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What We Learned From IMEX Frankfurt 2023

Skift Take

IMEX Frankfurt 2023 was the first truly post-Covid IMEX show in Europe. As the industry tries to figure out what normal means, the show must go on!

Skift Meetings was on site at IMEX Frankfurt 2023 last week and got to experience first-hand how the business events industry responded to the first post-Covid IMEX show in Europe.

The IMEX shows are a microcosm of the business events industry. A healthy IMEX means a healthy industry. Last year there was still a lot of uncertainty around vaccinations and travel, meaning that many exhibitors and buyers could not be there. This year was different; it was somewhat normal. As the industry tries to figure out just what normal means, the show must go on!

Here are 12 things we learned from IMEX Frankfurt 2023. Make sure you watch the video for more details.

1. New Branding Same Show

IMEX has a new brand for both shows, but it is the same show. The brand has evolved with new colors and shapes, and it was displayed all around the show. But it is the same show, which is great. The IMEX Social Team, which I was part of a long time ago, has now really evolved and is creating some great content on social media. Do check that out on IMEX’s social media channels.

2. Overwhelming: FOMO By Design

The show is large, with just under 12,000 total participants. It is, therefore, overwhelming by design. I constantly feared missing out, even though I was there. You want to be everywhere, meet everyone, and do many different things. And of course, it’s only three days, and you can’t do many things because they happen simultaneously and you can’t meet everybody. So managing that feeling is a challenge in itself. In many ways, I prefer smaller events where you can connect with everybody and managing your time is simpler.

3. Big Appointment Technology Change

ExpoPlatform is the new technology provider for the appointment system at IMEX. As with any complex technology project, not everyone is happy. Some people complained that they didn’t get the appointments that they wanted. Others said the software didn’t work. On the flip side, others said the software worked great, and they had a complete diary filled with appointments. Change is hard, especially if you’re an exhibitor that’s been used to doing the same thing every year. There are definitely challenges, but this is the first year of a massive technology and process change. I expect things will get smoother and better as the partnership and technology evolve over the next few years.

4. Event Technology Is Not a Main Focus

The event tech zone felt smaller. At the closing press conference, IMEX CEO Carina Bauer said it wasn’t, but other areas of the show were larger, so it may have felt smaller. In contrast, Cvent had a large double-decker stand away from the tech area, which was very busy. Cvent CEO Reggie Aggarwal was on site for most of the show, meeting with clients and partners, clearly happy with Cvent’s recent sale to Blackstone. 

The somewhat lackluster event tech area raises some questions about whether the planner who procures meeting space and hotels is the same person procuring event technology. In the case of virtual event technology, I believe this is diverging. Still, some event tech companies feel the leads they get at IMEX or similar trade shows are extremely valuable. 

5. Core Attendance Drivers Are Unchanged

Of course, the core of IMEX is all about exploring what’s new at destinations and with properties with a view to booking business. There are stand presentations where you can learn about a destination and the all-important one-on-one business appointments. There were 57,700 meetings recorded this year at IMEX Frankfurt, still far from the almost 70,000 in 2019. Still, 47,700 one-on-one appointments and 10,000 group and stand presentations create a lot of business.

6. The Show Floor Is the Main Stage

It’s hard to step away from the show floor. This real buzz happens when people from all around the world are meeting and connecting. That’s the magic of that in-person trade show activity. Exhibitors traditionally serve up drinks and provide a lot of catering at IMEX Frankfurt, and this year was no different. Natural light also helps. The Mandalay Bay Convention Center, the host venue of IMEX America, lacks this natural light, so it feels very different.

7. Cultural Mix Reflected in Booth Design

The cultural mix is really fascinating. If you’re familiar with the book, “Kiss, Bow Or Shake Hands”, IMEX Frankfurt is the perfect place to apply its learnings. At the show, different destinations showcase different ways of living using different booth designs and activations. Some host ribbon-cutting ceremonies at the start of the show and invite dignitaries to do the honors. Some stands are very open with shared table tops, which tends to reflect a more Western direct and down-to-business approach. On the flip side, some stands have private and luxurious meeting spaces that feel formal and prestigious.

8. Impressive Activations

Festivalization is a reality, and it is embodied in brand activations. These come through at booths and other parts of the show. From sustainability pledges to stands showing off interactive technology to impressive and immersive audio-visual displays and plenty of musical entertainment as well. Also worth mentioning is the IMEXrun, a “sweatworking” opportunity for the more active participants that is a welcomed contrast to full days on a busy trade show floor.

9. Navigation is a Challenge

IMEX is a relatively large and compact show. Comprehending all that is on offer and where things are located is challenging, especially for beginners. Some attendees I met were unaware of the education sessions and activations happening in Hall 9. 

All the stands are carefully labeled on the show floor, but there are challenges in navigating as a whole. Sometimes where an appointment is booked is not obvious. For example, you might book a meeting with a Brazilian DMC and expect them to be on the Brazil booth. However, they may actually be on the other side of the show floor on a DMC consortium booth. This happens way too often to buyers and visitors alike. Anyone who’s there for the first time will find it overwhelming, no matter how many emails they read. But of course, there’s signage, and there are people you can ask.

10. It Gets Loud

There are some unwritten rules around IMEX Frankfurt. The main one is that drinks and entertainment come out in force around 4:30 pm. It gets loud, really loud, with plenty of dancing and smiles. While this brings a lot of energy to the show floor, it’s also incredibly disruptive for anyone conducting business meetings later in the day. I also question whether networking at loud dance parties drives business. My feeling is that it doesn’t.  

11. Two Crowds That Don’t Necessarily Mix

Purely from observation, I feel there is a split between visitors and buyers who appreciate and use the educational opportunities and those solely focused on business appointments. Having the majority of education in a separate hall makes this more obvious. 

In previous editions, the education was mostly on the show floor (Hall 8), but as the show grew it moved to a different hall. This location split has several logistical and acoustic advantages, so it’s the right call for me. Ultimately, education attracts visitors and buyers and helps them make a case for attending. This is regardless of whether they make use of the education opportunities when they are on site.

12. The Traveling Circus Is Back

Many of the buyers and exhibitors at IMEX Frankfurt will also be at IMEX America, ibtm world, and some of the many association events coming up this year. This “traveling circus” is part of the industry, for good or bad. From a sustainability perspective, the planet would appreciate less travel all around. However, from a business development perspective, showing up in person is important and keeps the business events industry moving.  

It was clear from the conversations that the “traveling circus” was certain that they would meet again soon, a stark contrast to the uncertainty still in the air just a year ago. Perhaps they will meet at MPI WEC or PCMA EduCon later this month. But if not, they will most certainly meet at IMEX America in October.

This story has been updated with post-show data released by the IMEX Group on June 19, 2023.