Interview Franka Morssink

Flevum talked to Franka Morssink, CFO of Jaarbeurs / VNU group. We spoke to her about, among other things, the impact of COVID-19 on Jaarbeurs, the future of the events sector and how she includes employees in the Masterplan of Jaarbeurs.

Would you like to introduce yourself?

I have been CFO of Jaarbeurs / VNU group since 2016, we are known in the Netherlands as the conference and event location in the heart of Utrecht. We have a rich history of almost 105 years and we are internationally active as an organizer with our own titles in 9 countries. In addition, 350 colleagues work at our subsidiaries in Bangkok and Shanghai, for which I am also responsible as CFO.

I live in Harmelen, have three young children and besides my family and job I like to cycle long trips on my racing bike. That’s my meditation.

My drive is to improve organizations. I do this by connecting people to an ambition and a result. The ambition and associated strategy must be aimed at sustainable / long-term value creation in a humane way. This also includes effective application and investment in (technological/digital) innovations and the internalization of sustainability. Both internally and in the chain. When you are successful, you are meaningful as an organization.

I owe a lot to my parents and the upbringing on the farm. A sense of responsibility, hard work and satisfaction characterize me as a person. Wanting to be involved in a meaningful way has started to play an increasingly important role in this. Looking back with pride on what you build and leave behind, as I realized in depth with the death of my father a few months ago. At the moment I also shape my social involvement with my ancillary position, such as my supervisory role at the task broadcaster NTR.

How would Jaarbeurs like to introduce itself in the network?

Our vision is that people want to keep meeting each other physically, but that hybrid is the future. Building communities combining live and digital is much faster and there is enormous potential. We are fully committed to that. We have entered into a strategic partnership with Samsung Global to give substance to this.

By focusing the strategy on accelerating sustainable growth, partly through digitization and (technological) innovations, the market for events is given a new dimension. We create value for exhibitors and visitors through artificial intelligence and matchmaking, among other things. A trade fair visit is much more targeted. But it also requires different people and a different mindset, a more ‘digital’ DNA.

We also take our responsibility in the field of sustainability. We have made huge strides there and are the frontrunner in our industry. We have appointed a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO), Marloes van den Berg, to our management team and she is also a member of an international committee to accelerate our industry. In addition, there is our bigger plan to build De Nieuwe Jaarbeurs in 2024. This will be the most sustainable and digital venue in Europe. The design goes beyond the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

COVID has had a huge impact (59% less turnover in 2020). How are you doing now?

In January 2020, our company’s doors in China were closed. Together with my colleague Albert Arp (CEO), I was directly part of the crisis management team there. Not much later – in March – the Netherlands was also locked. In our first scenarios, we took a few months into account. This has been a year and a half. During this time we have lost about 80% of our regular turnover and unfortunately also had to say goodbye to 25% of our workforce.

In 2019 Jaarbeurs was in the top 3 of the best performing venues in Europe. In 2020 in the top 3 of least loss-making. COVID has not thrown a spanner in the works for the strategy, but has accelerated us. Safety and hygiene have of course become additional spearheads.

During this period, the financial policy and liquidity have been a beacon to remain forward-oriented and to radiate peace of mind to employees, suppliers and our other stakeholders.

We already believed in a future where hybrid and live go hand in hand. COVID has accelerated this development. We had the cards well in hand and we have responded appropriately in the past period. The plans are now being further embedded in our business operations.

What is the Jaarbeurs still investing in and how do you make strategic choices?

The strategy of 2019 has not changed due to COVID. There are differences in emphasis and we have mainly used the crisis to accelerate.

Jaarbeurs is currently investing in the technological digitization process and in the plans for De Nieuwe Jaarbeurs. Sustainability is also high on the agenda.

We have also invested heavily in a number of new markets. Health & Life Sciences is a spearhead of Jaarbeurs and we are launching this through the successful Dutch Health Hub. In addition, a number of great innovations and therefore new titles have been created for 2022 and 2023.

With regard to real estate, Jaarbeurs is investing approximately 300 million euros in the new venue. The total area development involves an investment of approximately 1.2 billion. The venue will be 60% of our current capacity. This is possible because we believe in digitization and the resulting multiple hybrid revenue models.

How do you see the future of the large elements / exhibition locations?

We are confident we can keep on offering live events. Everyone quickly gets used to the current measures such as access controls. Experience remains crucial and matchmaking creates a much more targeted participation.

The prognosis internationally is strong. Asia and America lead the way, but sentiment in Europe is also positive. Most events in Asia that are now being held score 20% above expectations and often directly above 2019. A high vaccination rate is of course crucial for our sector.

Where will you be in 10 years? How do you keep up with the changes in the sector?

The sector is traditional and in our 105 years of existence we have always been able to ‘reinvent’ ourselves where necessary. Nevertheless, we like to be at the forefront of innovation. That is what we sort for and invest in. Naturally, the new venue will also play a role in organizing state-of-the-art events.

Do you see major regional differences in the return of the event industry?

