After the Corona Pandemic: Back to Business

Press release from 08.07.2021

In an interview with Wirtschaftliche Nachrichten/ IHK Aachen, Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz, Managing Director of WWM GmbH & Co. KG, about the trade fair business during the Corona pandemic and what solutions WWM brought to the market during this time. Source: www.aachen.ihk.de

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And suddenly trade fairs were banned: How did the Corona pandemic affect the event industry? A visit with Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz, Managing Director of WWM GmbH & Co. KG, based in Monschau.

When virtual worlds are created, it happens right here: in an old warehouse in Imgenbroich, where everything is somewhat reminiscent of Google Office style. Cables hang from the ceiling, along with a few large black lights, and there are several screens on the white tables. Next door, a 3-D artist is rebuilding a rocket station that will soon host a three-day event - all digitally, of course. Cornelsen is also getting a lavishly designed, brick-and-mortar virtual brand space where up to 2,000 teachers will regularly receive training in webinars. "On certain event days, we get up to 30,000 hours of content distribution," says Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz, managing director of WWM GmbH & Co. KG

In 2005, the doctor of business informatics - who is also a member of the IHK plenary assembly - took over the trade fair construction company from his father; in 2016, he opened the "WWM Lab," and at the beginning of 2019, he founded ExpoCloud GmbH. Coppeneur-Gülz's idea: to attack WWM's old business model with a small team of ten employees and completely rethink it. Now the "Lab" has successfully carried the medium-sized company through the crisis: "That was our turbo during the pandemic," emphasizes the 40-year-old as he makes his way through the still dormant large-scale printing plant, past the many pallet storage spaces for the trade show equipment, to the meeting rooms, which at WWM are called "Lagerfeld," "Warhol," "La Chapelle" or "Newton." In an interview with Wirtschaftliche Nachrichten, Coppeneur-Gülz talks about sleepless nights, innovative trade show formats and the value of personal encounters.

Business News: How did you experience the pandemic months? In trade show construction, business collapsed completely right at the beginning.

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: In March 2020, the trade fairs were banned - it's like a professional ban. You can no longer do your job. At the time, digital business accounted for ten percent of our sales. That means that if around 90 percent disappears from one day to the next, you have a business problem.

Business News: What happened next with the WWM?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz:What came immediately was the short-time working program: all companies in the industry - including WWM - had to take advantage of it. Without the program, it wouldn't have worked at all, but it also only helps to a limited extent. At our logistics hub in Alsdorf, for example, we employ almost 30 people who suddenly had nothing to do. But the fixed costs that continue to be incurred by a company of this size are still quite a lot. The months of March, April and May were very tough. Then came the first bridging aids: These were simply structured and helped us. You always hear on the market that the aid didn't arrive - but I can't confirm that. We applied for the aid and received it.

Business News: What was the mood like in the company?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz:Of course, there were discussions about when it would start again. In March 2020, I actually said to our people: It's the flu, everything will be back in the fall - don't worry about it. But then you realize: Normality won't return, we won't be back in business any time soon.

Business News: When did interest in your digital solutions flare up?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: Starting in May 2020, the inquiries went up rapidly - in fact, we've never had as many inquiries for our digital products and services as we did in the spring of 2020. It's just that nobody ordered.

Business News: Why not?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: Companies have realized: Live communication doesn't work now, we have to switch to digital - but how does that even work? In April and May, I worked twelve hours a day on the phone - from one call to another, from Asia to America, explaining to people how it works. Our luck was that we had already developed the products and were already on the market. But no one ordered. I guess the hope was still: we'll go on vacation in July and August and when we come back, the old world will be back. But because that wasn't the case, there was a flurry of orders in September!

Business News: How did the company manage to prepare for the big rush in digital?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: We looked: What resources do we have in the company? Some of our current 3D artists previously designed our physical trade show booths - a challenging task! They have moved from trade show construction and design to the new unit and are now creating the virtual worlds there. ExpoCloud has also handed over people so that we can manage the know-how transfer quickly. Back in September, we were able to reduce short-time work for certain employee groups and increased the salaries of all employees on short-time work to one hundred percent - that was a very, very important step. Because, what we all overlook: There are employees, for example warehouse staff, who have now been on short-time working for well over a year. This is not only a psychological problem for the employees, but also a financial one. We also
had layoffs in the company in the spring. Employees who said: We're sorry, we don't know what's happening, and we have a family to support.
we have a family to support. Since September, we have now had virtually no staff turnover in the company.

