As the Russian Union of Exhibitions and Fairs (RUEF) celebrates it 30th anniversary in December 2021, Paul Colston talks exclusively for EW to its president and CEO of ExpoForum International, Sergey Voronkov, who surveys the history, achievements, challenges and future development strategy of Russia’s exhibition industry:
First of all, congratulations on the significant anniversary for RUEF. Tell us a little about the history of the association. Russian trade fairs, after all, have a proud history, including the traditions of VDNKh and Sokolniki and, more recently, modern venues such as Crocus and ExpoForum.
The Russian Union of Exhibitions and Fairs (RUEF) was established on 11 December, 1991. Leading domestic exhibition companies Expocentre AO, VDNKh, Lenexpo OJSC, Nizhegorodskaya Yarmarka CJSC and others were all present at its inception. The founding initiative really belonged to Sergey Alexeev, an iconic figure for our domestic industry who, in 2015, became the first representative of Russia to hold the UFI presidency.
In those difficult times, 30 years ago, the founders of the Union wanted to see the country’s exhibition business not as a scattered community of companies trying to hold diverse exhibitions of varying sizes in the post-Soviet space, but as a stable, self-sufficient branch of the new Russian economy.
The main achievement of the Union has been the creation of a professional exhibition community which has played a crucial role in the formation and development of the exhibition market in Russia, and done much to increase the competitiveness of the exhibition industry, its sustainability, and also to coordinate relations between the players on the market. The Union has helped member companies take the opportunity to enter the international arena. And foreign organisations and associations were able to find out about them, primarily through the most authoritative and respected association - the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, UFI, which the Union joined in 1994.
Today, the RUEF is the flagship of the Russian congress and exhibition industry. It unites over 100 companies – from venues and complexes, specialised service providers to event organisers.
We are known and listened to not only in our country but throughout the world. It is our members who stage the most significant exhibitions for the country’s economy.
Since almost any event includes an exhibition and conference or meetings element, we are focused on growing the membership of the Union and ensuring its structure covers all areas of the event business.
Our primary task is to create resources for collective use – platforms in the field of education and consulting, IT, standards of methodology and materials, marketing and research, which can be used by all RUEF members. We want to make St Petersburg a centre of excellence for the convention and exhibition industry and for business tourism. We want to create a kind of MICE hub here.
We see the task of the Union as to provide our players in the market with opportunities for exchanging experience, training and obtaining any necessary materials.
One of the key moments in the Union’s work and in the development of the Russian exhibition industry as a whole was the approval, in 2014, of the concept for the development of exhibition, fair and congress activities. That document confirmed the status of exhibition activities as one of the important tools for enhancing trade and economic relations and the development of foreign economic ties, attracting investment and strengthening the economic potential of the country. Today, the Union, together with industry partners, is working on the formation of a draft Industry Development Strategy until 2030, as new realities have required us to revise some of the goals, objectives and priorities of our activities.
At the same time, we are forming a draft sectoral law which, at the legislative level, will fix the status of the industry, forms of support for it and the procedure for holding events.
The Union’s main activities remain the promotion of domestic goods and services to the domestic and foreign markets; the promotion of the Russian exhibition industry in the world; assistance in improving the legal regulation of the industry; the development of the material and technical base; interaction with the authorities and industry associations; training specialists, and information support of exhibition, fair and congress activities.
A key task of the Union is to promote the development of exhibition and congress activities as an effective element of the branding, sales and innovation policy of economic entities.
According to an RUEF study, congress and exhibition events form 3% of Russia’s GDP. The volume of congress and exhibition activities in Russia is estimated to be worth around R203bn.
The past 20 months have been difficult times for everybody. How has RUEF reacted to the situation and its complex challenges. I’m assuming the membership has suffered. How has RUEF been able to help and keep the exhibition community together?
This period has been a real challenge for event organisers. The wave of restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic almost completely paralysed the event industry in 2020.
During the difficult period of lockdown, Union members contributed to the fight against coronavirus by opening temporary clinics and hospitals.
Our companies are faced with the task of surviving and the need to rethink the future. In such difficult times the role of industry associations increases, of course.
From the first days of the crisis, the RUEF, took an active position in protecting the interests of the industry. The Union has become a kind of focal point for action and a repository of the efforts of all industry organisations: The Russian National Convention Bureau, The Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation and the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and others.
The first thing that the RUEF did was to invite all our partners and key associations to join forces. We understood it was not possible to solve the industry’s problems alone; actions needed to be coordinated. Together with our partners, we have drawn up a Memorandum for the event industry which more than 500 organisations have now signed.
