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In conversation with Mr Raj Manek, Executive Director and Board Member Messe Frankfurt Asia Holdings Ltd.

Raj Manek
Image: Raj-Manek Executive Director and Board Member
Messe Frankfurt Asia Holdings Ltd.

Messe Frankfurt, well known for its trade fair history of over 800 years, is the world’s largest trade fair, congress and event organiser with its own venue. The Indian subsidiary -Messe Frankfurt Trade Fairs India Pvt Ltd, is the organiser of some of the most prestigious B2B trade fairs in the country. Supporting the resurgence of a covid-dented economy, Messe Frankfurt India completed a series of live exhibitions this year across diverse industry verticals; introduced market-leading innovations by over 750 companies and attracted over 70,000 visitors across 28 Indian states and union territories locally and 57 countries and 6 continents internationally.

Approaching its last leg of shows for 2022 in India, the Executive Director & Board Member of Messe Frankfurt Asia Holdings Ltd, and Managing Director of the Indian subsidiary – Mr Raj Manekaims to continue on his mission of strategic growth initiatives through development, collaborations and penetration into new industry segments and take the Indian subsidiary to its next phase of growth and development.

As Messe Frankfurt completes 25 years in India next year, an interaction with Raj highlighted the firm’s vision, his journey and management learnings in the Exhibition Industry.

What led to the coining of the idea to join the Exhibition industry?

Joining the exhibition industry was a sheer coincidence that led to a journey full of learnings.

I come from a finance background and began my career with P&O Exhibitions, who were then the owners of the Earls Court and Olympia venues in London UK. What I enjoyed most about my job, however, was not just the finance side of it but understanding the business and operational aspects of the exhibition industry, how the business takes shape, what leads to those numbers in the accounting books and where improvements can be made.  What I learnt was later reflected in my stint with ITE Group and Reed Exhibition Companies where I was entrusted with the role of Group Operation Finance Director followed by COO for Expomedia Group Plc in India.

Having understood the nuances of the business and optimising operations led to a natural interest and transition towards Business Development which further opened the doors to identifying profitable business partnerships. In 2009 I was approached by Messe Frankfurt to give its Indian operation a new direction and fulfil the potential of this exciting and challenging market. As the company’s Asia Pacific Business Development Director, I was already involved in developing business in the Asian regions, including India. So, it was exciting for me to take it up and drive growth for Messe Frankfurt India to strengthen the already existing brands and acquire new business, and subsequently manage joint ventures, license and management agreements.

….A coincidence that led to a journey full of learnings. It has been 25 years in the industry since and there is no looking back!

Messe Frankfurt has been an industry leader in the exhibition space. What would you say are your differentiating factors?

“Focusing on overall industry development by bringing the right mix of exhibits, education, experience and expertise from within the industry has been a potent combination for Messe Frankfurt fairs”

Our USP is very simple – we want to create the best trading platform for any given industry sector. We do this by working closely with the industry and ensure that our exhibitions represent what the Indian market requires, rightly placing our events for the Indian buyers.This is what makes Messe Frankfurt ‘trusted trade partners’ among industry stakeholders.

Moreover, Knowledge sharing is an essential strategy used by Messe Frankfurt to promote the development of industry verticals in which it is present. Our events place a lot of emphasis on industry initiatives, seminars, market or trend reports and CSRactivities. You need the relevant knowledge to make key business decisions, which in turn allow you to trade, so we believe it’s important tobring the right mix of exhibits, education, experience and expertise from within the industry. Bycollaborating with experts, research agencies and specialists from the relevant fields, we promote the development of industry verticals together with our exhibition platforms.This I believe would be one of the key USPs– because at the heart of all Messe Frankfurt eventsis qualitynetworking and businesslearning.

Another most obvious advantages that we bring to our clients is our true expertise of organising professional trade platforms and delivering only quality trade visitors. Not only are we able to organise events of international standards, but we ensure that we position our events as per market needs. We do not promise our customers big visitor numbers; but with quality visitors and serious buyers that are relevant to their industry. We focus our strategies very much on quality over quantity.

What does success mean to you? What are the recognitions Messe Frankfurt India has earned over the years?

We believe what we have gained over the last two decades can only be measured in terms of our exhibitor’s conviction and business confidence in our platforms, quality of visitors who rely on sourcing through MFI fairs in India and globally, and the growing confidence of industryassociations and government bodies in our vision for industry growth.

With over two decades of having an independent presence, we have served the B2B markets through our trade fairs and conferences across various industry sector in the Indian sub-continent and established a strong presence. In the last few years we have continued to pursue a steady and successful expansion strategy through new acquisitions, mergers and launching our globally leading fairs into the market.

