Space" in the city.

The lesson from the IAA Mobility: It is possible to hold such large trade fairs in a corona-compliant manner. Our exhibitors can already look forward to a wonderful ISPO Munich 2022.

"Digital and offline: We need to cleverly combine the best of both worlds"

What is the biggest challenge for Messe München in the coming years?

The Corona crisis has shown us how important our own digital transformation is. Fortunately, this is a process that we initiated very early on, long before the pandemic.

Before Corona, our digital offerings focused primarily on the service aspect of our trade fairs. Now it is crucial to develop a profitable business model from this.

The key is to cleverly combine the best of both worlds - the personal encounter on a platform like the trade fair and the diverse opportunities that digital technologies offer us.

Visitors at the Mercedes stand at IAA Mobility 2021
Visitors at the Mercedes stand at IAA Mobility 2021

What are your hopes for digital?

Before Corona, the share of digital products in total sales was 2.5 percent; by 2022, we want to be at 5 percent. The big challenge will be to significantly increase this share in the coming years and to develop highly professional digital products that are oriented towards customer benefits.

We have lost so much revenue because we are so dependent on our core business. If we want to be more crisis-proof, that has to change.

Ticketkontrolle am Eingang zur IAA Mobility 2021
Digital and contactless admission control at the IAA Mobility 2021.

You have already mentioned that you will retire in 2022. How do you plan to hand over Messe München to your successor?

My successor will take over a trade fair company that is much more agile, flexible, stronger and even more customer-oriented than the company was before the COVID 19 pandemic.

There will also be a perspective on how we can emerge from the crisis and be successful in the future. However, it will take another three to five years before we reach the level of 2019. But I am very optimistic about the future.

Thank you for the interview.

Share article
Karsten Lohmeyer
Topics in this article