• ProWein’s Michael Degen on putting on world’s biggest show

    Next week sees ProWein return to its traditional timeslot in the drinks industry’s events calendar after 2022’s show was switched to May, and in 2020 and 2021 cancelled entirely due to Covid restrictions. Not surprisingly, ProWein’s executive director, Michael Degen, is hugely relieved at the return to some semblance of normality for the world’s biggest international wine and spirits trade show. He talks to Helen Arnold about the impact of the pandemic, what visitors can expect from the 2023 show and his vision for the future of the event.

    Next week sees ProWein return to its traditional timeslot in the drinks industry’s events calendar after 2022’s show was switched to May, and in 2020 and 2021 cancelled entirely due to Covid restrictions. Not surprisingly, ProWein’s executive director, Michael Degen, is hugely relieved at the return to some semblance of normality for the world’s biggest international wine and spirits trade show. He talks to Helen Arnold about the impact of the pandemic, what visitors can expect from the 2023 show and his vision for the future of the event.

    By March 15, 2023

    ProWein kicks off on March 19 and runs until March 21. You can find out what is happening and to register here. 

    Germanic efficiency may be something of a national stereotype, but it is one of ProWein’s biggest strengths according to the show’s executive director, Michael Degen. While he may be saying this in a slightly tongue in cheek manner, he is deadly serious about the importance of a well-managed show, something that visitors have come to expect of the Düsseldorf-based event.

     “Yes, I do believe our famous German efficiency plays a big part in the success of the show,” he says. “While some people think we are wine experts, our actual expertise lies in running excellent trade shows. People can rely on the quality of the service when they come to Düsseldorf.” 

    ProWein hopes to attract up to 50,000 visitors from close to 150 countries at this year’s show

    He says around 12 years ago they became aware of visitors to rival trade shows complaining about the transport, infrastructure, services and accommodation and decided then to make a concerted effort to analyse how they could offer an improved service and beat the competition. 

    “We adopted a blatantly Germanic systematic approach, which with visitors from 145 countries would be impossible to pull off without a good system,” he says. 

    It has paid off in spades, with the company priding itself on making attendance at ProWein as seamless an experience as possible for both visitors and exhibitors. From the smooth transport connections, to the carefully designed layout of the exhibition hall with its circular arrangement making for easier navigation, not a single detail has been left to chance.

    But those famed organisational skills have never been put to the test as much as in the past couple of years with the Covid pandemic resulting in unprecedented global travel restrictions, the banning of large groups of people meeting and frequent lockdowns.

    “For effective planning we ideally need six months before a show starts to be sure it will be held on a certain date and for our exhibitors and visitors to know that. Corona clearly disrupted all that,” says Degen. 

    “Before Covid I was proud to be able to tell you exactly what trade show was held when, which the pandemic made really difficult to do. We were planning all the time, then throwing away the plan and having to start afresh as new regulations kept being introduced, which made it an extremely difficult time.”

    One of the biggest revelations of Covid, says Degen, is that while everyone rapidly became accustomed to doing business and holding meetings and even wine tastings via Zoom, people soon tired of virtual meetings and started to look forward to a time when meetings could be held face to face.  

    The global drinks industry was able to rally around and show its support for Ukraine at the 2022 show and will do so again in 2023

    “When Covid started, people said it didn’t matter that we couldn’t meet in person, as we could meet digitally  and that trade shows weren’t really essential. But after two years of lockdown and not being able to meet, people got sick and tired of it, so if anything good has come out of the pandemic it is people have come to learn the importance of meeting up in person with others.”

    But with all that now – hopefully – firmly behind us, the eyes of the international drinks trade are now  focused on Düsseldorf next week.

    “No other trade event offers such a comprehensive almost complete line up of ranges and the strong demand from all over the world at the same time,” says Degen, pointing out that over 80% of the approximate 6,000 exhibitors are from 61 overseas countries, including most wine growing nations and regions. 

    Traditionally Italy has been the biggest exhibiting country with around 1,400 producers showcasing their wines, while the French aren’t far behind with around 1,000 exhibitors, including 150 Champagne houses and brands. Host country Germany comes in third place with around 700 exhibitors, with all 13 of the country’s wine growing regions well represented. 

    Huge growth 

    ProWein has grown over the last 25 years to become the biggest international wine and spirits show in the world

    The show, which held its inaugural event in 1994 with only 321 exhibitors and around 1,500 visitors has since snowballed into the world’s number one wine and spirits trade show, attracting over 6,000 exhibitors and some 67,000 visitors at its peak in 2019. Last year numbers were, unsurprisingly, down to around 38,000, with Degen hoping for around 50,000 this year. “We are not quite where we were in 2019,” he confirms. 