That depends on which target group you serve. International fairs are struggling with limited travel options and COVID measures. Certain sectors, such as the travel industry, are also having a harder time. Most Jaarbeurs events are national fairs, where the central location and the public transport facilities make the location ideally suited for multi-day events where large numbers of visitors come for a day. At the moment that is an advantage. In addition, with 100,000 m2, we have more than sufficient surface area to create traffic flow and safety for visitors.

Are there things we can learn from abroad?

At our subsidiaries in Shanghai and Bangkok, the country was hermetically closed at the start of COVID. There was no question of a polder model here, which meant that COVID was under control more quickly and events could already take place in China in the summer of 2020. Strict access controls were immediately implemented and AVG is seen in a different light.

Vaccination coverage plays a major role in the certainty of future events. In the Netherlands, for example, the vaccination rate is now over 85%. This is much higher than in a city like Shanghai or Bangkok.

What is the Jaarbeurs master plan? How do you realize this collaboration with the municipality/local residents?

The Jaarbeurs master plan was presented in December 2019. We want to start building the most digital and sustainable venue in Europe in 2024, in the heart of the city of Utrecht and in a lively exhibition quarter where living and working come together in good harmony. Cooperation with the municipality and local residents starts with good communication and information. We paid a lot of attention to that. In addition, it is important to include the interests of the city in the design. Jaarbeurs is becoming more than ever part of the city and the city experiences that positively.

You depend on other parties to organize events. How do you guarantee safety (and also your own financial safety)? Have you noticed that customer demands are changing? How do you respond to this?

During the COVID period, the ‘COVID principles’ were always on the agenda. The health and safety of employees is number 1. In addition, of course, care for the chain, society and the protection of viability and continuity.

Due to the collaboration with Samsung, we had accelerated the installation of a combination of beacons, WiFi and geomagnetic beams. This allowed us to launch a ‘crowd management’ app with this platform where we could measure and guarantee the 1.5 m.

We have also appointed our own ‘Minister of Security’. With a mandate, he made the transition between standards and practice. This also included enforcement. Our protocols, procedures and prevention measures have resulted in a first: we were the first event location to receive the ‘Kiwa COVID-19 quality mark’. Organizing an event safely and complying with the rules has been fully implemented and we are building on it. Customers notice that we take this extremely seriously and that gives them confidence.

We are now in the COVID exit phase. We meticulously follow government rules regarding health checks and access controls. In addition, we support the VNO-NCW campaign to convince employees as much as possible of the importance of our health for our customers and visitors.

By financial security I mean continuity. We have continuously made scenario updates during the COVID period and, of course, have also taken measures to reduce costs. Our credo: “fit in and fit out”: we entered the crisis super healthy and due to the measures taken, supplemented with the support of the government, we also come out of the crisis top fit.

Including customers in our security measures gives confidence. We not only tell you about this, but also strictly implement it. Uncertainty as to whether or not an event could take place as a result of government measures has led to many questions among customers. We have of course been very busy with canceling and moving. A number of exchanges even four times. The lead time to properly organize an event requires at least 3-6 months. Uncertainty about the commitments among the exhibitors as well as the question of whether visitors will come has had a major impact on the exhibition concepts, the event calendar and the result.

How much impact has the past year had on corporate culture?

Despite the enormous impact on the work of the employees and also the painful measures that have been taken, there has always been the feeling that we must put our shoulders together and come out stronger.

A lot of internal communication with vlogs and zoom meetings, but also the personal attention and the extra commitment to vitality for our employees, has kept the connection and involvement high. I even think that all the changes have made employees more dependent on each other and departments come closer together.

A good example of this is that a number of employees have started a sponsorship campaign for our charity, the Maxima Children’s Hospital. This has led to more than 24,000 euros in revenue and our employees throughout the country took part in their own sporting challenge.

How do you involve your employees in the strategy of the organization? What would you like to discuss with fellow directors?

As management, we involve the employees in the strategy by sharing it with everyone in understandable and appealing language. During this time, my emphasis has been on ensuring that we pick up every dime, but also giving the organization confidence that there are no worries about continuity. The salaries could be paid and I could make sure that we invested correctly.

We have always been forward-looking and have continued to work on our vision of the future. Held course. Even accelerated in some parts. The liquidity at our disposal provided peace of mind. This radiates you and gives you confidence.

I see a crisis as an opportunity. Because we had anchored the strategy so clearly and already bet on it, we never took a wait-and-see attitude.

We had good control over the wheel and a clear division of tasks. We did not complain about the measures but took responsibility. The employees feel that too. Our communication has always been realistic and we come out of this stronger together.

I like to discuss how you look ahead with fellow directors. Again and again. How do you ensure that you are ready for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, so that you do the right things today. For example, we started thinking very quickly about the COVID exit. We include our employees in this, for example through the implemented back-2-better consultation. The desire to continuously improve is now also firmly in the DNA of people.

How do you avoid surprises and take advantage of the opportunities that come along? This requires leadership in which you stay well informed of developments within and outside the industry. And as a farmer’s daughter keep working hard and realizing every day that you are working on something that you want to leave behind better.

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