Vinexpo CEO: ‘If we don’t do anything then in five years’ time we are dead’

Facing competition from the likes of ProWein, Vinexpo has to battle to keep its premium position in the world of wine fairs. But new CEO Rodolphe Lameyse is relishing the challenge of revamping the brand, he tells Patrick Schmitt MW.

Even seemingly timeless labels must adapt to survive. If you are not convinced, then consider historic motoring marque Volkswagen’s current reinvention as Volts-wagen in response to Tesla taking the electric car mainstream; or toy-making leviathan Lego’s move into movies to enhance its appeal to a new generation of children.
These brands may appear unshakable, but are always working to stay relevant, while retaining their values. Such examples are particularly pertinent when considering a large and longstanding brand in the wine business too – Vinexpo. It is a name of great renown in the world of trade exhibitions, but one that faces strengthened competition. And it has lost some of its lustre.
Rivals aside, affecting Vinexpo’s brand reputation has been its own flagship event: a giant show in Bordeaux. Tied to a city that is no longer such a major centre of wine trading, and an events space that is showing signs of age, Vinexpo has come in for criticism from exhibitors and visitors for its biennial show at the Congrès et Expositions de Bordeaux. Above all, Vinexpo has been lambasted for failing to respond to calls from the wine trade to change for the better in Bordeaux, and this is proving a risk to its international reputation.
However, following an interview with Vinexpo’s new CEO, Rodolphe Lameyse, it is clear that the exhibition organiser is making drastic moves to restore its status as a major player in wine trade shows. This is being done without ditching its home city nor its core values, according to Lameyse, who met db for lunch in London in November, before travelling on to see his son, who lives in Ireland. Lameyse, who’s French but moved from Asia to Bordeaux to join Vinexpo in April last year, came direct from a role in the food and hospitality exhibition business in Singapore. He’s not a Bordelais, nor is he from the wine trade, but he is quick to assure db that Vinexpo will always be present in Bordeaux, when asked if last year’s exhibition in the famous French wine region was the organiser’s last. “Vinexpo Bordeaux is not dead,” he states. “At the top of my job description, in bold, in red, and in font size 18, is ‘to keep a show in Bordeaux’.”
Tough competition
The importance of the city to the show organiser’s annual calendar of fairs – which includes exhibitions in Shanghai, Hong Kong, New York, and, for the first time in February 2020, Paris too – hails from the fact that the main shareholder of Vinexpo is the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce, which created the fair in 1981.
But while Vinexpo wouldn’t exist without Bordeaux, it is more than a show organiser for this one city, and the competition on the global scale is tough. Aside from specialist events for sommeliers, or bulk wine producers, or major winemaking nations, there is the big challenger from Germany, ProWein, or ProWine as it’s called for its Asian fairs, which include one in Hong Kong and another in Shanghai.
If the German-owned shows are the threat, what makes Vinexpo different, or a complementary offer. For Lameyse, this relates to uniquely Vinexpo traits. One is its position as a “premium brand”, which relates to the quality of Vinexpo’s content, be these its masterclasses and events, or its high class of exhibitor and visitor. It is also connected to the scale of Vinexpo exhibitions, because Lameyse believes that you can’t be vast and upmarket. For Lameyse, the cap is 50,000 square metres, and that beyond that, “you will struggle to maintain the quality of the content and the execution”.
The second element of the Vinexpo brand is being a “supportive partner”, he says. Lameyse lists a number of times where Vinexpo has facilitated business despite the difficulty of the situation, such as Vinexpo shows in Hong Kong following the Bird Flu outbreak in 1997, fairs in Japan not long after the tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster of 2011, along with Vinexpo’s Explorer event in Sonoma just months after the devastating wildfires of 2017. “Vinexpo has always been a company that supports our partners when times are tough,” he says, confirming that May’s Vinexpo Hong Kong will be going ahead, despite the ongoing social unrest in the city. Nevertheless, he also admits that he looked closely at moving this year’s show to Singapore. “When I saw the situation in Hong Kong I launched a back-up plan,” he says. Despite such connections from his past career in the city, he says relocating the fair would have sent a negative message to the drinks world about Hong Kong’s longstanding position as a wine hub for Asia. “It would have been a bold move,” he says, implying the damage would have been too great.
Lameyse appears happy to speak frankly on a range of sensitive subjects, and is refreshingly frank about where Vinexpo went wrong, while bullish about his plans to restore it to its glory days as the major global exhibition organiser.
In particular, on the subject of Vinexpo Bordeaux, he acknowledges the show’s failings. Admitting that any profit and loss-focused company would have divested the Bordeaux show, he also says that there is “still room for Bordeaux to live within the calendar of events”. But to succeed, he stresses: “We have to take the elements of the show that are fantastic, and take out what was really bad.” Many of the negatives concerned the venue, according to Lameyse, who accepts that the exhibition space was showing signs of age, with underpowered air conditioning and shabby lavatories, while its location on the outskirts of the city was a source of frustration for some visitors because it is a long way from the historic city centre.
As for the positives, so many of these were focused around the wonderful nature of the surrounding wine region; the chance to visit the great châteaux of Bordeaux, and the prestige of the event, which draws high profile wine personalities. For these reasons, Lameyse says that the nature of Vinexpo Bordeaux in 2021 will be significantly altered. “Vinexpo Bordeaux as you used to know it is over – it will be different and exciting,” he promises.
City-wide fair
One major development will see the fair turn its back on its longstanding home in the Congrès et Expositions de Bordeaux, and embrace the beautiful sites of the urban centre. “The 2021 fair will happen in the city, across fantastic venues, from the city hall, to the Palais de la Bourse, and the Grand Theatre, all of which are within walking distance, all of which are in the magic triangle of Bordeaux, and near the banks of the river, so it will have a completely different atmosphere,” he says. “It won’t be a trade fair as you know it, but somewhere between an Exposition Universelle and a wine fashion week.”
