Determined not to be devoured by Ambiente, I decided to attack the world’s largest consumer goods trade fair much the same way as one should eat an elephant – one bite at a time.
It was my third consecutive visit to the mammoth Frankfurt fair. I knew only too well the dangers of overenthusiasm – without thinking too hard about it, you could end up pounding the never-ending moving walkways in search of the latest gadgets, gifts, home accessories, kitchen stuff and much more forever. The non-stop visual feasts on show inside nearly 50 rugby fields’ worth of multi-level exhibition space, mixed with a side serving of jetlag, can quickly turn a rational, thinking person into a silently-screaming heap.
This year, I was determined to keep cool and carry on by sticking to a cunning plan aimed at getting a general feel for trends in some of the broad product categories, and sussing out Kiwi exhibitors.
I naturally gravitated towards the dining and kitchenware halls - after all, it’s where I spend most of my after-hours time. I filled the best part of a day getting the measure of the latest tabletop and kitchen fashions. My lasting impression was that simple yet functional design is on the rise. This trend was further discussed later that day on a guided media tour led by German design expert, Professor Hansjerg Maier-Aichen.
“Ambiente is all about the mass market and making money, but recessionary forces have led to smarter thinking and intelligent design,” he said.
Maier-Aichen says the trend was not only for “less is more,” but also, “Less has to be better.”
There was lots of white dinnerware, but colour reigned in the other kitchen and tabletop categories. Products on offer ranged in hue from subtle naturals to clear pastels, with bold primaries and a smattering of botanical prints also available. Accents of neon were everywhere in the plastic storageware categories.
Confident I had a good feel for what was hot in the here-and-now, I went and checked out a regular Ambiente display showcasing consumer good trends for the coming season. The overarching theme was nostalgia and yearning, which the style gurus behind the display said was a “valuable, motivating and creativity-enhancing force.” How this abstract notion might play out on shop floors around the world was not immediately obvious to me, although a walk around four sub-themed product display spaces titled “Clarity + lightness”; “Craft + culture”;
“History + elegance” and “Humour + curiosity” gave a good overview of future colours, finishes and fabrics of note.
As much as I enjoyed my almost three days of walking, talking and looking, I once again started feeling the onset of sensory overload. My failure to avoid this burnout despite a seemingly failsafe plan got me wondering how many others end up in the same situation. Do exhibitors and buyers suffer the same fate and hit the wall before striking the best business deal? Could it be that the world’s largest consumer goods fair is simply too big for good business? And with the growing channels of online business connectivity, does it stack up time and costwise to physically take yourself plus stuff to a far-off market?
I tactfully voiced my concerns to New Zealand-based Ambiente manager Robert Laing, who says he’s heard it all before.
“There have been predictions of doom and gloom about the future of trade shows and international travel for almost as long I’ve been in the industry and it hasn’t happened. The fact is, good business is about shaking hands with people, looking them in the eye and being able to trust them.”
Also, especially in the consumer goods market, buying and selling is a tactile process where looking, touching, talking and haggling are all important stages of the deal making process.
“If you’re serious about cracking the global market you go there because all the people likely to buy your product will be there,” Laing says. “It’s a benchmark. You can see just how well you’re doing against your competitors.”
For Kiwi exhibitors or wholesale buyers, the 12-hour, 18,000km journey is a big commitment of time and money. But the costs weren’t prohibitive, Laing said, at about $6,000 for an entry-level 3x4m2 space. “That’s not a great deal more than participation in a local show.”
On top of that was the cost of travel, but most visitors and exhibitors got the biggest bang for their bucks by arranging other European visits and meetings around the fair.
Frankfurt has been perfectly placed as a global trading centre since medieval times, when buyers and sellers met there because it was a natural crossroads in Europe. Fast-forward to now, and it’s still a leading global trading centre due to conveniently located international air and train hubs, an excellent range of hotel and accommodation, plus supporting infrastructure. The business of fairs remains the lifeblood of the city.
Its centuries-old reputation as a place of trade will continue regardless of cyberspace wheeling and dealing. Ambiente, although super-sized and potentially all consuming, will long remain the place for face-to-face, back-slapping retail and wholesale trade.
Lynda Gray travelled to Ambiente courtesy of Messe Reps & Travel.
This story was originally published in NZ Retail magazine issue 737, April/May 2015.