Olivier Wauters recently had a conversation with Alain D’Haese, COO & Head of Venues of Easyfairs Belgium following their customer event on 20 September last. That day, Easyfairs threw open the doors at Flanders Expo. “To see existing customers all face-to-face again,” said the COO. “However, also to invite future partners and to strengthen ties with relations with whom we have worked hard in previous years.”
Alain D’Haese is responsible for the commercial and operational part within Easyfairs. “Easyfairs has two types of activities. On the one hand, we organise around 200 events and trade shows in 14 countries,” explains the COO. “In Belgium, there are about 34 with about 140 employees. And besides organising events, we also operate 8 venues of which 4 are in Belgium, Flanders Expo, Antwerp Expo, the Nekkerhal and Namur Expo. Furthermore, the group has 2 more event venues in the Netherlands and 2 in Sweden.”
COVID-19 had a heavy impact on Easyfairs. “Those 18 months of downtime were obviously no fun, as for so many companies in the event sector. Notwithstanding, as a company we learned a lot from it. We made a virtue of necessity. For instance, our four venues in Belgium housed a vaccination centre. We also organised exam centres for students, or used the car park as a driving school to take driving tests. We have had outdoor events, a festival that has taken place between the halls and is a keeper. We have operated a digital studio. In short, we haven’t been sitting on our hands and have gained a lot of unexpected experience from all that,” says Alain D’Haese.
Easyfairs invests heavily in its event venues
After Corona, Easyfairs is once again looking ahead. “We have been talking for a long time about certain investments at Flanders Expo, which have now finally started or say restarted,” says Alain D’Haese. “After all, we already had a first phase behind us before the epidemic. So we built black boxes in Flanders Expo and also in Antwerp Expo, ‘Avenue’, which by the way is very successful and where an exhibition around the space has been taking place for several months now. Other events have already taken place there too, such as the presentation of the Golden Shoe, the World Choir Games,…. A great investment for our site in Antwerp with booming business as a result … until Corona reared its head. Meanwhile, we are fortunately sailing in normal waters again and so we recently presented the second phase of investments to our customers and partners. Our event venue Flanders Expo is getting a new cladding.” Indeed not just any small project as it involves an investment of more than 2 million euros. “That cladding will give Flanders Expo a new identity with a nice colour palette to give the venue the cachet it deserves. Next year we will construct the Expo Park to better facilitate set-up and take-down but also for outdoor events and expos, crowd control options, etc. All in all, the lion’s share of the investments in this second phase amounts to some 6 million euros. In total, the package represents an investment of more than 15 million euros. That is undoubtedly a high amount, but we know that investment is necessary to get rid of our expo identity as an event location, especially here in Ghent. If you look at our event calendar you notice much more than just trade shows. We really are multi-format. That therefore ensures that you have to be with us and with new investments that have to respond to the market.”
Rebranding of Flanders Expo
A new façade also comes with a new logo. “This logo is part of a complete rebranding of our site and, thanks to the bright yellow colour with soft touches as an underbase, is much more attractive. It shows the strength of the site,” judges Alain D’Haese.
At Easyfairs, they wish to continue to grow. Investing is an important tool to that end. “First and foremost, we want to keep investing, so there are still some things on our wish list. Technology, digital signage, better wayfinding,” states the COO. “At the beginning of October, 50 charging stations will be put into operation here at the Ghent site. All investments that belong to a contemporary multifunctional event venue. Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)
In 2018, Easyfairs was named “Entrepreneur of the Year®” and “Great Place to Work” in Belgium. In 2022, Deloitte named Easyfairs “Best Managed Company” for the fourth year in a row. After all, such awards show that we are doing our best for our talents and our other stakeholders. However, we want to go one step further. Whereas Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was bon-ton in the past, progressive companies are now focusing on Environmental Social Governance (ESG). As a market leader, we also want to do our part in this. So it really has been a strategic choice to push hard on that.”
So how do they go about it at Easyfairs? “We have signed the Zero Carbon Charter,” explains Alain D’Haese. “This charter states that we will organise Zero Carbon Emission events by 2050. We are also going to reduce our emissions by 50% by 2030. This obviously requires a serious effort for our events sector. Of course, you cannot achieve everything at once. We have therefore set out five priorities for the coming years: energy, travel, logistics, food and waste management. We organise events worldwide and have some 700 talents in the organisation, so we can generate some impact on that as well. So five priorities on which we are going to focus to meet that threshold.”
The current energy costs that are currently soaring are definitely a challenge for the near future. Looking for and finding the right people. We see that the workload is high, especially after Corona anyway. Our agenda is overflowing. One of the few years where we sometimes have to say ‘no’ to clients because we no longer have availability. Fortunately enough, we then have other event venues we can put forward. Sometimes it happens that a partner cannot meet the demand. It does show how important the chain is in the events sector and each link in it must be effectively strong. There is a challenge there anyway. I think the operational pressure apart from finding people and deploying operations efficiently is the big challenge of the next 12 months anyway.”
Alain D’Haese makes the case that our concept is future-proof. “The investments mean that as an event venue operator, we are going to be there in the future and we are going to continue to be there. Since the opening of the new building, Avenue, on the site of Antwerp Expo, we have noticed that we are hosting events there that we never had in the past. That is the game changer for us. The fact that we can continue to invest ensures that we can continue to grow. Our concepts as organisers of fairs and events are also future-proof where the purchasing power of businesses and families remains important. Those who have huge energy costs are going to make choices. I do feel that the pressure from companies to build for the future and seek customers continues to increase. They need to seek quality leads that are tangible and can be converted immediately. Our events and trade shows are the ideal marketplace for that. There is a lot of uncertainty in the market and that makes people compare prices and thus actively look for solutions and new partners to carry out their projects.”