    However, if testament were ever needed as to the importance of ProWein to the international wine and drinks trade, Degen says it had a significant number of visitors from Korea and Japan at last year’s show last year, despite being forced into a 10-day quarantine on their return. 

    “We had Asian visitors signing up from the outset, but being prepared to isolate yourself for 10 days shows how important people believe the show to be.”

    The exhibition space was expanded in 2022 to enable visitors to move around in wider aisles to minimise the risk of spreading Covid, enabling visitors to feel more comfortable says Degen, and there will be a similar amount of space this year.

    Prowein’s USP

    Apart from the aforementioned German efficiency, Degen thinks that the show’s other main USP is its international focus. “We are undoubtedly the most international of shows, and this was something that was our intention from the very outset,” he claims.  

    The corporate structure of ProWein’s owners, Messe Düsseldorf, which also run leading trade shows for the packaging, printing and plastic industries, amongst others, has helped ProWein to grow into the huge behemoth it is today. 

    ProWein believes its USP is that it is a truly global wine and spirits show with buyers and producers from all over the world

    It benefits from an international network of 70 offices in over 100 countries enabling ProWein to tap into numerous markets, and for each country representative with their own specialist local knowledge to sell space and bring in visitors.  “In Australia, for example, ProWein is their most important show and they bring in more exhibitors to ProWein than any of the other exhibitions. This is the DNA of ProWein. “

    All the world’s a stage

    “This is what makes us very different,” continues Degen. “At the outset German exhibitors came to us saying that ProWein is a German trade show and you have to support us in a special way and give us more prominence. But the unique concept of ProWein is that everyone is equal to each other – even the Germans. 

    “In Verona, for example, Vinitaly is a showcase for Italian winemakers, and at Wine Paris & Vinexpo Paris, French winemakers dominate – it is very much their show. However, we feel worldwide buyers don’t come to ProWein simply for German wine – though of course they will find that too –  but they come to Düsseldorf for a good overview of the entire international market. So we get New York importers coming to Düsseldorf to look at Australian winemakers, for instance. “

    Sustainability of trade events

    While critics question whether it is sustainable and appropriate in the long term for events such as ProWein to encourage the industry to fly from all corners of the globe to attend, Degen claims it is actually a very efficient way of doing business. 

    “Take that New York importer – by taking one flight to Düsseldorf he can meet his suppliers from California, Washington and Oregon under one roof, rather than having to take three flights within the US to meet those same suppliers.”

    ProWein is also a great opportunity to taste wines from all over the world and take part In a vast number of tastings and masterclasses

    What, then, would Degen consider a successful show? He says it all boils down to the all-important visitor numbers. “The numbers are absolutely crucial this year because last year of course we didn’t have the size and the number of visitors we had in 2019. This is particularly the case when they are coming directly from Wine Paris where they will have experienced a good, well run successful show.  That is absolutely the most important factor that we can come back on the level of visitors we used to have.”

    Degen is also acutely conscious of the fact exhibitors and visitors alike will now, more than ever, be weighing up the respective merits of every trade show, particularly with the emergence of Wine Paris & Vinexpo Paris, in terms of what they deliver to the bottom line. Offering a great experience to all visitors is vital, he says.

    “We are highly aware attending and exhibiting at trade shows is an expensive business, so we must deliver a proposition that offers value for money. At the end of the day when exhibitors go back home the financial controller will be waiting to see the numbers, so they have best view of which show offers the best return on investment. Ultimately it is always the business on the stand which is the deciding factor.”

    Attracting visitors 

    So how is ProWein going about attracting more visitors to the event? Heavy spending on worldwide marketing is one factor, though the budget is not being distributed equally around the globe. 

    “ProWein is already well known within the industry in Europe, and is a firm fixture in the calendar,” says Degen. “But in Asia the show is less of a fixture, so we are concentrating most of our efforts in that market.”

    A key part of ProWein’s strategy is to work with generic bodies and wine organisations around the world and use them to recruit producers and visitors to the show

    Forget traditional advertising, Degen says it’s now social media all the way, as well as working closely with writers, building partnerships with the likes of the WSET, Masters of Wine and national bodies such as Business France, who come to ProWein with some 800 exhibitors and take 4,000 square meters of exhibition space.

    “They have a strong, vested interest that the visitor numbers are high so they are encouraged to send out invitations to potential visitors. The German Wine Institute also do their own marketing to encourage visitor numbers.”  

