19 Oct Optimism coming from Hungary’s most historic exhibition organizer
Gábor Ganczer, CEO, Hungexpo, highlights live events as they key factor of Hungary’s success in the sector
Hungexpo Ltd. is the leading exhibition and conference organizing company in Hungary, as well as in Central and Eastern Europe. The company has a long history in the sector, since it has been operating for several decades. It has been privatized since 2005 and was acquired by the French GL Events Group. To start, can you provide us with a quick overview of Hungexpo? How does it contribute to Hungary’s MICE industry?
Hungexpo is the only exhibition centre in Hungary, counting 53 years of history. We are the oldest exhibition and event organizer and have a big responsibility in the country. Hungexpo is organizing exhibitions for every sector, from the agriculture to construction or industry. We create some special thematic exhibitions, like the Fishing and Hunting Exhibition or Boat Show, and we are very active in the automotive industry, which is a big contributor to the Hungarian GDP. Hungexpo promotes Budapest and Hungary as a MICE destination abroad in order to attract foreign visitors, conferences and events to Budapest. Last but not least, Hungexpo is also hosting some national events for local players as well.
Our venue is suitable for huge events. For example, we are hosting 60,000 visitors for our yearly Fishing and Hunting Exhibition. We organized different congresses and conferences already in the association and corporate market, such as the EASD Congress, which is the yearly event of the European Association for the study of Diabetes; the ERA-EDTA Congress for the European Renal Association and the European Dialysis and Transplant Association, with 10,000 participants. We hosted the FIFA congress, the UEFA Congress and twice the ITU Telecom World congress. We co-organized the Bocuse d’Or Europe selection, which is a world famous culinary event. Many big corporate clients have trusted Budapest and Hungexpo for their yearly event.
How would you describe Budapest’s unique advantages as an exhibition and conference centre, as venue? What kind of environment does it offer? How does it compete as well, with its peers in the region like Vienna or Prague?
The strength of Budapest Is the location the city is ideally situated in the middle of Europe, we are a hub connecting Eastern and Western Europe. Budapest is also offering good value for money. We have very nice hotels, very nice sites for side events as well. Our capital is an excellent place with great expertise, especially in medical association fields. This has a unique role to play in the MICE industry in the near future.
We had a big disadvantage in the past: we did not have the proper venue to host congresses and events. We were very strong on the exhibition part of the MICE business but Budapest was not able to catch a lot of association congresses in the past, due to the lack of venue. Now with the revitalization project this will be solved and Budapest will have a high tech congress centre at Hungexpo.
How important is the role of your French owner, GL Events Group, playing in terms of your company’s operations and development?
GL Events is important in terms of our business development; as far as the development of the site and the construction aspect, this is coming from the Hungarian Government, but the event and exhibition professional background is provided by GL Events and Hungexpo. We are a huge network of venues, working on multivenue deals in order to provide unified customer experience for all our partners within the network. The synergy among the venues is also very important, as we share and exchange know-how and different experiences. They are also contributing by bringing new ideas also in exhibition development: creating new products or introducing new sectors in the existing exhibitions. But GL Events has a unique business model and our President, Olivier Ginon always says: ‘one business unit, one general manager, one profit and loss, so go ahead and do your best and try to make excellent businesses within the network as well’.
The tourism event culture industry has been one of the most hardly hit by the pandemic, perhaps even more so in Hungary, where the government decided to close borders for a few months. How was Hungexpo been impacted? How have you lived through this year? What have been some of the main lessons learned and perhaps the type of new opportunities that you have been exploring as a result of the crisis? What kind of transitions has this crisis accelerated?
For the first two months of the year, it was very busy for Hungexpo. We did four very successful exhibitions and the year was booming. 2019 had been a record year for us, and we thought 2020 would be as good as or even better. We did the first four exhibitions and then on March 13th we close our doors and didn’t reopen until July. It was very tough. We sent all employees to home office, and had to postpone all the exhibitions: construction exhibition which takes place in April was postponed to October; Industry Days from May to October. National events as well as international events were cancelled or shifted to later years. We were supposed to host in this September the International Eucharistic Congress, the biggest event for the Catholic Church. They postponed it for next year.
