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Inteview with Kai Hattendorf, the CEO of UFI

1. Tesi: Kai, 2017 is drawing to a close. This has been your second year as CEO of UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry. Looking back, what have been the highlights of your time at UFI so far?

Kai: Two years, really? It feels like only yesterday – I guess that’s because I’m lucky enough to work with an excellent team in a great industry and to benefit from the unique support UFI can draw on from industry leaders around the world. Whether it’s the new research we recently unveiled, our new venue management school, or the new office in Bogota – none of these things would have been possible without this great worldwide community. 1,200 people alone took part in UFI events around the globe this year – we just had the most wonderful Global Congress in Johannesburg, for example. This motivates the whole team to work on a full set of industry meetings for 2018, kicking off in January with our Global CEO Summit.

As well as these meetings, I’m delighted that we’ve been able to add a whole new line of research products in addition to the well-established ones – all of which focus on topical research. This year, for instance, we globally surveyed the digital status quo of the exhibition industry and published the first-ever “Global Digitisation Index”, which shows where we as an industry stand in terms of digitising ourselves. But that’s something you yourself are very familiar with, Tesi, as UFI’s new Chair of the Digital Innovation Committee.

Last but not least, we’ve been working hard for 18 months on a new education programme, the Venue Management School, and just ran our first classes in Shanghai. Being in the room at the SNIEC with students from all over China, I was able to see first hand that it’s definitely been worth all our efforts.

2. Tesi: And what have you found particularly surprising or unexpected during this time?

Kai: The success of Global Exhibitions Day, for sure. When we launched in early 2016, we were hoping for maybe 20 countries to join in the first year – after all, we only had five months from the initial announcement to the day itself. However, when the day came to a close, we had counted activities in 60 different countries and regions. And it grew further in 2017, showing what we can achieve as an industry when we work together. So mark your calendars for 2018, everyone: June 6 is Global Exhibitions Day. Let’s make it special!

3. Tesi: It sounds like you’ve had a full and productive few years so far. What are your plans for 2018?

Kai: We want to get closer to our members wherever possible. One of the focus areas will be Latin America, where we are just opening a regional office in Bogota. I look forward to working with Ana Maria Arango as our new regional manager there. With strong support from our friends at AMPROFEC, we will organise the first-ever regional UFI Conference for Latin America next September.

We will also continue to put emphasis on the next generation of leaders and evolve the “Next Generation Leadership” programme. Did you know that after the first two years, four out of our 10 grantees had already moved to bigger roles in their respective organisations?

4. Tesi: In your opinion, is the topic of “digital” underrated or overrated in the industry? Do we do enough as an industry to face the challenges that might come with new digital developments or do we need to do more?

Kai: What makes us as an industry unique is that we are resilient. We have proven time and again that we can adapt to changing business environments. Digitisation is probably the biggest test – and opportunity – yet of this. We know that, globally, CEOs in our industry are focussing their organic investments and attention increasingly on two areas: on building new business models for a data-driven marketing environment, and on future-proofing the existing, square-metre-based business models through new products. In parallel, they are reducing investments in existing products. UFI’s Digitisation Index shows that, as an industry, we have begun to digitise ourselves – a simple necessity if we want to stay relevant for companies who are building complex solutions to directly interact with their customers, cutting out whole segments of the traditional value chain.

5. Tesi: Apart from the “digital” issue, what other challenges will we face in the exhibition industry over the coming years?

Kai: People! We need the right people to manage ever-faster change. Organisers and venues are rethinking who they need to hire and what skills they need to add. The evolution of our business will increasingly be shaped by a new, and somewhat younger, group of leaders – many of whom are currently rising fast through the ranks of international industry players. A significant number of talent programmes around the world are now offering additional opportunities for future leaders to stand out and be noticed. At the same time, education programmes still need to be developed to provide sufficient qualified talent for everyday needs, especially on the venue side. In parallel, our industry will focus even more on bringing in leadership and skills from other sectors, and will look to add greater diversity to the top levels of management. To facilitate all this, the focus of HR within companies is shifting towards more investment in people.

6. Tesi: And where do you see opportunities in the global exhibition market?

Kai: In digital, and in new event formats. Many of the fastest growing business events currently are managed by “accidental organisers”. Digital communities want to meet in person face to face, and are looking for someone from their community to organise this. Out of this, new, hybrid formats like the Web Summit evolve – part festival, past conference, part exhibition. In addition, more and more entertainment elements are blending into B2B events, as they adapt to changing audiences. As hybrid business events thrive, there is the chance for more collaboration – and maybe even mergers – between these new organisers on the one hand, and established association congresses and for-profit exhibition organisers on the other hand.

7. Tesi: We are all familiar with your welcoming and often humorous presentation style at conferences. I also know that you support Werder Bremen football club. Are there any other secrets you’d like to share with the industry?

Kai: I am a huge fan of quirky British Sci-Fi – while my English teacher at school wanted me to memorise Shakespeare, I preferred to learn large chunks of “The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy” by heart. And I also own a Lego Tardis, complete with Lego Daleks!

Thank you very much for your time,

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