    This, says Degen, is the most effective way of boosting visitor numbers, adding that it is not only the trade show organisers who should promote the show, but the exhibitors too.

    “Getting the exhibitors themselves to be pro-active and issue invitations is one of the best ways of promoting the show. The best exhibitors for us are those who feel a kind of responsibility for the joint success of the show. And of course, if an exhibitor invites someone, then they will generally feel obliged to visit that exhibitor’s stand, making it a win-win situation. We are very dependent on the willingness and power of the exhibitors to help us on this front.”

    Tinder for business

    ProWein is all about doing business – with back to back meetings taking place all over the show

    Additionally, exhibitors can make use of the digital matchmaking tool which aims to help exhibitors and visitor get in touch more easily by putting their content into the online tool which helps winemakers and buyers team up. Degen describes it as: “Like Tinder for the business.” 

    This is still in transition, according to Degen, with some exhibitors using it extensively while others are yet to be convinced. But he says used well it can help arrange appointments for personal and virtual meetings during the trade fair and increase the change of making valuable new contacts.  

    Key show themes

    So what are the main themes and trends that visitors will be able to explore? One of the hottest topics in the drinks sector is the ongoing shift towards low and no alcohol drinks, which is enjoying growth across much of the globe as millennials shun the drinking habits of their parents and embrace a cleaner, healthier lifestyle. 

    “I admit it’s not a sector I took seriously until quite recently,” says Degen. “However, it is clear this is going to become bigger and bigger as the years go on, helped by the fact dealcoholised wines are becoming so much better.”

    This sector will be showcased at ProWein by World of Zero, the ideal place to learn more about the burgeoning sector. As part of the whole trend towards drinking responsibly, Wine in Moderation, the international programme that encourages responsible and moderate wine consumption, will also be in attendance at this year’s event.

    Focus on spirits 

    Spirits is a key part of ProWein with around 500 producers taking part

    ProWein is also not all about the wine, but does also have a whole section dedicated to around 500 spirits suppliers, from Armagnac to Zapaca rum. Craft beers, spirits and ciders can be discovered in the Same But Different area, which has been set up to help drinks brands showcase their latest trend setting drinks alongside new advances in gastronomy. A particular highlight of the trend show will be the Same but Different BAR by Denmark featuring a number of tastings and new taste experiences in two classrooms.

    Following its debut last year, the Urban Gastronomy by restaurateur and wine sommelier Toni Askitis will be back with four daily workshops aimed at showing food service staff how to handle and work with wine.

    The Trend Hour Tastings will also feature the latest in alternative packaging and the chance to taste who wine performs in different formats. 

    Vision for future

    As to the future of ProWein, Degen says he is not interested in the show expanding in terms of exhibitor numbers, but is more focused on boosting visitors. “We already have, for example, 1,400 Italian winemakers, so what would be the point of having 1500? That cannot be our aim, there would be no differentiation. What would it add to have another 50? No, what we are focused on is attracting more visitors.”

    As well as ramping up the number of visitors, another long-term focus for Degen and his team is to build up the numerous international satellite events that have been complementing ProWein since 2013 when ProWine Shanghai was launched. 

    ProWein Shanghai is a key part of the show’s growing international profile to take ProWein around the world

    “We definitely want to grow the worldwide satellite events – for example, Wine Shanghai with around 6,000 exhibitors in a 6,000 square metre space is currently only 10% of the size of ProWein, so there is considerable potential for growth,” he adds. 

    Other international events in the ProWein stable include  ProWine Singapore, ProWine Hong Kong, ProWine Mumbaai and ProWine Sao Paulo. And the latest member of the international ProWein family is ProWine Tokyo which will launch its inaugural event in 2024. This formerly operated as part of the Wine & Gourmet Japan show, but as from next year Messe Düsseldorf will be taking over the wine section and rebranding it as ProWineTokyo.

    “Everyone from the industry has been telling us for years that the market in Tokyo from the visitor side is very interesting,” says Degen. “There are so many very well educated and mature buyers and consumers which for quality wine makers makes it a super interesting market.”

    Pivotal year 

    It’s a key year for ProWein to get back to business in its traditional month of March

    But for now all focus is on Dusseldorf and ensuring ProWein 2023 plays its part in helping to get the global wine and spirits world back to some sort of normal. 

    For the industry continues to be bumped and buffeted by the fall out of Covid and the impact of the Russian and Ukrainian war and consequent knock-on issues with the supply chain, increased dry goods, packaging costs and the huge shortages in glass bottles. ProWein 2023 will gave producers and buyers alike the opportunity to meet face to face and get back to doing productive business together.  

    Just hope they have put on more some hot dog stands… 

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