Then we reopened. We had the chance to organize Industry Days and Construma. The events were smaller, I would say four times smaller, in terms of visitors and in terms of space sold.
What we learnt from this is that we are very exposed and vulnerable to pandemic and crisis situations. Hungexpo was one of the companies that kept all employees. We received some support from the government which helped us keep everyone, because if you are losing your knowledge, which is the staff, for the restart it will be very difficult.
We started introducing digital solution into the exhibition business. We also learned that being a regional fair ground, a regional exhibition centre, we can be winner for the short-term, when we are restarting, because on our exhibitions we only host around 50,000 visitors and not 200,000 or 300,000; which we can control. We introduced also some COVID-19-safety regulations within the Congress and Exhibition Centre. We are trying to avoid unnecessary personal contacts for the whole customer journey, from the ticketing to the parking. For this safety measurements we improved our existing application, which now can handle many touchless possibilities.
Exhibitions are a key engine to restart the economy, and a key success factor. The only thing we need now is to open the borders and to attract also some foreign buyers for our exhibitors, but it will come, I think, in the second part of next year.
Strong plans are under way to revitalize the Hungarian capital and enrich it with a 21st-century exhibition and conference venue. It is a EUR 170 million refurbishment project that will see the construction of two new exhibition halls, a new reception building, a Congress Centre as well. Could you tell us a little bit more about this revitalization program and the expansion plans for Hungexpo? How will the venue transform? How unique is this project in the region?
I really believe in the business model whereby there is an Exhibition Centre, together with the Congress Centre which provides smooth event flow. In this case, for example, you do not have to build large plenary rooms. In our case we are planning to have a 2,100 people plenary with the latest technologies. We are implementing the Gala seating system in this congress centre with good digital technologies, like audio visual systems and all the IT systems. We are also refurbishing all the existing halls: we are changing from the ceiling and the facade to the flooring and the lightning. This will be also an opportunity to be more sustainable and energy efficient with our buildings. The green aspect is very important nowadays also in the event industry. In 2021 we will qualify Hungexpo for ISO 20121 which is especially for events and venues. We are building two new exhibition halls: one of over 7,000 square meters, and one of over 5,000 square meters without pillars. They will be connected, so if we need a larger plenary room for a large congress for example for 6,000 people, we will be able to easily do it in an exhibition hall and then we can use our normal plenary room in the Congress Centre for smaller breakout rooms.
There is a lot of interest from international event organizers for Budapest. They already have been to Barcelona, Vienna or to Copenhagen, and they are thirsty for fresh destinations and venues. They were always trying to come to Budapest, but now we are able to receive them and serve their needs in Budapest because we will be a suitable venue for this market. That is why it is crucial that the Hungarian Government invested in this project.
This investment, is around EUR 170 million. This is invested by the Hungarian Government through the Hungarian National Asset Management Company which owns Expo Park KFT. This is 100 percent owned by the Hungarian National Asset Management Company.
Are we on track as well for this expansion program? I imagine there has been a slow-down in 2020? Are you expecting to deliver?
Since Hungexpo is not disturbing the developers with events, they are ahead with the investment and with the construction. Everything will be delivered beginning September 2021.
Are you also looking to expand your presence or your portfolio of trade shows in Eastern Europe, in other markets than Hungary?
We are organizing exhibitions in Hungary mainly. We were not planning to extend and to export our shows to foreign countries. In GL Events we are also looking forward for other opportunities, we are looking in Czech Republic, in Romania or in Croatia. So maybe there will be some point in time when we will organize exhibitions abroad also.
What are Hungexpo’s plans for 2021, aside from the revitalization programs? What are some of the major conferences, fairs, events that you have planned for next year and what will be the focus?
