The history of an exhibition phenomenon

RAI Amsterdam has a rich history. What started out in 1893 as Vereniging 'De Rijwiel-Industrie' (Association 'the Bicycle Industry) has, over slightly more than a century, developed into a leading international exhibition and conference organisation.

Over a century of experience

The RAI Amsterdam complex situated on what is commonly referred to as the southern axis (Zuidas) of Amsterdam is nowadays one of the busiest trade fair and conference centres in the world. Since its opening in 1961, it has received well over 100 million visitors. Prior to 1961, the RAI was situated in a building on the Ferdinand Bolstraat in Amsterdam (the 'Oude RAI') for forty years. During the early years up until 1922, the RAI did not have its own exhibition centre, but used the famous, now no longer extant, Paleis voor Volksvlijt (Amsterdam Exhibition Palace). The first RAI exhibition was organised there in 1895. In other words, the RAI can count on over a century of experience!

RAI Architecture over the years*

*Click on the image to expand in new window.

Paleis voor Volksvlijt

In 1893, a number of bicycle manufacturers started the Vereniging 'De Rijwiel-Industrie' due to their dissatisfaction with the explosive growth of bicycle exhibitions in all sorts of places. According to the manufacturers, the cost of participating in all these events was becoming untenable. This is why they decided to organise their own bicycle exhibition: a national event that would be held once a year. The first of these took place in 1895 at the Paleis voor Volksvlijt in Amsterdam. Eleven more exhibitions of bicycles, motorcycles and cars were to follow up until the First World War.

R.I. becomes R.A.I.

Because the production of bicycles and cars was usually the realm of the same technically-minded amateurs and entrepreneurs it was a logical step to – quite quickly – expand the name 'Rijwiel-Industrie' with the 'A' for auto [car]. This is how, in 1900, the 'RI' became the 'RAI'.

Its own building

A serious lack of space at the Paleis voor Volksvlijt soon made the RAI seek out another exhibition centre. In 1922, the RAI opened its own building on the Ferdinand Bolstraat in Amsterdam. What was initially intended as a temporary, five-year solution became its permanent home for the next almost forty years and the building is still known as the 'Oude RAI' [the old RAI]. As early as in 1925 and 1928, the necessary expansions were built bringing the total surface area to 13,000 m2. The annual RAI exhibition started attracting increasing numbers of exhibitors and visitors. After the Second World War, sector-specific trade fairs really took off.

The magical AutoRAI

Due to the great demand for stand space, the RAI decided to organise separate exhibitions for private and commercial vehicles in 1950. Other subdivisions soon followed and other parties’ events soon meant the RAI building was becoming too small. Because the association could not fund the building of a new, large exhibition complex itself, the RAI asked the Municipality of Amsterdam whether it would be interested in becoming a partner in the venture. The latter was only too happy to do so because of the favourable effects this would have on the regional economy.

Public-Private Partnership avant la lettre

So this is how, in 1956 a public-private partnership avant la lettre developed. The RAI Vereniging and the Municipality of Amsterdam created a limited partnership which funded the operation of the new RAI, which was hived off from the RAI Vereniging*. Since then, the RAI Vereniging has no longer profiled itself as an exhibition club but as an interest group for mobility and road transport.

Prince Bernard opens Europacomplex

RAI Amsterdam Convention Centre

In 1961, the new, already world-famous Europe hall on the Europaplein in the south of Amsterdam was opened by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. A separate private limited company was set up to operate the building called RAI Gebouw bv. Later on this was incorporated into Amsterdam RAI bv.
The West Hall was added in 1963 and the Conference Centre in 1965. The combination of exhibition halls and conference facilities including restaurants proved to be a brilliant move. From then on, the RAI’s development accelerated. In 1969, the Amstel Hall was added and in 1982, Prince Claus of the Netherlands opened the Holland Complex. At the same time, six conference and meeting rooms were added to the Conference Centre. After the major expansion in 1993 (the Park Hall), the RAI Tentoonstellings- en Congrescentrum [Exhibition and Conference Centre] consisted of 11 halls, 22 conference rooms and seven restaurants.

RAI in the 21st century

The new facade of the RAI is taking shape in an era when the company is increasingly focused on international, multi-day events. These are the result of market developments and a continuous growth in the appeal of the city of Amsterdam. The opening of the RAI Elicium on 29 September 2009 by His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange was the first physical milestone in the new millennium. In this digital age, the RAI has been carefully studying the options to connect ‘virtual’ and ‘physical’ meetings, while retaining its focus on personal face-to-face encounters. One of the ways this has been expressed was in the (Spatial) Future Vision RAI report, published in 2011. This saw RAI Amsterdam and the Zuidas Service of the City of Amsterdam jointly commit to the RAI staying at its current location and focusing on sustainable development. This vision is being realised via the construction of the multifunctional Amtrium building (2015), a new multifunctional parking building (2016) and the longstanding wish for the RAI to have its own hotel. The nhow Amsterdam RAI hotel is expected to open in mid-2019.