Trade show organizer Premium Exhibitions has announced major changes for the January edition. We talked with managing director Anita Tillmann and Maren Wiebus, responsible for Seek and Bright, to find out more.
Anita Tillmann, what is happening in the fashion industry now?
Anita Tillmann (AT): For years we have been undergoing a transformation on all levels driven by digitization and globalization. Due to a lack of experience, the response to this by many traditional brands has been inaction. They seem to be afraid to make a move. At the same time, change is at the heart of our industry. It was always those players that made changes who were successful. On the other hand, we’re seeing new brands tackling new topics without any hesitancy and with a tremendous amount of success.
What is your approach to this transformation?
AT: We’re in the midst of it. This transformation also affects us as a leading trade show organizer in that not only do we reflect the market but we also proactively shape it. We strive to actively influence things. Our challenge is to find a common denominator for everyone involved and to offer something relevant to them. As part of a comprehensive market analysis, we were able to gather data about European and US retailing, digitization and the development of our industry. For the first time, we’ll have extensive information about this recent phase available to us.
What were the results?
AT: We all have to be flexible. For example: Because of the perception that collections all look the same and only differ based on their price category, we found out that retailers are suffering from a kind of “decision fatigue.” For retailers, it is tiring to wade their way through all the collections at a trade fair. Against the backdrop that our sector has a strong general tendency to communicate through looks and headlines, it no longer works for brands to stuff their trade show booths with goods and still expect retailers to find something new. It’s about key looks and key items, about storytelling and all about focusing. A clear outcome of the survey is that neither retailers nor end consumers think or buy in terms of a total look. And the brand-retailer-consumer relationship has changed. What was once a straight line is, at best, now a circle. All three are in relation to one another. So that things run smoothly, everyone has to work together and not against each other. Just now it is more of a triangle relationship.
Where are you in this triangle?
AT: As a trade show, we always form the foundation regardless of how the actors interrelate. However, we have the option of facilitating dialogue between the buyers and the brands. But to do that we need the brands to perform well. The booths are an important touch point for buyers. It has to be clear what a brand stands for. What is the key look and what is new? What is the message for the current collection and how is that being implemented and presented at the trade fair? There are many opportunities for conveying emotion at the booths. Creativity is not determined by a budget. I am convinced that the emotionalization already begins at the trade fair in dialogue with visitors and doesn’t just start with consumers in stores.
How do you go about making this happen in your own work?
AT: We’ve come to the conclusion that in the past we were not focused enough in some ways because we developed too many offers and put on too many events. We have sharply reduced this in number. We take a far more critical look at what services are really being used and are reanalyzing the buying needs of the various individual personas.
What changes can we thus expect to find at the Premium?
AT: Everything is different, we’ve turned everything upside down. We are mixing the ranges, have redefined the buildings and are creating dynamic brand worlds. We break things down into three general categories: Pricing, positioning and distribution policy, as well as fashion and market relevance. Hall 3 is a good example of this. It’s been almost completely revamped and newly structured based on trend themes, which amounts to a major organizational project. We’ve grouped those brands and ranges which are being looked for by certain groups of buyers so that they don’t have to walk through all the buildings.
Will this comprehensive transformation be 100% complete in January?
AT: No, at 70% that’s already quite a good outcome. The remaining 30% is still being worked on, but that is a very good result. We have gotten much farther than we thought we would.
What was the response of your exhibitors?
AT: I would say people reacted in three ways. One group welcomed the change and supported it. The second group said they generally liked the direction the trade fair was moving in, but don’t want to make any changes with their own booth. They ultimately are convinced because they trust us. And the third group feels threatened by our restructuring. They feel like they’ve been yanked out of their comfort zone, stuck into a new brand portfolio and now have to present themselves differently. That cost us a lot of time. Because not only did we have to negotiate, we also had to resolve conflicts between people. We had to explain to them that we did not intend to degrade them, but instead to create a continuum and atmosphere with them to create a sense of desire among buyers.
What relevance will fashion trade fairs have in the future in general given the transformation you mentioned before?
