Driving ITB’s brand strategy

Easy to grow an established brand like ITB that has 51 years of history behind it? Trust the Germans to be prudent and never taking anything for granted. Messe Berlin’s senior vice president travel & logistics, Martin Buck, tells Raini Hamdi about ITB’s brand strategy following the successful staging of the first ITB China recently

Were you surprised that ITB China sold out ahead of the event?
Actually no, because that was reason we started the project at all. We saw that the Chinese market had incredible potential on the one hand, but on the other hand the shows that were already available in China left some room for improvement. So based on the analysis of the competition, we decided to bring the ITB brand to China and, from the response, it was obviously a success.

(The three-day show occupied 12,000m2 of space in the Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Centre. Some 600 exhibiting companies from nearly 70 countries participated. There were around 600 Chinese buyers, almost all hosted, and an additional 100 international buyers who joined on their own accord. Source: ITB China)

In that analysis of the competition, what major gaps did you see?
Particularly the availability of professional buyers.

The right buyers are the ingredients to make a show work. There are many shows that have the suppliers, but a significant lack of the demand side. And since launching (ITB Asia) in Singapore we have developed a certain proficiency in bringing the two (buyers and sellers) together, so we said, why not go to China and try it there as well, since China is such a big market and there is demand, especially for outbound travel products. As you know, the outbound market has been rising and will continue to rise.

How easy was it for you to get the right Chinese buyers?
Not easy at all, and that’s probably the reason why the others don’t have so many buyers. This again has to do with having the expertise in drilling a hole into the market, so to speak, to understand how it actually works. It also has to do with the network you have, and the partnerships you manage to develop. Certainly what contributed to our success (in getting the right buyers) is our partnership with Travel Daily China, because they are extremely well connected in this market.

Would this mean then that there would not be Chinese buyers at ITB Asia in Singapore?
Not at all. You see a growing number of Chinese buyers due to the rapid development of whole industry. Some of them can easily go to Singapore; others just cannot, due to reasons such as time and budget. Another important factor is what they want to buy.

We are a marketplace. You sell your tomatoes at the place where there are people who want to eat those tomatoes. There are different exhibitors (i.e. different tomatoes). And our mission certainly is to cater to the different needs of our customers. You could say ITB Asia is one option, ITB Berlin is another and now we finally have managed to create the third option.

There are two directions we take. One is to improve the existing shows by continuing to deliver the right services, etc, and the other is to establish a new show the moment we see there is a big part of demand that isn’t covered yet. ITB China is one further step in our brand strategy to add or establish a new marketplace where one is needed, according to our view and judgement. We are happy it wasn’t just our imagination, that indeed we’ve filled a gap.

This first show spanned some 12,000m2. What do you foresee for next year?
We have early feedback from several exhibitors who want to expand their participation, but it remains to be seen how much additional space we will put into the game. It also depends what the venue provider can offer. This is a good venue (Shanghai Expo). We are happy with them, we hope they are happy with us. But if you just walk up to upper floor, you can see the jewellery fair… they obviously have high demand from other shows, which also makes it kind of difficult to say at the moment what space will be available for us. We will define this more precisely in the months to come, but based on early feedback we can be hopeful to grow ITB China significantly.

How huge can ITB China get to, given that China is such a huge market?
It’s a continent and there is an incredible number of dramatically growing cities but I’m a little hesitant (to predict how large ITB China can be one day). Our industry is a vulnerable business. We have to be optimistic, but we’re also living in times that are more insecure than they were three, five or 10 years ago.

I remember when we did our first interviews, we talked about stuff like the tsunami, or an isolated assault in Tunisia or Spain. But it was always isolated and an incident would happen over a period of 12 months. Now we have such a dramatic increase in frequency of incidents. We now talk about the geopolitical landscape, how certain destinations can easily fall out of the picture, etc. The world is changing. We have to stay flexible; we have to be cautious with capacity and space.

Secondly, many sectors of the industry, especially hospitality, have seen consolidation. So even if you have two or three exhibitors who have registered to come to our show, if they are being bought, it is not likely they will take three stands just to make us happy; rather, we may end up with only one.

What lessons did you take from the first ITB China?
The Chinese market works differently from the market in Europe. China is a world in its own right. It is also extremely innovative, especially with communications. Look at the degree of penetration WeChat has.

Here, there’s no Google, Amazon, Facebook. Will we end up in a world where there’s Google on the one hand and Baidu on the other? Will we see one ‘winner’, a fusion or a co-existence (of players)? No one knows yet.

We had Ctrip’s CEO (Jane Jie Sun) speaking at the conference. In the Western world, you have Expedia, Booking.com, etc. In some ways, they are both trying to be active in the market of the other. We also had TUI’s CEO Fritz Joussen as a speaker. TUI and Ctrip are two different galaxies in the way they define and distribute products! Not that one is right or the other is wrong.

So it’s all fascinating and exciting and if we manage to continue this way of presenting current developments, if we are the platform where these developments become visible, then we can be happy. Content is important, which is a success factor for ITB, but it works only if we manage to bring in the right people who can speak in front of an audience.

How can ITB China strengthen ITB Asia and ITB Berlin?
The basic idea for us is a brand-based strategy. It’s a nice surprise to see the ITB name has actually grown in reputation and it helps us to become credible to players here. ITB China is like a window to the other ITBs for the Chinese. It might be the first step for many of them to be aware of ITB and, bearing how fast their industry is growing, they can also participate in Singapore and Berlin.

Will you be launching ITB India next?
No. It’s difficult to find the right partner, that’s the most important reason. I believe India, like China, bears huge potential, it should never be underrated. We’ve been trying for some time. For us we have to safeguard certain quality standards. We haven’t found the place in India yet where this can be come true. We would be one of the first to take the opportunity if it were available, but it’s still not available.

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