Düsseldorf, Germany — The throngs of people who pack Messe Düsseldorf for K 2016 will see the world's largest plastics factory, all set up and making parts.
What most do not see is all the work that goes into organizing the move-in and setup.
Don't take it for granted.
We're giving you a behind-the-scenes look at how Messe Düsseldorf employees, many of them long-term veterans, put together major trade shows like K.
Creating any big trade show is a major undertaking. But the K show stands alone. The eight-day spectacle that began Oct. 19 covers 170,000 square meters in 19 halls. More than 3,000 exhibitors, including many with running machinery, all need to build their booths, hook up utilities and then tear it all down again.
The logistics are nothing short of a miracle. And every three years, the story gets told in languages from around the world: K 2013, the last one, drew about 219,000 visitors, 58 percent of them from outside Germany.
It's not unusual at a K to see sharply dressed businesspeople riding the U-Bahn next to an attendee with flowing, brightly colored robes, an executive from a packaging maker maybe, or the minister of plastics from some small country. It's exotic.
Germany is known for efficiency and technology, from on-time trains to its energy-efficient escalators that only operate when someone approaches. German factories are among the most automated in the world.
But setting up a big trade show depends on people. Setting up the K show with thousands of moving parts and last-minute changes, the massive team at Messe Düsseldorf uses lots of cell phones and people on the ground, scheduling trucks, assigning forklifts, keeping everything moving forward as the clock ticks down to Day 1.
Trade shows are fun, but the setup is a lot of work.
Ian Hume, the top man overseeing everything, is a good-humored Brit whose title is director of event technology and logistics. Of course, he speaks good German. But K is like the United Nations of plastics without the simultaneous translation.
“I'm waiting for the universal translator. Or Star Trek,” Hume said, laughing.
“And that's one of the good things about these international shows. You meet a lot of people,” Hume said. “So [the logistics person] will have to talk to the Russian truck driver, and the Polish stand construction company, or the Indian exhibitor. You have to communicate, get your point over. So the communication on the show side, it's not just the visitors and exhibitors. It's all the people that are involved in setting up the fair.”
Messe Düsseldorf, which runs shows all over the world, has tried using its 75 outside cameras to check the truck staging areas near the halls and help its employees schedule deliveries. But officials found it was better to use traffic marshals using special cell phones who are stationed in each area, said Werner Arnold, who handles transportation issues for the event technology and logistics group.
No automated vision method. No directing traffic with GPS.
The key to making thing work is having people, on the ground, using their eyes.
Arnold said a K show brings in 2,700 trucks during the eight peak days of the 13-day setup. That's 300 or 400 trucks a day. About 100 to 150 exhibitors display big machinery, which arrives first. After a short lull, the volume picks up, with cars and smaller vehicles, he said.
Arnold, a 30-year employee, helped develop the in-house software for the trucking guidance system about 15 years ago. He is clear that people, not computers, are in control.
“The computer helps him decide, but the decision is up to him,” Arnold said.
Hume, a 20-year veteran of Messe Düsseldorf, said the hands-on work continues right up until the show begins. He knows many people at exhibitors by name, from years of running setups, and they know him and the other team members.
“Once they're here, it's solving individual problems and talking through technical points. It's a people-intensive business,” Hume said. “It might not be obvious to an exhibitor who comes on the first day and stands on his booth for all the days, what's gone into that before. How labor-intensive and communications-intensive that is.”