AT: People have been asking about trade show relevance forever. At the same time the trade fair as an event concept is experiencing a huge upswing across all industries. It’s accurate to say, though, that the raison d’etre for trade fairs has changed. Earlier you measured your success based only on how much exhibition space you rented. As a result, all exhibitors were accepted and their locations chosen on a “first come, first served” basis. And while previously a trade fair was a trade show where products were sold, today the main form of currency is content. It’s all about fast information, communication and conveying emotion. And of course the show evolves when the trade product changes. Trade fairs can only be successful today if you are helping shape the market instead of merely mapping the business. To achieve that, we have far more employees than what is commonly seen at trade fairs and also involve industry experts. What we offer is a face-to-face experience. Nothing can take the place of the direct contact and the positive vibes that produces.
Face-to-face as an important trade-off for digital interaction?
AT: Not as a trade-off, but more as a real reflection. Social media sites have completely changed the way we perceive brands. Today, people research the looks of a brand online and more often than not find the collections sorted by color at the trade fair. That no longer works. This is because retailers expect the presentation of the brand at the trade fair to mirror the virtual world in order to retail it that way, which brings us back full circle. In order to achieve that, presentation concepts need to be questioned and reconceptualized. Many brands have homework to do in this respect.
What about your own social media activities?
AT: Social media is very important to our work. In addition it is also a very good research tool, especially when it comes to small and new brands that launch and test them first on social media and then begin selling them wholesale and come to us at the trade fairs once they’ve achieved a relevant market profile. We also use social media to tell the stories about our brands and retail stores. Content and credibility are at least as relevant here as they are in conventional media. We work with various influencers, but that is constantly shifting, and we are noticing more and more that certain buyers are far more powerful influencers in our industry than traditional advertising influencers. We are very heavily committed to social media.
How does that help make you approachable?
AT: Take Seek for example. The culture at Seek is marked by transparency and cooperative, friendly relations. It often resembles a class reunion where you talk openly with everybody there about the market challenges, possible solution approaches and new business concepts. The Trade Union concept emerged from this, for example. The emphasis is on a curated portfolio of select brands which are presented to buyers side by side, a completely new idea. You need a real-world venue for this type of community. But during the time when we are apart, between trade fairs, we urgently need digital communication channels to keep ourselves up to speed and stay in touch around the world. But still, digital platforms will not take the place of real gatherings. That was the general fear five years ago. Today people know it’s a question of having both and not a question of either/or.
Seek is marking the 10th year since its inception. Maren Wiebus, what can we look forward to at the anniversary event?
Maren Wiebus (MW): We are treating ourselves to a makeover for our birthday and phasing out the rough wood optics to present ourselves with more cool, clean lines to emphasize the high-grade content of the show. There will be a huge optical wow moment. It’s important to keep our exhibitor culture intact, too. We have to do a balancing act between niche and mainstream commercial by catering to the needs of big and small brands. We always keep the buyer in focus at the same time. We are closely collaborating with everybody and moving forward together.
How is the Bright event doing? It is not being held in January.
MW: We have integrated the Bright exhibitors within our other concept formats. Not only because it’s hard to implement the B2C square footage in the winter but also because we had to restructure the space at the Berlin Arena. We’ll be back in the fast lane with Bright this summer. Skateboarding continues to be a really important topic to us as it is to the industry as well, but we don't want to do anything which isn’t solid and this season we’re concentrating on the 10th installment of Seek and restructuring Premium.
Anita Tillmann, Premium is going to New York. Why?
AT: That is a very exciting development which also has a lot to do with digitization. We’ve become a global fashion industry and there is lesser and lesser risk involved in doing the event on another continent. Using SoMe, it is very easy for retailers and consumers to learn about the brands. That’s why this is truly an ideal moment to offer our brands a platform in the United States. I wouldn’t have dared to take this step five years ago. But now I am taking the leap because I know we are a global community.
Why with Liberty?
AT: Liberty trade show is a system which has grown organically and works very well. They have positioned themselves well by acquiring the Capsule for womenswear. The portfolio is thus very suitable. Plus, we also run into the same mindset, the same attitude about brands and share the same opinion about the relevance of community. The team there is just as young and fresh as ours and their work is focused not only on the trade fairs but also on the community and relevant fashion buyers. We have a good feeling about sending our brands there for the first time in February. Sam Ben-Avraham is a retailer (Kith in NYC, Miami and LA), investor, brand owner and was the original founder of the Project Trade Show before selling it seven years later. We’ve known each other a long time and are certain we have found the perfect partner.
Editor's note: You can find a shortened version of this interview in our current issue, #287.