The minds behind IMEX Frankfurt 2016 discuss the show’s complex software, long-term partnerships and balancing the latest tech with a personal touch.
If you walked into the small IT office at IMEX Frankfurt, you might not believe it’s the base for a unique software system that has been 15 years in the making.
“The fun thing is that back then, none of us really had any inkling of what we wanted,” says Simon Clayton, chief ideas officer at RefTech. “The reason it’s stood up so well for so many years is that we built in flexibility to start with.”
IMEX, which has shows in Frankfurt and Las Vegas, has become a mainstay in the incentive travel and meetings sector in part due to its emphasis on pre-scheduled appointments.
An event registration and badging company, RefTech was selected in 2001 (two years before the first IMEX exhibition) to build a bespoke backend system for the show. The result was a portal for hosted buyers and exhibitors allowing them to connect online before the show.
One of the main benefits of this system is that buyers and exhibitors can exchange information and send proposals before they meet in person. According to IMEX CEO Carina Bauer, this helps both sides have a more efficient two days:
“Ultimately they’ve only got 30 minutes, and by the time they arrive and say hello it’s more like 25. The people that use the technology well can have a really productive time,” she tells EN.
“It’s all about trying to maximise the value of the time that people have here,” Clayton adds. “The last thing they want to do is wander around aimlessly. You’re making the event more valuable for everyone concerned.”
Peaks and troughs
According to Clayton, one of the quietest periods for the portal is during the show itself.
“In the run up to the show there are so many people making so many appointments,” he explains. “One of the problems is that you get peaks and troughs in demand. At 8am on Monday morning you suddenly get all the really proactive exhibitors going ‘right, got to send an email’.”
In the run up to the show an average buyer can expect to receive between 2,500 and 3,000 emails, which means that in total the website will be required to host millions of emails.
“It’s a huge load on the server,” continues Clayton, “We have to do a lot of work in the background to ensure that it carries on being responsive. There’s a huge amount that goes on behind the scenes that no one every really notices or thinks about. And that’s how it should be.
“I’ve said many times that if software does what it’s designed to do then no one should notice it. It’s when it does something wrong that people get annoyed. And it’s only when it does something incredible that people get excited.”
The personal touch
The collaboration between IMEX and RefTech is far from the only long-running business relationship the show has brought about.
“For us it’s all about partnerships and learning to work together,” says Nikki Williams, director of hosted buyer programmes at IMEX. Williams is celebrating her 20th year working with IMEX Group CEO Ray Bloom.
“The team is so important to Ray,” continues Williams. “Without the team there wouldn’t be IMEX. If there’s something bad that you have to tell someone then you have to go and talk to them face to face.”
Every year Bloom stands at the bottom of the stairs and shakes hands with visitors as they leave the show.
“People are always surprised to see you in person because they see IMEX as this big faceless machine,” adds Williams.
This perception is likely due to the success of the show, which this year welcomed almost 9,000 visitors and more than 3,500 exhibiting companies.
For CEO Carina Bauer, the popularity of the show is easily explained: “Online is great, technology is great, but it can only take you so far. We try and get people to the point that when they’re meeting face-to- face it’s a productive conversation.
“It’s not by luck that people are doing lots of business on the show floor. It’s something that takes detailed understanding and detailed writing.”
When asked to account for the success of the relationship between IMEX and RefTech, Bauer thinks for a moment, before saying “Simon is very skilled at listening to what we say we want, and then working out what it is we actually want.”
IMEX Frankfurt 2016 took place on 19-21 April at Messe Frankfurt.