Rai COO Maurits van der Sluis and a meeting room full of people looking at large screens
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Q&A with RAI COO Maurits van der Sluis: Reflecting on recovery of exhibition sector and future of live events

Maurits van der Sluis
Tuesday, 6 June 2023

Like everyone involved in managing a leading exhibition company and venue, COO Maurits van der Sluis is still dealing with the aftershock of COVID-19 abruptly closing RAI Amsterdam’s doors in 2020. In this Q&A he shares some of his learnings from these challenging years and looks ahead to how a new era of exhibitions is panning out… Clue, not an enormous amount has changed!

How has the recovery period been for the sector, with exhibitors now booking spaces and visitors keen to attend?
“Well, it’s all relative as we started out from a position of zero revenue in March 2020 when the pandemic first struck. We were briefly open in the summer of 2021, but that was a chaotic time as we’d had little time to prepare and there was a great deal of uncertainty about the future. Only in the spring of 2022 could we fully reopen and this time we were as ready as one could be in a time of war in Ukraine, an energy crisis and global staff shortages. The remarkable thing was that international exhibitions quickly returned to the previous level, although it did take a little longer for national exhibitions to follow suit.”

Which types of exhibition recovered first?
“Major events like Interclean quickly returned to the level of 2019. That said, it will take a long while to make up the lost revenues from 2020 and 2021. The healthy and relevant exhibitions bounced back, but the weaker concepts that were already struggling were further weakened during the pandemic and didn’t survive. It’s simple: if an exhibition is healthy and relevant, it will bounce back even from a crisis like this. If people didn’t really miss you, however, then you’re gone.”

Has anything significant changed in your industry?
"We did face criticism when we asserted that live meetings would continue to exist in the long term. ‘They said the same thing about the coal mines in the 1950s’ came the response from some quarters. However, while the online parties and Zoom drinks were fun in the beginning, most of us had soon had enough. That’s one of the reasons why events such as Huishoudbeurs and Cisco Live bounced back to how they used to be. While the online options have clearly progressed, the business model for hybrid trade shows is not as attractive as in-person events. The fact is that people still want to meet each face-to-face whenever possible."

Was the RAI committed to hybrid events for a period of time?
"Sure, we have all the studios ready, but to be fair not much use is being made of them. I thought streaming would continue partially, but online trade shows simply don't work; online trading and networking feels artificial."

Did the RAI generate much revenue from online trade shows and hybrid events?
Not a lot, although it did add some value to exhibitions. The only thing that’s really changed after COVID it seems is that people have stopped wearing ties!"

Are there any new business models being explored, or is the focus on attracting more trade shows and selling more space?
"First and foremost everything revolves around creating value for your customers. Do that and the results will follow. You also have to ensure that ticket buyers get their money's worth. While the business model of meetings clearly has a future, you have to keep an eye on new developments. The internet hasn't replaced face-to-face meetings, but it has added something. That's why I also expect the Metaverse to have an impact on the business. Another aspect to consider is that people will start making critical choices about whether or not to travel to a trade show because of their carbon footprint, and we have to deal with that. But I don't think people will stop traveling."

Is there a role for extending the reach of exhibitions and building community throughout the year?
"Absolutely. We see meetings as the peak moment for communities, although we will increasingly function as matchmakers throughout the year. Managing that community is perfect for us. We can bring people together physically and online. The challenge is that there is no direct revenue model for us in the digital sphere, but you have to see it as a comprehensive concept. That's why we also have a digital strategy focused on the community function. It is the combination that is the revenue model, not the individual components. We also therefore seek partnerships. For instance, while the RAI is a global leader in water technology trade shows, there are many communities within that sector and we put a lot of effort into building partnerships with parties with an established audience."

What does revenue generation look like for RAI Amsterdam in the short term?
"We have lost almost 200 million in revenue that we’ll never regain and have also incurred debts that are being paid off. RAI Amsterdam is a healthy company and doing everything possible to recover. The focus is on our core business, and we’re working on our plan to further enhance the exhibition area. Occupancy of our venue is good, and we can grow internationally with our own exhibitions. Having come through the storm, we’re now firmly back on course. As one of our key values states, ‘the RAI is a house of events and the home for your industry’. All that and more is available at the heart of one of the greatest cities on earth."