A collective letter was also sent to the Government of the Russian Federation with proposals on measures to support the industry in these difficult times. This made our industry one of the first to be included on the list of the hardest hit. An undoubted success because not only were the companies able to receive support measures from the state, but also probably for the first time in many years, we were designated as an industry along with tourism, air travel, culture and others. This is very important.
In the course of our work, key meetings were held at the highest level: First deputy prime minister Andrei Belousov, with the participation of all major ministries, was given appropriate instrurctions for developing a strategy and to compile a register of strategic enterprises. This was, furthermore, also the first time in history that the congress and exhibition industry had appeared on a list of the country’s ‘backbone’ enterprises.
In general, the situation with the pandemic revealed bottlenecks in our sector’s system. One of the main main problems turned out to be the statistical information relating to the types of economic activity. This turned out to be somewhat less than perfect. Previously, not much attention had been paid to this as these economic activity codes did not affect anything much. But when the support measures were tied to them, it became apparent that there was just one main code (OKVED 82.30) for our industry.
For many enterprises, the code was listed only as an additional one, which meant that only about two thousand companies could take advantage of the support measures – those that had the OKVED 82.30 code listed as their main one at the beginning of 2020. At time of writing, about 700 more organisations have since been able to amend their main OKVED code. And that is our asset. Those that have made these adjustments are working in the market proper and are interested in support measures. This is very important because we now have the opportunity to generate statistics for the sector in terms of revenue, taxes, jobs, salaries, and everything else. This never happened before.
Moreover, in matters of statistics and collection of information about the industry, about ongoing events, we have gone even further and introduced on our RUEF website a territorial-industry matrix – a platform for collecting, analysing and processing statistics and information about congress and exhibition events held in Russia. Data collection has already begun, and soon we plan to get a complete picture of exhibition activities in the country.
It should be noted that the crisis and lockdown also had some positive consequences. We have long known about online and hybrid formats of events, but it was during the pandemic that these formats, and new venues and new technologies, began to be actively mastered. This applied both directly to the Union, which during the period of restrictions held a series of online webinars, sessions, and even an online exhibition, and RUEF members, in whose portfolios new event formats have appeared.
The introduction of digital technologies in the industry has put us in front of the need to develop a national digital platform for the industry, which will increase the efficiency of congress and exhibition activities by digitising and automating all business processes. The first steps in this direction have already been taken.
In the context of restrictions on entry in the country, we, together with the Ministry of Industry and Trade, are working on the issue of introducing an Expo ID system to simplify entry into Russia for foreign participants of exhibitions and congresses.
In addition, to increase the event potential of the country, together with the Ministry of Economic Development, we are discussing the possibility of launching a business tax-free mechanism for foreign participants and a VAT compensation mechanism for foreign organisers of congresses and exhibitions in Russia. The above points are included in the draft Industry Development Strategy until 2030.
Furthermore, the pandemic has led the RUEF to upgrade its communications and liaison work: all the necessary regulatory materials have been posted on the website, emergency legal aid assistance has been created and a general chat function is up and running for members of the Union. And more than 30 online events have been held. We have been in touch with our companies almost every week and this has helped us create an open communication space for the industry.
During the pandemic, the RUEF has grown from 80 to 124 companies. This unprecedented growth testifies to the status and recognition of the Union. People have seen the value and usefulness of the organisation. They understand that it is better to be together in difficult times.
Despite the difficult times, the exhibition industry in Russia has not only survived, but also has prospects for development. We have excellent contact with the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Russian Export Centre and there is a clear understanding of where to go next. However, the main thing is our sense of unity, which will help us become an integral industry community, protect our interests, exchange experience and face new challenges.
What is the situation in Russia today regarding health and safety protocols for trade shows? Has RUEF been lobbying government for assistance?
The convention and exhibition industry was one of the first sectors to begin operating again in the aftermath of the pandemic. We managed to convince Rospotrebnadzor (Russia’s Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing- Ed) and all regulatory authorities that exhibitions and congresses can be special types of events that do not fall under the classification of ‘mass public events’.
It is precisely our activity that can organise all the necessary security measures that are absent at other sites associated with holding mass events.
Thanks to the joint efforts of RUEF, the Chambers of Commerce and Industry, National Convention Bureau and Roscongress, it has been possible to approve a separate sest of recommendations for holding congresses and exhibitions at the level needed by Rospotrebnadzor.
This was a very serious step. It was possible to separate out exhibitions and conferences from the category of public events, which was very important.
These guidelines were used in practically all regions. Where the situation was difficult, we were able to help sort it out. A tremendous amount of work has been done.
I can say for sure that we have never written so many letters, and we have never held so many meetings, both in person and online.
The exhibition centres provided not only the necessary security measures during events, but also unprecedented ones. The apotheosis of this work was the holding of the first after lockdown, and the world's largest, St Petersburg International Economic Forum.
