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The Corona pandemic has called into question the usefulness of many industry trade fairs. In turn, digital formats have proven to be an equal alternative faster than expected. In fact, the classic formula of "renting space to make conversations possible" seems anachronistic in 2022. Many winemakers are currently deciding against an expensive participation in Vinitaly or ProWein. What does this mean for the future of the big wine fairs?

After a two-year break, Italy's biggest wine fair took place in Verona in mid-April: Vinitaly. Impatiently awaited by many wineries, it was far from being able to meet all expectations. Although the exhibitor area with 4,400 wineries was booked up to the last square metre, the number of visitors declined significantly by 30 percent. The reactions after the fair were correspondingly ambivalent. Many large companies were "extremely satisfied" in official statements and enthusiastically celebrated the return to normality.

Vanity Fair

But critical voices were also heard. Matteo Ascheri, a winemaker himself and current president of the Barolo and Barbaresco consortium, reacted very negatively. Ascheri had already expressed his scepticism before Vinitaly: "We have seen in the past two years that we can sell our wines even without fairs. I would even say that the fairs need us winemakers more than the other way round."

Now, after the conclusion of Vinitaly, he once again called for people to think about the sense or nonsense of participating. For his winery, this was definitely the last Vinitaly. Because it represents an outdated format. It is "similar to Christmas, a ritual that everyone celebrates, whereas it has lost all meaning for most people". He sees companies spending exorbitant amounts of money to be represented at Vinitaly "with pharaonic stands". Inside, however, it looks more like a vanity fair than a wine fair, while outside the pavilions young people are getting drunk.

Matteo Ascheri told the Italian journalist Rossana Santolin of the online magazine Dissapore: "Fairs had an essential function years ago when business was done there. This is no longer the case today. We come into contact with new customers every day, and by much less costly means. Today we talk to them by email, Skype or Zoom. If they need samples, we deliver them quickly all over the world. In short, the money invested in a fair like Vinitaly could be better spent."

Investment in wine quality and tourism

According to Ascheri, it is much more important to invest in the quality of the wines. Along with an attractive tourism offer, this is the best advertising - both for a winery and for an appellation. With every marketing decision that has to be made, one has to ask oneself: "Am I doing this because everyone else is doing it? Or am I doing it because it is really effective?"

Many wineries and consortia are not courageous enough and stick to tried and tested ways of thinking. But one has to take risks and look for new ways. The bar must be raised when it comes to organising events. Trade fairs are expensive. If you have your own medium-sized stand and bring staff with you, you can quickly reach an investment of 20,000 euros, including set-up, travel and accommodation. At these prices, the question of the cost-benefit ratio should be asked.

The country needs new concepts

In the past two years, many winegrowers have found new ways of initiating and selling business. At the same time, these are more convenient, more cost-effective and, above all, more environmentally friendly for all involved. The example of online tastings clearly shows that the wine industry can still come together. So in the medium term - not only due to Corona, but accelerated by it - is there a threat of a trade fair dying? The Cebit in Hanover, once the most important IT trade fair in the world for years, has no longer existed since 2018. The Musikmesse, once the world's most important trade fair for instruments and technology in Frankfurt, will be discontinued in 2022. Could this also make ProWein in Düsseldorf superfluous?

At first glance, the official exhibitor figures for this year's ProWein seem to indicate a negative trend. 5,500 companies from 60 nations are expected, which is 20 per cent less than in 2019. The total exhibition space is smaller than three years ago, many German exhibitors have decided not to participate, and there are no companies from China either. But from Italy, for example, the interest is unbroken.

Nicole Funke, Senior Project Manager at Messe Düsseldorf and responsible for the Italian exhibitors at ProWein, explains: "The number of Italian exhibitors is down, but this is primarily due to the fair's new security concept. There is currently no stand with less than nine square metres and no exhibitor who would not have at least six square metres for himself. As a result, we had to put off many exhibitors from Italy, but I constantly get requests for stand space, even two weeks before the fair. The waiting list is enormous."

For Nicole Funke, industry fairs will continue to have their raison d'être in the future. "Real partnerships and a good sales network are based on interpersonal relationships that you can't build via the screen. During the pandemic, you could nurture existing contacts, but acquiring new customers is almost impossible."

But she also sees that wineries will be more selective about their events. "Many will choose one fair or the other, depending on the target group they want to address. Of course, there are alternative communication strategies, but in the long run, fairs are still the better choice. However, winemakers have to do their homework and prepare well. If you just wait for traders to stumble upon the stand by chance, you will never exploit all the possibilities."

The fairs of the future will be "hybrid

Perhaps the industry meetings will not disappear, but only change. After all, people's need to get to know each other in person before they close a deal remains strong. This is especially true for a topic as emotional as wine, where sensory experiences are paramount. However, the trade fair world of tomorrow will no longer be that of yesterday. Trade fair organisers will have to offer both analogue and digital concepts, "hybrid" trade fairs with digital and personal communication will become increasingly popular. However, direct contact, touching products and the personal experience will remain strengths of the face-to-face fair. If the organisers create alternative, even better framework conditions that are attractive for exhibitors and visitors, they will continue to be willing to travel from abroad.

The opposite position is formulated in a current thesis paper of the German Association of Industrial Communication on the future of trade fairs: "Exhibitors will question more critically in what form and to what extent on-site participation is still worthwhile if more and more visitors prefer online participation. Participation in trade fairs with opulent stands is therefore no longer a matter of course, especially since the return on investment of expensive trade fair appearances is difficult to measure anyway." The trade fair landscape is currently changing as a whole: "More than half of the industry representatives surveyed in a study conducted by the World Trade Fair Association (UFI) assume that there will be fewer international trade fairs on site and fewer participants," the paper says. This means: trade fairs will become more specialised, smaller and more local. This development has long been observed in the European wine scene: The importance of regional events as well as special fairs, for example for organic and natural wines, is growing steadily.

The competition between the big wine fairs will therefore become increasingly fierce. Only a few wineries will be able to participate everywhere at the current stand prices - most will have to make a decision. Above all, the current crisis in the European wine industry with massive logistics problems, rapidly rising costs as well as high inflation rates will pose major problems for the fair organisers: The number of small and medium-sized wineries cancelling their stands for cost reasons will presumably increase rapidly. Now trade fair companies will have to sharpen their profile and brand very quickly with attractive offers in order to make themselves indispensable.

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(C) Photo: Messe Düsseldorf

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