GIG: Since its inception in 1969, the Posidonia Exhibition has become one of the most important international shipping events in the world. Can you tell us a little bit about the history behind this?
VOKOS: The Greek shipping community was far from extrovert in the early 50’s and 60’s. The image of shipping back then was not exactly positive; some shipping companies were using second-hand ships, for example, which were not up to the best standards. But even then, they were the workhorses of the planet and the global economy. It was at that moment when the first shipping events took place in Europe. My grandfather Theodore Vokos, who was a shipping journalist, and my uncle Themis who worked with him, decided that something needed to be done to shed light on the importance of Greece’s shipping industry.
They started off with a shipping conference in 1963, one of the first of its kind in Greece, which was a very modest start.
This started the process that would lead to Posidonia as we all know it today. At the beginning, there was a lot of hesitation from the shipowning community. They didn’t understand why they should be in the limelight and address the international community, let alone showcase the importance of their fleet.
While it took some time to convince the shipowners, Posidonia managed to launch the first exhibition in 1969 at the Zappeion Megaron with 102 exhibitors, including the Japanese Shipbuilders and the American Bureau of Shipping. It became international from day one because all the suppliers to the Greek shipping industry were international. Greece had a limited number of shipyards and suppliers so the sector heavily relied on the international market for its supplies and ships.
Since then Posidonia has grown dramatically. Meanwhile, the mind-set of the Greek shipping community has also changed. On the one hand, they realised that through Posidonia they were giving back to the Greek economy and, on the other, shipowners understood that they needed a public voice in the international arena to promote their causes and push through policy initiatives. So Posidonia has evolved over the years into an international platform – not only a business exhibition – where the international shipping industry and the Greek shipping community are able to voice their concerns while showcasing the importance of the sector for the global economy.
It’s been said that if Greek shipowners were to go on strike for a day, global markets would come to a standstill and supermarkets would be empty. It’s now more important than ever to highlight the importance of shipping and the fact that during the lockdown supermarkets were fully stocked, necessary supplies were constantly available, and petrol stations were open. Shipping never stopped and overcame a lot of hardship and adverse conditions to keep going, and this is something people tend to forget. And this is exactly the message Posidonia wants to highlight.
GIG: Beyond the importance of Posidonia for the Greek shipping industry, how does the exhibition impact the Greek economy?
The financial impact of Posidonia is that it generates revenues of about €60 million for the Greek economy. An estimated 15,000 people fly into Greece to join Posidonia including exhibitors, visitors, contractors, and international stand builders. There are customs fees being paid for the exhibits, hotel accommodations, business dinners, and business receptions. There’s also the collateral benefit that the exhibition takes place in June meaning international visitors tend to add another three to four days to their stay to visit the islands and take a short holiday. Hence,
Posidonia promotes Greece as a business and MICE destination, generates millions in revenue for the local economy, and creates renewed optimism and confidence in the Greek market.
Just to give you a sense of the scale, major companies participating at Posidonia also spend on other events, such as conferences and business receptions as well as promotional material, travel expenses, etc. The money they spend on their actual exhibition is only a fraction of the budget they have allocated for Posidonia. Hence, there’s a multiplier effect. For every euro spent on the exhibition space, an additional five more euros are generated for the wider economy.
It should be noted that shipping never stopped operating and investing during the Greek financial crisis. Posidonia was perhaps one of the few Greek businesses that kept growing during the 10-year span of the financial crisis, highlighting that Greece was open for business. This reflected the fact that shipping did its job, and the international community still wanted to do business with the Greeks.
GIG: How is Posidonia different from other shipping industry-based events that happen across the world?
VOKOS: The biggest shipping fleet in the world is operated by Greeks, which means the biggest buyers’ pool is here, in Greece. If you want to sell anything that is shipping related, you must do it at Posidonia. And, of course, Posidonia has evolved. It has become a global platform in the sense that the head of a Chinese shipyard can meet an Argentinean shipowner at Posidonia and finalise a deal. It’s an excellent occasion to meet people and network.
Posidonia also has the broadest profile: From flag states, shipyards, and crewing agencies to airlines and government organisations.
Besides the Secretary General of the IMO, approximately 15 heads of state and shipping ministers attend Posidonia, in addition to the leaders of international maritime organisations. They attend Posidonia to debate policy and receive feedback from the market, in order to take the industry to the next level.
For us, it’s not only about showcasing new technology, it’s also about enhancing and supporting policy debates. Posidonia brings the entire shipping world together under one umbrella.
It’s important to pay attention to what the biggest fleet in the world has to say. In the past, the shipping industry was quite disconnected from the policy-making procedure. The industry was often not directly in touch with regulatory bodies, hence the operators of the industry who bear all the costs associated with any changes in policy were often not involved in the policy making process. Now, however, the shipping industry has changed, it has become more vocal and Posidonia is an ideal platform for the industry to present its case.
GIG: The international shipping industry is facing a number of headwinds, ranging from environmental and regulatory challenges and protectionism across to the need to further transform the sector through widespread digitisation. In what manner does Posidonia contribute to tackle these issues?
VOKOS: Posidonia presents an extensive conference and seminar programme that we try to keep as diverse as possible, in the sense that all issues should be debated. In fact, Posidonia doesn’t organise the conferences; many are produced by partner organisations after they have passed a strict vetting process. Posidonia makes sure all voices are heard and all topics are being presented, be it technology, the environment, human capital or digitisation.