Having trialled an earlier slot of mid-May for the 2019 fair, the next one will go back to its traditional timing, in the first week of June. While Lameyse says that Vinexpo had considered holding its Bordeaux show at the same time as the en primeurs – the sampling of young claret in early April – he says “this can’t work”, because this is a time for “key buyers to try wines in the châteaux, and it is not a time for doing business”.
He acknowledges that the problem can be the other way round, with the châteaux enticing people from the exhibition floor to glamorous events at their properties. “Yes, there used to be an issue with the châteaux stealing the buyers for themselves, so we have a gentleman’s agreement that if there is a party in a château during Vinexpo Bordeaux 2021, they must make room for international wines; this is not just for the glory of Bordeaux,” he states.
Summing up the future fair, he says: “The whole purpose of this is to be an image event serving the business, and it will be on a different scale, not 100,000 square metres, but much more condensed. I’m not talking about 1,000 exhibitors but around 100, with 200 the maximum; we want to limit the scope.”
While this new-format Vinexpo Bordeaux will be for the trade, Lameyse says he will allow the public the chance to taste a selection of wines on the Sunday afternoon before the main event, which will then run for professionals over the following three days. This consumer element was successfully launched for 2019’s Vinexpo Bordeaux.
As for a name for the revamped fair, such is the altered nature of the new event, he says he’s yet to find the right term for it. “I don’t want to call it a ‘show’, because it is not really a show, but I don’t know what to call it yet,” he says.
More immediately, Lameyse is overseeing another fresh offer from Vinexpo – its first fair in Paris, following a tie-up with Comexposium, which owns Wine Paris. The union sees Vinexpo take 40% of the show, but lend its name to the event, so Wine Paris, which has existed for three years, is now combined with Vinexpo Paris, and will take place from 10-12 February. While Lameyse believes the optimum size for a Vinexpo fair is around 30,000 sq m, this year’s Paris event will be 24,000 sq m, with Comexposium taking charge of two halls, and Vinexpo a third. Lameyse describes the partnership as “complementary”, with Vinexpo bringing an “international” exhibitor to what was mainly a show filled with French stands – after all, Wine Paris was born out of two French shows, Vinisud and Vinovision.
The union also avoids the two exhibition organisers going into competition, as it had been announced that Vinexpo would hold a fair in Paris in January, just days before Wine Paris. “It would have been silly for the French to be fighting each other rather than being unifying forces,” says Lameyse. “There is the opportunity to deepen the relationship if it works
well; there is a lot to be gained from this trial event in Paris.”
This isn’t Vinexpo’s only “beneficial alliance” according to Lameyse. The other concerns Vinexpo New York, which was launched two years ago with local partner Diversified Communications. A third event is planned for this year, and shows that Vinexpo is willing to licence its brand to extend its reach.
It doesn’t mean that the exhibition organiser is planning further shows. Lameyese says: “My plate is already full with challenges and difficulties,” he says, pointing out that he has been working on a new team at the Bordeaux headquarters, and will be appointing a new sales director along with a communications director for this year. “I’m leading the change within Vinexpo,” he adds. “You have to be successful at what you are already doing before considering any new launches.”
Nevertheless, he chooses not to rule out additional fairs. “If the opportunity arises in the future, and it matches a demand from the market, then yes, but it’s not my aim to launch 10 new shows,” he says.
Focus on spirits
On the subject of “opportunities” beyond the aforementioned alliances, Lameyese highlights one area of growth potential for Vinexpo – spirits. Noting that this area of drinks represents just 10% of Vinexpo’s revenue at the moment, he adds that even this figure “is mainly due to Cognac and Armagnac” – thanks to the fair’s longstanding French connections. Not only is Vinexpo launching the Be Spirits concept for the Paris show, which includes a 50 metre long bar at the heart of the fair, but Lameyse says that the next Vinexpo Explorer will be focused on spirits. The exhibition organiser’s Explorer initiative sees Vinexpo take key buyers to an up-and-coming producing area, which so far has included the wine regions of Austria, as well as Sonoma County in the US, and most recently, Beaujolais.
Speaking further about spirits, Lameyese cements his dedication to the category by saying that Vinexpo could launch a standalone fair for spirits. “If there is the opportunity to spin off spirits and have a pure spirits show, then yes, we will do it,” he says.
For now though, Lameyse is focused on firming up Vinexpo’s image in a competitive drinks fair sector. For this, he must re-instate Vinexpo’s upmarket credentials, which requires him to run a series of medium-sized events with high-profile figures, whether they concern visitors, exhibitors, or speakers. But he does not want Vinexpo to be seen as aloof. “There is a fine line between being a premium and an elitist show,” he says. “Vinexpo can be premium and open-minded, but the problem in the past was that Vinexpo thought it was elite,” he adds. When asked about where the boundary lies, he explains: “You are elite if you consider that you are running the world’s best wine and spirits exhibition and you live in an ivory tower, disconnected from trends. Being premium is different, it means you deliver value – I want to give the best business platform to our stakeholders.”
Whatever the techniques to hone Vinexpo’s premium brand positioning, from problem fixing to value adding, Lameyse appears acutely aware of a need to act fast.
“If we don’t do anything then in five years’ time we are dead, there will be no more Vinexpo,” he says. “But our plan is to be the first choice in the industry, and for me, that is not a question of size, but efficiency in terms of business, content and experience.”
He adds: “There could be multiple answers to this, such as Vinexpo Explorer; a small but beautiful show in Shanghai; a big platform in Hong Kong; and spirits; and where we can have beneficial alliances, such as in Paris, we are not afraid of making them.”
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