The ExpoForum congress and exhibition complex in St Petersburg, where the forum was hosted, provided all the necessary standard procedure: checkpoints with thermal imagers, visual inspection, first-aid posts, cold fog and alpha radiation treatment, a personal access system, individual protective equipment in triplicate, increased budget for high quality and extensive cleaning operations, increased security, logistical support, and designated flow lines.
A centralised ventilation system for disinfecting the air was also built at the venue specially for the Forum.
As far as cost is concerned, it’s an expensive story. As the general director of ExpoForum-International, I can say that the company spent 20 million roubles (US$270,000) on all this since last July, not counting operating costs. We took on this burden and carry it to this day. And, of course, safety is associated, first of all, with collective immunity, which in our company is 83%.
Currently, in Russia, the main condition for admission to various events, including exhibitions, is the presence of a QR code attesting to vaccination. Therefore, RUEF is developing a procedure for holding Covid-free events, defining the criteria for such events and outlining the technical issues involved, such as the procedure for checking participants’ QR codes. That document is scheduled for approval by Rospotrebnadzor.
Tell us a bit more about the make up of the RUEF and the different ownership models of Russian exhibition venues and organising companies. How is the trade fair and exhibition business in Russia likely to develop in the next few years?
Among the RUEF members, today there are over 70 exhibition organisers, over 20 of which own their own venues. We also have four exhibition centres and over 40 service companies. The overwhelming majority of companies are small and medium-sized businesses.
In the past few years, since the concept for the development of the industry was approved, a lot has been done: nine modern sites have been introduced, and industry standards (both state and professional) have been approved.
However, issues remain to be tackled, such as improving the infrastructure, unifying the legislation regarding congress and exhibition activities, creating a unified information and analytical system for the industry, and the formation of a system of professional training and retraining of personnel.
We pin great hopes on the approval of the Strategy for the Development of the Congress and Exhibition Industry until 2030 – the implementation of the measures laid down in that document will contribute not only to the development of the industry, but will also be important for the socio-economic development of the country as a whole.
If we take into account that exhibitions and congresses are not only an engine of the economy, but also its mirror, then we see that now there is a trend towards regionalisation and localisation of the world’s economies due to external constraints.
It should be expected that there will be more events focused on specific geographic locations.
For Russia, the prospects look good. Russian exhibitions have a great future on the domestic market. First of all, this means the expansion of specialised exhibition and congress spaces to global standards.
Currently, about 50 administrations (local authorities) in Russia have confirmed their interest in developing the material and technical base of exhibition, fair and congress activities.
Of course, in the context of Covid-19, it is difficult to predict the situation for the near future and how it will develop. Depending on what global challenges will arise – epidemics, military conflicts, economic sanctions and others – we must adapt as quickly as possible to the new external reality.
If we regroup and shift gear, then, in my opinion, in three four years we will be able to restore the industry. The RUEF strategy envisages preparing a territorial-sectoral matrix of congress and exhibition events in order to eliminate any desynchronisation among organisers and increase the share of events held in the regions of the Russian Federation.
What can be done to market Russia more effectively as a host destination for international events?
Today Russia is a new player on the global business events market.
Despite the highly competitive market, Russia has a number of key advantages, and developing them will allow our country to take a place among the world’s leading destinations for holding international events. These strengths are:
• Having one of the strongest economies in the world, as well as possessing fairly hefty political weight;
• Russia has great natural, climatic, cultural and gastronomic diversity;
• Russia has extensive experience in hosting major international events and offers a well-developed event infrastructure;
• Price advantage: organising an event in the regions of Russia is on average cheaper than in most of Europe.
Russia needs a strong and understandable brand in the international event market. The tools for creating a brand Russia include the concept of a unified exposition of Russian companies under the ‘Russia open to the world’ brand and the ‘Made in Russia’ project.
Participation in foreign exhibitions and congresses is an effective communications policy in international marketing and an effective way to tell the world about the country’s capabilities.
When you meet for your RUEF meetings, what are the key issues of the day that the association faces and can you give us an idea of your strategy for the future?
One of the main tasks of RUEF is to lay out all the attributes of the congress and exhibition industry so that it has its own ‘birth certificate’ – a law that would be built into the country’s national project, and meaning it would be an independent branch of the economy, with its own statistics and official code.
The development of the Strategy for the Development of the Convention and Exhibition Industry until 2030 is an important step towards this goal. The strategy will help to attract investment, introduce high-tech industries, realise the potential of the regions, something which is of great socio-economic importance for the state. Realising the key importance of the industry for the country’s economy, the Government has accepted the document for consideration.
The issues of forming a system of professional training and retraining of personnel in the industry and training of exhibitors remain topical.
