Paul Colston meets the COO of RAI Amsterdam, Maurits Van de Sluis, who explains the venue’s new strategy, two years in the making.
I met Maurits van der Sluis at RAI Amsterdam’s South Beach, just as the venue was hosting the AIDS2018 world congress. It was an event that showed off the full power of Holland’s flagship convention venue.
However, as the chief operating officer noted, the RAI is now aiming to be more than an organiser or venue, but a broad platform for contacts, knowledge and innovation for a new age.
Since the board was appointed two years ago, has the evolution of the new development strategy been a difficult process?
No, because the RAI was in good shape when we took over from Hans Bakker [Van der Sluis is COO to Paul Riemens CEO -ed] We could have continued with the way things were going well but we wanted to do more.
The world is changing faster than everyone thinks, so we have to be even more innovative.
Within our industry, we are on the innovative side, but if we compare ourselves to other disruptive companies, we could learn a lot. So, we said we need to accelerate. We changed a lot of the internal structure and culture in the RAI.
Can you give some examples?
We integrated the organiser part and the facilitator part. The RAI is really one company now. It used to be like two different companies not really talking to each other.
We want to give people responsibility on all levels and have a more open culture based on collaboration. We want to give people who know about innovation their heads.
If I ask myself, after two years is there more of an innovative atmosphere at the RAI, I would say ‘Yes’.
We are working with partners on a revolutionary system of logistics.
We have all these trucks coming in to our venue, so we are looking at a revolutionary approach for a new central loading area. The plans are still in the research phase, but it is a revolutionary idea.
We are working with the University in Delft on this project. Indeed, a whole faculty is working on it there.
Let us remember, the way we build up and break down exhibitions in Europe hasn’t changed since 1972, so there’s a lot of room for improvement.
The concept is also connected with sustainability. The practice of having all these trucks in our cities is going to end at some point, after all.
What of the new Metro line link?
The RAI is now in the city centre and if you want to keep that position you have to take care of things.
I would call Amsterdam a ‘metropolitan village’ and it is a walkable city, with a population of under a million people.
The new Metro line is an extra, and is great of course, but the public transport system here was already good. We have two stations in front of the RAI.
You don’t even have to use buses to get here, but if you do want an alternative there are always bikes.
It all makes for a very accessible place.
What about the organising side of the business. What is new?
We are working on three new shows. One is on drones, which is going to happen in November. The model here is that we won’t organise our own drone show as such – that’s a different model, but provide the platform for ‘Amsterdam drone week’.
Another launch is ‘Day in the city’, where visitors will spend half a day in the RAI and half a day visiting one of our exhibitors’ businesses in the city.
We have other themes, such as water, and our big Aquatec event, for which we create a lot of content, too.
The business is becoming increasingly data driven, of course.
With the Elicium centre offering extra conferencing space, what new builds are planned for the next stage?
Our new hotel will be ready end of 2019 and is going to be a nHow brand, the disruptive brand of NH.
Amsterdam’s hotel situation has changed dramatically over 20 years. There are now 40,000-plus hotel rooms, which has meant a kind of pause in development in the city. There will be more hotels built in the outskirts, of course.
We have our Master Plan 2030 and at the end of year we start building Hall 5, which will give an extra 4,500sqm.
There are also plans to go higher on the premises, although we wouldn’t be talking anything like another 20,000sqm of course!
Are you becoming a resort at the RAI?
We are in the city and a lot of venues have seen the beach we have, but it doesn’t make sense to replicate that outside of a city. Half of the people who come to our beach are from Amsterdam and simply come here because it is a nice place.
For the past 20 years we have been considerate to the local neighbourhood, but now we have moved to be very proactive in making the surroundings part of our eco system and of the city.
That responsibility to the city is not least because RAI is owned 25% by the city authorities, although they are in the process of selling them to the RAI.
Our philosophy is to make the RAI a place where everyone wants to meet, not just for events. Even when there are no conferences going on it should be a nice place with restaurants, retail and other services. We want to develop the square and believe we have a real city pearl here.
What are the challenges?
Sourcing labour is more difficult than it was a few years ago. At the top level it isn’t a problem. But, regular catering and security staff, for example, are more difficult to recruit. We do have a pool for flexible workers and are teaming up with other big venues like Schiphol and the Johan Cruyff Arena on developing this labour pool.
Another one of our revolutionary plans is connected to security.
We have a plan on safety and security for the future and I believe other venues will want to adopt it. We are keen to share.
Other challenges include the world economy. We came through the crisis very well, partly because we had the market leading shows and they didn’t suffer in the recession.
Now I see the market is overheated a little. Amsterdam is booming but one of the challenges is to stay in balance.
If there is a short-term crisis down the line, we should be ready.
What of competition?
Most is still in Europe and a lot of new centres have popped up.
Amsterdam is one of top 10 meetings destinations in Europe. You can build a beautiful venue in third tier city and not be successful, yet have an ugly venue in a first tier city you’ll be successful anyway.
We have a first-rate venue in a first rate city. We’re not afraid of competition.
Is the RAI in the market for acquisitions?
We used to do that. We had a management contract for CCIC in South Africa and had consultancies in China and the Middle East.
I believe we can use our 100-year experience, but it is not part of our strategy to manage 10 centres. However, we do export our trade shows, to Turkey, China and India, among other destinations.
We launched a new show in Jakarta and a Water Show in May in China with 80,000 visitors, which is now bigger than one in Amsterdam.
How do you keep risk low?
Business abroad is risky. In China if you don’t do it right, it’s not your business any more.
In Indonesia we work with Tarsus and in Turkey with UBM. You need strong partnerships to work abroad.
We tried Brazil – but that was not too successful and we haven’t done anything in Russia so far.
You need to team up with an organiser. We are too small to do it alone.
What are the sectoral strengths?
Amsterdam has a lot of innovative financial companies, as well as start-ups of various kinds. The problem with them is they don’t have lots of money and many, inevitably, are not successful.
We gave space to 100 start-ups at our traffic technology show. It was more for marketing and contacts and they didn’t pay the full amount. However, these are the people for the future with solutions.
Some of the starts-ups will be normal standholders in future.
How strong is the RAI’s financial model?
We always invest our own funds. We don’t have a shareholder that gives us money.
We invest for our clients and we have a healthy business model. We know a lot of others are state funded, which means it’s not a level playing field.