Furthermore, besides the commercial incentive for exhibitors to participate at Posidonia, by presenting new technologies they have an opportunity to campaign for the need to adopt them, as they might benefit ships’ efficiency or the environment.
It all blends together with Posidonia having everything under one umbrella. Technology is directly connected with new regulations; one drives the other. A new technology will bring about a whole new set of challenges, that will need to be regulated through the appropriate policies, as is the case with unmanned shipping. In other cases, such as policies that require the lowering of CO2 emissions to a new standard, technology will come along and try to find a way to meet the target. It may happen that the necessary technology is not available yet and this will kick-start the debate on whether it is actually possible to meet the new target or an extension is needed for technology to catch up.
GIG: After an initial postponement, Posidonia 2020 was cancelled due to the pandemic, with all efforts now focusing on the production of the next edition that’s slated for 2022. What’s the strategy?
VOKOS: We decided to cancel early on for many reasons, which the market didn’t understand at the time. Posidonia is as international as it gets and has to consider a variety of factors in its decision-making process.
Posidonia exhibitors need a final green light to finalise and prepare their participation at least four months in advance, as exhibitors, especially those from the Far East, need to prepare their stand and exhibits, package them, ship them to Greece, and get them through customs so they are in Greece in time for the exhibition. Unfortunately, in mid-July there was no certainty that the exhibition would be able to take place, and the risk of the exhibition industry being shut down again, as a result of a new rise in COVID-19 cases, was highly likely.
Furthermore, as a result of EU regulations, travellers from many countries are not allowed into the EU, as the pandemic remains strong in their respective countries. These countries include the U.S., Turkey, China, Singapore, and many more, due to which Posidonia 2020 would not have been attended by exhibitors from these countries, resulting in a smaller and less international event. In addition to this, it should be mentioned that many companies have no-fly policies in place until the end of the year, so many shipping execs would not be able to exhibit or visit Posidonia.
To cut a long story short, even if exhibitions were currently allowed in Greece in October, any spike in COVID cases could lead to last minute cancellations and therefore significant losses for exhibitors and visitors (loss of money paid for travel arrangements, stand constructions, promotional material, etc.) and the organisers, having the interest of their exhibitors in mind, did not want to take this risk.
This is the reason why we pushed the exhibition to 2022 and not 2021. Even if a vaccine is rolled out this year we have no guarantees the world will be ready for major events by mid 2021.
However, there is still the possibility of us going ahead with the Posidonia Sea Tourism Forum in May, an event for the cruise and yachting industry. We are still exploring whether it will be a hybrid or digital event. Nevertheless, current regulations limit the capacity of conferences to 50 people, impose travel restrictions, and the cruise industry is still in turmoil. So, we’re going to wait until November or December of this year to decide on our plan of action.
GIG: Many other conferences and exhibitions transitioned into a digital format, leveraging VR technology and online streaming. Is this something you considered?
VOKOS: While I’m not a big fan of digital exhibitions, I understand their importance, but we didn’t want to compromise the image of Posidonia with something that might not have been successful.
We did look into various technologies, but we didn’t have the capacity to get something really big online within the year. Furthermore, I don’t think it would be fair to our exhibitors to offer them a virtual experience; this is not what they paid for. We’re hoping to come back with a big bang in 2022. And if by then we’re still facing the same challenges, yes, we will have to go fully digital or consider other options.
However, as it is very important to keep the Posidonia brand name visible, we’ve launched the Posidonia Web Forums Week, which will take place from the 26 to the 30 of October. Over the course of one week the Posidonia Week will provide the platform where everything that is shipping-related will be discussed.
We’ve partnered with S&P Platts, Lloyd’s List, TradeWinds, Seatrade, Enterprise Europe Network, and many others to provide content of the highest quality and matchmaking opportunities.
GIG: Do you believe the success of Posidonia can be replicated in other sectors of the economy?
VOKOS: Exhibitions always reflect an industry. You can’t have a large-scale car manufacturing exhibition in Greece when we don’t have any car building factories here. Greece has industries that are strong like the food and beverage industry or the tourism industry. Exhibitions in these sectors are growing and becoming more international, but at a slower pace than I would have expected. Greece needs bigger exhibition centres and we need Greek exhibition organisers to become more extrovert. Growing an exhibition and making it international requires investments.
Greece has the competitive advantage that it is a top destination, hence basically we do business where others want to come for holidays. Any event organised in Greece will benefit from the fact that people will want to come, so Greece should focus on the exhibitions and MICE sector. Hopefully, the current crisis will be overcome in 2021 so that the events industry will pick up again.
GIG: You assumed the leadership of Posidonia Exhibitions in 2012, meaning the next edition of the conference in 2022 will effectively mark a decade of your direction. Looking ahead, what are your goals?
VOKOS: Our first objective is to be back in business in 2022 and be able to do what we do best. Over that period, earlier than anticipated perhaps, Posidonia will have to consider digital options with the possibility of simultaneously running a digital and a physical event.
When it comes to business travel, I believe companies will cancel the odd business trip, but they will be looking for a good opportunity to meet and present their products and services on a larger scale. This should benefit exhibitions in the long run.
Naturally, Posidonia should grow and improve, but we also want to go safer in the sense that this company has to look after its people and safeguard the benefits it generates for this country. We strongly believe that Posidonia has significant importance for Greece and the local economy and all options should be considered to make sure Posidonia continues to deliver.