Particular attention is being paid to the development of the institution of industry associations.
First of all, the exhibition should be the centre where an industry is formed and consolidated. It is no coincidence that in Germany, for example, industry associations are the organisers or co-organisers of major events.
For associations, participation in the organisation of an exhibition is a key factor in supporting their own activities. And this is absolutely correct, although unfortunately, this institution is so not well developed in our country. That is why RUEF, together with its partners, has been organising the Forum of Industry Associations for a second year now.
We see industry associations as a very serious resource.
In addition, RUEF members are members of specialised committees and commissions at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation and of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, where we, in direct dialogue with representatives of other industries, work out solutions that affect the development of not only ours, but also other sectors of the economy.
Due to the low diversification of the economy and distorted economic geography, 60% of our exhibitions are held in Moscow, 15–20% in St Petersburg, and the rest in the regions.
It is necessary to change the focus by supporting regional strengths, for example, in terms of buyers’ programmes, where we can finance not only the trips of Russian participants to foreign exhibitions to sell their goods and services, but also subsidise the arrival of foreign buyers in our country. This is one of the tasks we have set for the RUEF and is a long-term issue.
Tell us about some of the individual regional RUEF members’ plans and innovations.
Exhibitions, congresses and event tourism in the regions is seen as a tool for promotion and advancement. The market for specialised venues in Russia has seriously changed. The changes took place both due to the introduction of new venues and due to the modernisation of the already existing convention and exhibition centres.
In the context of competition and existing restrictions, sectoral events should be held in the regions, and not all concentrated in Moscow and St Petersburg, not least because many regions have all the conditions for holding events at a high level.
Among those areas showing leading event potential are St Petersburg, Sverdlovsk Region, Tatarstan and Krasnodar Territory. I would cite the Sverdlovsk Region as a good example, not least because it has retained second place in our rankings. More than 500 conventions, exhibitions and business events are held annually in that region.
Recently, the regional Investment Promotion Agency launched ‘Meet in the Urals’, an online service for organising major events, as well as attracting business tourists.
The resource makes it easy to get an idea of the region's possibilities in the field of congress and exhibition activities, and offers events case studies and information. The information is also available in English.
How quickly has Russia adapted to hybrid event innovation and using new technology? Can tradefairs be the marketplaces for Russia to promote its industry and innovation to the world on an even bigger scale?
For Russia, as well as for the whole world, the pandemic came as a surprise and it also took us time to restructure our processes and move to new formats of work.
However, it is worth noting that a number of events quickly transferred to the online format – primarily conferences. The first online exhibitions also took place in the spring of 2020. But, of course, their number was much less than the planned activities before the pandemic.
It is worth noting that the technologies for the most part were not new – they were less in demand, but already existed on the market in one form or another. Currently, they are still in the process of adapting and finalising them to meet the specific needs of the exhibition industry.
Hybrid events have already become a new reality both for Russia and for the whole world. Visitors and participants are increasingly realising the convenience and necessity of using this format.
Of course, there are events that are more difficult to adapt, but here new technologies come to the rescue, which try to cover – although not completely – the lack of live communication and direct contact with the exhibits in the event that live participation is impossible.
Almost all congress events that are currently taking place, for example, at Expoforum, are held in a hybrid format.
Trade shows have always been platforms for promoting innovation and concluding new agreements and arrangements. The new reality did not change much in this regard.
However, the forced online access of such exhibitions significantly increases the number of potential visitors and contacts from other countries. If earlier a personal presence was required and this became an obstacle, now the initial acquaintance can take place much faster and easier.
But competent online promotion also requires additional resources from exhibition companies.
The potential of trade and industrial exhibitions as a platform for Russia to promote its industry and innovations on world markets has only grown. Now the most important thing is to use it wisely.
What do you say about Russia as a partner for business and what role can the RUEF play in opening up another 30-year chapter in trade fair history?
The exhibition business, like no other, connects countries and continents, unites partners from all over the world.
RUEF fulfils this important role as an industry association, achieving results even in difficult conditions dictated not only by the pandemic, but also by the tension of international relations, and comprehensively contributes to the development of the Russian exhibition industry.
The enormous potential of Russia in the framework of international co-operation and the consistently high interest of the world business community in it has been demonstrated by the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. Even despite the restrictions, this year 13,500 guests from 141 countries took part in it. Moreover, in the pandemic year 2020, RUEF members held about 200 exhibitions, including some with international participation. That was at a time when Europe was completely closed to events.
Take the example of the UFI World Congress, which took place in Russia in 2018. We proved that we can hold events at the highest level, develop mutually beneficial co-operation with most foreign countries and are open to dialogue.
You can read more about Russia's exhibition industry, including about individual regional centres, in our newly published supplement to Exhibition World available here