Business News: After the shock in March 2020: When did the feeling return that - at least from a business perspective - all was well with the world again?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: Towards the end of the year, at Christmas, we knew: No matter what happens now, we are back in business - despite the ongoing fixed costs in the area of traditional trade show construction. We realized that in the long term, digital would enable us to emerge from the crisis even stronger.

Business News: Has the pandemic led to digitization in the industry overall?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: The pandemic did not lead to digitization, but it accelerated it. Digitization was already there. That can be applied to many areas of life: Without the pandemic, people would never have asked whether we could teach students online or whether employees could work entirely in their home offices. That simply wouldn't have been done. But we can see that it is possible. We've been offering customers our digital solutions in the ExpoCloud for two years now, but they wanted to continue to rely on the real, physical trade show, which I don't question either. It makes sense. People weren't ready - no one wanted to risk going digital.

Business News: What will remain after the crisis? The students return to the schools, but the booths remain in the virtual world?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: We believe that digital will account for more than 30 percent of our business by the end of the crisis. The physical trade show will not disappear. We could have done this interview via teams - but then a lot will be lost. But: The trade show will change. Germany stands for the IAA, for the Hannover Messe, with its large trade fair areas. But this concept will decline, instead we will move to what I call a "trilogy", a congress format. There are lectures there, which means I can get further training, there is an accompanying exhibition with small booths, and I have an area in the congress hotel where I can make contacts. Successful events - and the trade fair is, after all, a form of event - have precisely this trilogy of "education", "exhibition" and "networking". So we will see that the classic trade fairs will become smaller. And with that, the development plays right into the WWM area - we've never done 10,000 square meter booths. We feel very comfortable in the area under 500 square meters, that's exactly our world. And that's where it will go - in our opinion.

Business News: What's missing when the trade show business is purely digital? The personal encounter?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: Some appointments that we used to travel for, we now do via MS teams. And that's not even worse, it's good. The companies will no longer say that you're going to Hamburg for a one-hour appointment, preferably with an overnight stay, and then you're going back the next day. But if the permanent, personal exchange that is so important no longer takes place, then we look for events where we can meet. And that's why we believe live communication has to come back, because we want to see each other! We want to talk to each other, have a drink, network. That's why I'm convinced that this will come back, and I even believe that we will see growth in the small congress formats. For one thing, the big IAA topics will push down into this format, and field service customer visits, to take one example, will push up into this area from the bottom, so to speak. It's important to understand that the crisis has not caused a technological disruption from state A to state B, such as - to oversimplify - from the carriage to the car. Rather, state A was banned, so only B remained, even though B is not better, but just different from A. And at some point, state A will return, but B will remain because it also has advantages and strengths. I believe that in the future you have to play on both playing fields - you have to be able to do the "real" and the "virtual". Neither will disappear.

Business News: There are long lead times in trade fair construction: An exhibition stand is often commissioned as soon as the current trade fair is over. How can the start succeed?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: The "red alert" campaign that went through the media showed that the event industry is Germany's sixth-largest economic sector - with 130 billion euros in sales and over one million employees. The bad thing is that this industry was the first to close, and it will be the last to come out of this phase. Because, just as you say, a trade show, an IAA, has twelve months of lead time, which means twelve months before I place an order and then it is executed. If the customer has no certainty that the trade show will take place, he won't order it. But we hope that the first test balloons will now take place in the fall, so that the major clients will say, I'll risk it. There has to be the signal out there: There is a trade show, it has been planned and it has been carried out! For a year now, we have only known: "was planned and not carried out". Now we need "planned and carried out" so that the market will start again normally in 2022. The legal situation - in March, April, May 2020, I had to deal almost exclusively with these issues - was, after all, as follows: If a customer orders a trade fair stand for half a million, and the organizer says the trade fair cannot take place, the facts of force majeure do not occur. For that to happen, there has to be an official cancellation of the trade fair - but that didn't come until May. This was a dilemma for exhibitors, organizers and stand builders. Now, in the fall, trade fairs are allowed to take place again - but here too, from a legal point of view, there must be someone responsible if they cannot take place after all.