We are very cautious for 2021 so we started by emptying our calendar for January and February and we thought that to be on the safe side we will start the year from beginning of March because all the restrictions might have an impact. If everything goes well and the vaccination progress, we will have a very busy year. We did not cancel any shows; we just moved them away from January and February. We are also having some very large international events. The International Eucharistic Congress was postponed from 2020 to 2021. We will have the European Dog Show in May. Then we will have the One with Nature, World Hunting and Nature Exhibition, in September, then the Sustainability Expo and World Meeting in November. We are also looking ahead to 2022 and 2023, because the Congress Centre will be launched to the international market by September 2021. This is based on our actual knowledge, but now everything is uncertain and of course the health and safety of our colleagues and business partners is the most important aspect.
What will be key to proper recovery post-crisis to boost again visitors’ confidence?
We need to rebuild confidence and trust, and have visitors understand that coming to a trade show is not more dangerous than going to a shopping mall. They have to build trust in the COVID-19 safety measures, which we have a little bit more severe than the normal procedures were in October in Hungary. This is one of the key factors to rebuild trust and to restart. For international events, the key factor will be to start to travel again so Hungary is also preparing a safe destination protocol. It might also help as well to rebuild trust.
In this competitive sector, innovation plays a major role like in many other industries. How does innovation translate at Hungexpo? What kind of new ground-breaking services, IT offers or customer experiences do you propose that make you stand out against your peers?
With this investment, the Congress Centre will be unique, very flexible and very easy to transform to all kinds of events and together with the exhibition part of it, it will be also a unique place whereby you can hold parallel events – two to three different events at the same time – in the Exhibition and Congress Centre. One of the key factors will also be the new technologies: audio-visual technologies and digital solutions. Another key factor of success is the service excellence, the service level that we provide which is unique within Hungexpo, including the 360 degree services that we offer to our clients.
From a marketing and communication point of view, what is your strategy to promote Hungexpo and its exhibitions but also Budapest as a hot international event and exhibition venue in the region?
For international events, we are selling the destination first of all and then Hungexpo. In the mindset of our clients it is obvious that we have a proper venue where they can hold their events. We are very strongly present on the international market also with being members of ICCA, AIPC and UFI, which are the key professional associations in the event industry. We are attending different trade shows and workshops from the US to the UK, to Germany and Asia. We were key drivers, in order to reorganize and to rebuild the Hungarian Convention Bureau, which will strongly promote the destination. For the exhibitions, I really believe that we can win, if we are extending our catchment area in the neighbouring countries, because we can attract a lot of visitors and exhibitors from there. So we are focusing with my marketing team also to promote our exhibitions in the neighbouring countries as well. I would like to also emphasize that we can use the international knowledge and practices by being members of the above mentioned associations.
You have been CEO of HUNGEXPO for over 10 years now, since 2009. What have been some of the achievements that you are most proud of? Going forward, what are your visions, your aspirations for the company? What would you like to accomplish?
I really believe that what is good for Hungexpo is good for Budapest and for the economy of Hungary. My dream was to build the Congress Centre within Hungexpo and it is happening now. When I took over the company, it was an exhibition organizer company, we were not hosting really congresses and other type of events, and we were not very much present on the international MICE market. The turnover was around 2.7 billion HUF. I took over and in 2019 the company was making 8.5 billion HUF. I think it was a great achievement. It was due to the repositioning of all exhibitions. When I took over Hungexpo, it was in the middle of the crisis of 2009-2010 which started in 2008, We had to find new solutions for the industry. We repositioned all the exhibitions and we focused on our biggest trade fairs, which were successful. Beside the infrastructure and business model, we redesigned the organizational structure of the company. Today Budapest and Hungexpo are really well known on the international market. This is also a big achievement.
What would be your final and direct message to our readers?
I really believe that nothing can replace live events. We have to be connected and the digital solutions will follow us and will stay with us in the meeting industry.