What makes this journey both exciting and challenging is the impact we can create through our exhibitions in individual sectors. While our focus is strongly on creating valuable trading platforms for businesses, we also place emphasis on bridging knowledge transfer and best practices within the industry – thus supportingsector development.

In your management journey, how did you overcome the challenges?

While each entrepreneur goes through a unique journey of successes and challenges, there’s one thing they all have in common – that is, they are willing to listen, learn and adapt.

I believe that the most important aspect of an entrepreneurial journey is to be open to listening. Be it constructive feedback or plain criticism – both these help you understand the consumer mindset – who form your core business unit.

It is important to have a vision, create a scalable strategy, understand consumer mindsets and be open to refining your approach. From my own experience of being born in Uganda, raised in the UK, working with a German firm and managing businesses in India and Asia, there is clearly much to learn. Initially I found the process driven German system quite challenging, but the more you embrace the system and process, you begin to see and understand the checks these processes provide, which ultimately let you make better and more informed business decisions. I, therefore, learned to adapt my entrepreneurial working style to incorporate these methods and systems. Whereas in India, you can bring in the best and most stringent processes and international methods, but you need the right combination of structure and flexibility to make these processes work to suit the Indian culture, because things work very differently here.

Ultimately, having a solution-oriented mindset is the key. In any business, you will come across both significant and small challenges – and what sets you apart as a leader or entrepreneur is to have the courage, patience and persistenceto find solutions to each of these. Challenges encourage you to look at things from a different perspective and sometimes, and be creative. It’s this solution-oriented, growth mindset that can make all the difference.

In this journey, what were the failures the team rebounded and learned from?

I think one of the biggest rebound and learning for our entire team was over the last two years – there could be major set-backs in business but it is important to step back and evaluate, pick yourself up, be willing to accept the change and adapt your delivery.

The pandemic taught us a lot, but one of biggest learnings was that even with all the best technology and innovation (live feeds, virtual events, 3D imaging) you cannot replace face-to-face interactions. Be it personal or professional connects, it became overwhelmingly clear that people and businesses world over need exhibitions as the bases of trading and business networking.

Our team in India has been very resilient and quickly adapted to the changes in the exhibition industry at the very start of the pandemic – ensuring that our clients and industries remain connected and continue to engage in the absence of in-person meetings.

We made major investments and trained in new skills for digital / virtual events over the last 2 years, conducted hybrid events, all of which were to some extent successful, but in no way satisfying. We quickly realized that even though many industry reports said this would be the future, our customers’ needs are very different and we went back to our traditional format, with new digital dimensions added – this was a major learning, with substantial investments.

When markets began to open, retaining and regaining the trust of our partners, exhibitors and visitors wasmost crucial. The task of organising events at this scale and at a new venue was tricky and speculations about a fourth wave fuelled the fire of questions on planning certainty and footfalls. However, the team at Messe Frankfurt India worked tirelessly to make these seven shows a reality and gave exhibitors tremendous confidence by assuring them of complete safety and the right audience.

For Messe Frankfurt, the real strength is our people, and over the last two years I saw a high-level of commitment and positive energy among our teams who were determined to pull it off efficiently and that’s what led to our successfsul return.

What role does the exhibition industry play in the growth of the economy? 

The exhibition industry is unique and has a multiplier effect for businesses across sectors.

Bringing buyers and sellers together under one roof sets the business momentum rolling which in turn generatestrade, knowledge and technology exchange.Bringing businesses together also promotes competitive intelligence which is critical for brands in their long-term strategic decision-making.

Overall, exhibitions play a significant role in supporting trade, tourism, job creation, and cultural exchange and enabling employment opportunities for allied sectors such as service providers, hospitality sector including restaurants, bars hotels, transport especially local cabs and taxis in the case of tier I cities in India, as well as promoting MICE tourism. The sector is mission-critical for building the economy.

“The Exhibition Industry has a multiplier effect for businesses across sectors and is mission-critical for building the economy.”

A piece of advice you would share with young entrepreneurs?

For entrepreneurs who are just starting out, I would say Consistency is key. Consistency in vision and performance – because when you have a clear vision and set clear goals, your teams can chart out the right direction and deliver on it. And as mentioned earlier, continue to learn from others, gain different perspectives and remain adaptable in your approach.

Also, you should take time to enjoy your successes and more importantly, take both achievements and failures in stride, because you learn and grow from it and will be able to use that very knowledge to transform a set-back to success.

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