Business News: Was there an assignment during the pandemic months that was particularly nice or especially exciting?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: That's hard to say, because there are two hearts beating in my chest: one real and one digital. We were particularly pleased that we won our biggest customer ever in conventional trade show construction at the turn of the year. Unfortunately, we can't do anything for him at the moment, but that will come. In digital, an international pharmaceutical company that has been using our digital solution since 2020 has now decided to roll it out globally. That's a bit like a knighthood.

Business News: Digital will account for more than 30 percent of your business after the crisis, the old world is also coming back. What growth do you expect in 2022?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: When the old business comes back next year, we expect the company to grow by 20 to 30 percent. The anticipation is already starting - it's going to be a cool number! But it will also put a lot of stress on the company - we've moved almost 20 percent of our employees into the digital areas. We've already asked if the employees would like to go back to the old, analog area when the crisis is over, but they say, "Do I have to?" They feel comfortable in that area and want to stay. So we have to scale extremely quickly and look at where we can get the resources. We now have many open full-time and apprenticeship positions in web design, media design and product design advertised for the Monschau and Alsdorf sites, and we need to fill them now. That's why we're happy if the trade show business starts slowly in the fall for the time being.

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Business News: 2020 was a roller coaster of emotions - how did you cope personally?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: In the first weeks and months, I slept very badly. But you're still an entrepreneur and have to motivate people. That's the challenge: that in the first period you go home and could cry, and the next day you're standing here again, with a smile on your face, saying that it's going to start again soon. That something will happen again! And you don't actually have that certainty. But what has motivated me immensely is that the ideas we had, which no one wanted before, are now working - that is of course extremely satisfying. But above all, we have so many intelligent, capable people in the company who can rethink, who are themselves super motivated and totally open. The crisis has shown us: We are one of the most agile companies in the industry - and exactly in the sense that I always imagined and wished for.

Business News: Some companies in the industry have certainly fallen by the wayside....

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: In one of my lectures at university, I said: When a market changes, there will always be winners and losers, in a very, very rapid change. That's totally casual, explaining to students: Change is an opportunity! But when I stood there in April, with my back against the wall, it wasn't so easy anymore. But that's basically what happened: If you go with the current requirements, you can make a lot of difference in a situation like that. The sad thing is that many great and competent companies in the industry couldn't even switch to digital solutions that quickly or didn't have enough liquidity to wait for the bridging support. That's when some players disappear from the market - and not necessarily always the bad ones.

Business News: You set up a "lab" in 2016 with the task of rethinking the business model. Is the innovation process suffering under the pressure of having to be profitable now?

Dr. Christian Coppeneur-Gülz: For us, "Always challenge the old ways." That's a classic theme of this culture. When we started the "WWM Lab" and ExpoCloud, we told people they didn't have to be profitable. That's brave in the free economy, of course, but WWM was strong enough that we could afford such a small unit. That doesn't mean, by the way, that people are then less productive. But it is precisely this freedom that is needed to digitally attack existing rules or habits in an industry. I wouldn't say there was any pressure to make it work now - it was already working. Rather, people have now seen that what we developed wasn't just a gimmick, but that there are customers who will pay money for it. Now, of course, at some point the time will come that we would have to develop a second Lab - because the original idea of attacking and rethinking things has become a reality. The Lab is now operational, part of the organization, developing products that are bought. After all, there's that saying, "The success of the present is the worst thing that can happen to you for the future." That reminds me of a conversation I had with a board member of a German engineering company. He said, "We have 10,000 employees and I'm not afraid of the competition at all. And then he said, "I'm afraid of two students in a shared apartment in Berlin who don't know the rules of our industry and break them. These are exactly the rule breakers we need!

From Anja Nolte
Source https://www.aachen.ihk.de/blueprint
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