Over coffee with… Katrina Leung

The new executive director of Messe Berlin Singapore, who is tasked with spearheading ITB Asia and developing Messe Berlin’s regional business, talks to Raini Hamdi about the conference and tradeshow market in Asia

Before joining Messe Berlin Singapore, you were country managing director of conference organiser, Terrapinn Asia. 

Yes, I moved to Singapore in 2008 from the Philippines (her home country), where I did brand management in a pharmaceutical company, and worked my way up at Terrapinn Asia, from conference manager doing all the content for a conference, to business development manager doing sponsorship sales, then general manager of the life sciences team and country managing director when the CEO left.

You must have created many conferences at Terrapinn.

As general manager, that was indeed one of my tasks, all the more so when I became the country managing director, with seven teams under me covering sectors including real estate, pharmaceutical, aviation, hospitality, payments and so on.

We had to launch at least three events per team per year. In total, for the teams I handled at Terrapinn Asia, we had around 35 events a year, existing and new. The aim was always to grow the existing conferences, but to look at what you could launch next.

What’s the event you launched which you’re proudest of?

A healthcare event, and I also grew a lot with the bio-pharma industries and did multiple launches covering those sectors.

But the biggest task when I took over as country managing director at Terrapinn Asia was the company’s new direction to convert our big conferences into expo’s. I was able to convert about seven or eight conferences.

Why the new direction?

We had reached the peak with those conferences. When a conference reached, say, 500 attendees, it’s difficult to grow your sponsorship revenue. If you already have 50 sponsors, for instance, and try to get 70 sponsors, you realise quickly that 500 attendees are not enough to satisfy 70 sponsors. So the next step is to accept visitors into your show and create an ‘expo’ model; some people call it ‘confex’ (conference cum expo). It’s not an exhibition, like ITB Asia, which is on a bigger scale.

Why did you decide to leave Terrapinn Asia for Messe Berlin Singapore?

I’ve been doing conferences and confex’s, so exhibitions is a growth area for me, and Messe Berlin is one of top 10 (exhibition organisers) in the world.

So what’s your mission with ITB Asia? 

For this year, the goal is to grow the content level, which is one of the key things I can bring in as someone from the conference sector going into the exhibition side.

What content can I deliver so that people will not just walk the floor for one to two hours then they are done? My task is to get them to stay half a day or even a full day, to ensure that they find the seminars, workshops, etc, so interesting that they will want to come back next year.

Doesn’t ITB Asia already do that?

Yes, but we can add more. For example, we will be doing more this year on China (outbound), aviation, MICE and travel technology.

Why is content important in an exhibition?

For me, it’s because it spikes interest and brings people in. The marketplace is of course important – that’s the heart of the show – letting buyers meet exhibitors through sufficient networking activities, delivering ROI to exhibitors, etc. But if that’s settled, where else can I grow?

How is the tradeshow and conference market changing?

It is getting to be more competitive. Barriers to entry are low. People are also now more mobile; it is easy for anyone to go from Asia to Europe to attend a good show. So ITB Asia is not competing just on the Asian level. For instance, it competes with IMEX Americas and World Travel Market (London), the former one week before ITB Asia and the latter one week after. So exhibitors will have to choose as they can’t travel to three different parts of the world. What they choose depends on their priority: Is Asia or the Americas their growth market, for instance?

Another change is how show organisers are racing to provide quality. You can no longer package the same thing over and over again. Everyone is looking for something fresh and everyone asks, what is my ROI? They ask, are you bringing the same buyers again? Are there new exhibitors? Does your content cover new trends such as social media? And now, experiences are also important, so you need to put something exciting on the floor, create memorable networking opportunities and so on.

This is why it is so important for us to learn from other shows. I encourage my team members to go to all the shows in Singapore and see what they can learn from these events – how they do their booths, how do they do their networking?

What are the most common mistakes made by show organisers?

One of the biggest is not to give enough lead time to run a show.

Sometimes, a trend or subject – say, commercial drones – becomes suddenly so exciting that organisers want to launch it ASAP. They think, how wrong can they go with something so ‘hot’. They want to do it in three months to be the first and to capture the entire market. But this can be a pitfall. If you don’t have enough lead time in getting speakers, exhibitors, etc, it becomes a half-baked event. As well, have you done your research properly and spoken to the market? Is Asia ready for it, for example? Sometimes, even though it’s a trend in Europe or the US, it might not be in Asia because of, say, different regulations on the sector here.

What’s a decent lead time? 

To launch a new event – 15 months. I always feel you should have enough lead time to plan everything.

Are there big differences between a travel trade show and other industries’ shows? 

Each has its own personality. Pharmaceutical, for example, is more scientific and serious. Real estate more flamboyant. The supply chain people are more humble; it’s hard to get speakers as they tend to be the behind-the-scene types. As for travel, everyone is so helpful. In my first few months, I’ve been meeting everyone – exhibitors, partners, etc – and I’m not shy to ask them about anything. This industry is so full of acronyms!

Are travel trade shows more lucrative? 

Every organiser, from whichever industry, will have his own net profitability (criteria). Some may say, if you don’t get 30 per cent net profit, you don’t run a show or, if you don’t reach $250,000 sponsorship after three months of trying, you cut the show.

You’re also in charge of developing Messe Berlin’s regional business. What opportunities do you see presently? 

Yes, it’s one of my KPI’s. The opportunities are more in geo-cloning (bringing an established show from one geographical location to another; ITB Asia, for example, is geo-cloned from ITB Berlin). We have big brands in the Messe Berlin portfolio that we can possibly bring to Asia if it works in the region. Better to stick with something you know and leverage on the contacts you have than launching something new. I’m quite sure we are exploring if there are shows we could geo-clone in Asia.

How fertile is Asia for Europe-based organisers such as Messe Berlin?

Asia is the next growth market after Europe and the US for the next five to 10 years. My gut feel is a lot of shows will come here; organisers will be testing the market for these shows. It just depends on their risk appetite whether to start now or later.

Should local organisers worry?

If your brand is strong and you maintain the quality of your show, people will still go to your event. A few might try out the competition but if you know what your USP is, you don’t have to worry. Even now, you are already competing with the rest of the world!

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