For centuries Germany has been the world’s major venue for trade fairs. Frankfurt, in particular, has been an international marketplace for more than 800 years.
In February NZBusiness joined the throngs of buyers and sellers at Ambiente, the trade fair for consumer goods, to see if the reality still lives up to the tradition.
Nothing quite prepares you for the sheer size and scale of a German trade fair. Ambiente, with its 4,811 exhibitors from 94 countries and 135,000 visitors (53 percent from outside Germany), comes with plenty of jaw-dropping wow-factor. For this wide-eyed first-timer to Europe, it was always going to be a lot to take in.
Ambiente, billed as the world’s leading order platform for the consumer-goods industry, was spread out over ten exhibition halls, linked by busy travellators, and categorised under three key headings of Dining, Giving and Living. Held from February 13 to 17, my first impression is that you would need every minute of those four days to get around the halls. However, the buyers and sellers who converge on Ambiente have planned their visits and organised meetings well in advance. And navigating this vast complex is made infinitely easier by the precision and efficiency of the German organisers. It’s simply in their DNA.
My second impression centres on the amount of business being conducted. Everywhere you look, people are hunkered over tables in deep discussion, or busy on keyboards and smart devices. There are no tyre-kickers here – many people have flown halfway around the world to buy or sell goods and they’re looking for results.
Nobody appreciates this fact more than Brendan Lindsay, CEO of New Zealand manufacturer Sistema Plastics, which was displaying its New Zealand credentials on one of the most colourful stands in Hall 6.1. The stand was a hive of activity. Lindsay quickly points out a French buyer, a Pakistan distributor, reps from South Africa and Poland, all busy on their stand.
Sistema Plastics is an owner-operated company (which is why Lindsay still prefers to help ‘man the stand’) and its innovative products are now sold in 65 countries. It is the company’s third appearance at Ambiente, an opportunity to launch its new range of drink bottles and tea infusers, as well as announce that its products are now not only BPA free, but also free from phthalates* – a world first. What better place to promote that message?
“Chicago and Frankfurt are the two ‘Olympic Games’ as far as we are concerned,” explains Lindsay. “We don’t exhibit in China or Asia.”
He’s one of many people I spoke to who are impressed by the organisational skills of Ambiente’s organisers.
Over in Hall 9.2 I met another Kiwi exhibitor, Sarah Townsend, founder of The Aromatherapy Co., who was equally impressed by the management and standard of the show. Her company had come to Frankfurt to test the European market for interest in her home fragrance and body care products.
“It was such an amazing experience to be part of Ambiente 2015,” Townsend tells me. “We have shown at many trade fairs, but Ambiente has been a favourite trade fair to discover and be a part of. The efficiencies and support from the Messe Frankfurt Ambiente team from start to finish has been unbelievable.
“They say the first time is always the hardest, but with that being said we had great success for our first show in Frankfurt,” she says. “Next time we may look into a new hall and stand position, but we will definitely be looking at showing at Ambiente again.”
Of course, to get a total perspective of Ambiente it’s important to talk to the buyers.
Fraser Collins, group general manager merchandise for Briscoe Group, was visiting Ambiente for the 12th time and found the 2015 fair to be better in many ways to recent years. “There was a lot of new product and innovation not evident in the last couple of years,” he says.
The major strength of this fair for Collins are the “brands, design, style and innovation”.
“It is extremely important as it sets the tone for all categories for the following year in terms of colour and trends. We cement long-term brand relationships, many having lasted for 25 years or more, plus add new brands to the stable.”
If possible Collins combines this trip with factory visits to key brand partners in Europe. He acknowledges that the distance is substantial from New Zealand, and it’s important to rest before the fair commences. “You walk significant distances over the course of the four days. It’s smart to wear comfortable flat shoes and stay hydrated; it can be tough physically and you need to be on your game.”
He says it’s important that relevant categories are grouped together at shows such as Ambiente. “It’s a huge fair and time can be wasted on a march from one end of the facility to the other for appointments.”
Multinational meeting place
It’s big, it’s incredibly busy, and what’s also impressive about Ambiente, is the diversity of its participants. In my travels through the halls I spoke to a Chinese exhibitor who comes to Ambiente because this is where her products can stand out – not so if she was at a show in China!
There was the Maltese seller who comes every year because “it’s an intelligent decision; everyone comes here”; the first-time exhibitor from Chicago; the Indian scarf manufacturer checking out the show with a view to exhibiting in 2016 – he tells me Ambiente “just gets better and better”.
What you start to appreciate about Germany, the more time you spend there, is its proximity to other European and Mediterranean markets. Buyers and sellers travel freely throughout Europe, so it wasn’t surprising that, as well as an increase in the number of exhibitors at this year’s show, there was a record level of internationality when it came to buyers and sellers. Buyers from 152 countries made their way to Frankfurt this year. This was also a reflection of the confidence that is slowly returning to the world’s consumer good markets – despite ongoing political and economic challenges in some countries.
For Kiwi firms that have kept a wary eye on European markets especially since the GFC, there is every reason to be optimistic. Just as I was after my four days in Frankfurt.
Glenn Baker is editor of NZBusiness. He attended Ambiente courtesy of Messe Frankfurt.
* Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic and vinyl.