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16 Mar, 1999

ITB Berlin: “An Event With No Limit”

Prof Dr Manfred Busche, chairman of Messe Berlin, launched the ITB Berlin in 1966 and watched it grow into the world’s largest trade show. In this interview with Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil he indulges in a little nostalgia, discusses the secrets of ITB’s success and his plans after retirement in June 1999.


A tribute to Prof Dr Manfred Busche, Chairman of the Board, Messe Berlin, home of ITB Berlin, the world’s largest trade show. Dr Busche will be retiring at the end of June after 33 years of close involvement with an exhibition that has had the greatest influence on the global Travel & Tourism industry. In this interview, he recounts the ITB’s origins and the secrets of its success.

Born in 1934 in Aschersleben, eastern Germany, Dr Busche studied economics at Hamburg and Berlin Universities and completed his Ph.D. at Berlin university. Joining the Goethe Institute immediately after, he was posted as deputy director in Cairo between 1962-65.

In 1965, he joined Messe Berlin as deputy director and in 1966, drawing on the experience of his travels through the Middle East and North Africa, launched the ITB. In 1968, he was promoted to managing director and in 1977 to Chairman.

Like a sequoia tree, the ITB has grown from humble beginnings to a mammoth show that nearly anyone who is someone in the Travel & Tourism industry visits at least once in their professional lifetime. Now bursting at over 80 halls and rooms over 149,000 square metres, the 1999 ITB was attended by 7,434 companies and organisations from 190 countries and territories. Foreign exhibitors totalled 5,887 this year. About 7,000 journalists from more than 90 countries and territories registered.

Seeing this growth and the impact the ITB has had on global Travel & Tourism has been a source of some satisfaction. In this interview at the PATA conference in Nagoya, Dr Busche took a trip down memory lane with Travel Impact Newswire.


Imtiaz Muqbil: You are known as the father and founder of ITB.

Dr MB: Founder yes. Father I don’t know, maybe grandfather might be better now.

Q: What is the secret of the success of the ITB?

A: Giving it a new dimension every year. No one ITB is the same as the other one. We have to create every ITB like a unique one each year. That is one of the secrets. Every year, an event like that has to be kept new, modern. We have to be close to the new developments which are coming up. Or even those developments that pretend to be ‘new’ — some are not as new as they pretend to be. But we have to follow developments like everyone and lead ITB to a new and successful dimension every year.

Q: You said that is ‘one of the secrets.’ Any others?

A: Its very simple. All success stories are very simple. The success story of the ITB is the same. We wanted to create a real international event, a real worldwide-accepted event for and by the industry. It’s the only event in the world of tourism that is really international. It is not purely European, airline- or travel agent-dominated or government-dictated or under any other association or grouping. It is not a regional event. It is an event which has no limit. We are open for developments in Latin America, Pacific, and the US and everywhere. We have to serve the world of tourism, those who are part of the world of tourism.

We are really worldwide-orientated. And that is because we are independent. I wanted it to be independent from the very beginning, absolutely independent from the German government, from the European Commission (if it existed at the time), independent from national tourism offices. This is a very simple, primitive, basic idea of the ITB. To keep it open for everybody. This may sound very simple, but it can be sometimes difficult.

Many enterprises and companies have come to us and said they would like to be of assistance. We accepted offers of those kinds only partially, we said ‘yes, okay, but we want to remain independent, and serve all parts of the tourism industry. We will not accept being dominated by anyone or any continent or any branch of the industry.’

Q. Do you think the mystique of Berlin had anything to do with it?

A. I don’t think it had anything to do with it. On the contrary, one of the wonders is that we are successful inspite of being in Berlin. In the first decade, we had the communist bloc against us. I remember very well when we had to convince the tourism organisations (why they SHOULD participate even though) the event was in this divided city, in the fortress of the western world. The basic idea was not accepted. We had to convince the industry that it would be to their advantage in having a worldwide event dominated by no-one but the tourism industry itself, a totally neutral event. We had to convince even the Germans.

In the beginning they (the Germans) said, ‘What are you doing? We do not understand!!’ I remember one of the discussions I had with the founders of TUI (Touristik Union International, the giant German tour operator) about 1968 or 1969. He said, ‘Give up. It’s senseless, you are trying to establish a trade fair for an industry which has nothing to exhibit. A trade fair needs something to exhibit, some product, some machinery. You only have leaflets.’ Nevertheless, I convinced him to buy a booth.

Q. How many halls was the first ITB?

A. (laughs) How many halls?!? It was more like how many square metres, only in one hall!! Probably just half of one hall today. Just recently, I discovered by chance a paper describing the aims and philosophies of ITB, which I had written for the second ITB. This was where I described what we should do next after the first ITB. I am very proud to see that until today, the principles of the ITB as it developed are 80-90% unchanged since I wrote that description of the second ITB.

Q.What did it say?

A. What it said — I have it in my home, I treasure it — is that one of the principles is that the trade visitor is the heart of the whole thing. We have to aim at the wishes of the trade visitor, not the travelling public. The general public is the final consumer of everything. But the key person is not the exhibitor, not the tourist, not the journalist, but the trade visitor.

Q. But the trade visitor will only come if the exhibitors are good?

A. Yes, but if you offer one side one thing, the other side will follow. If growth rates are equal on both sides, everybody will be happy. You have to take care of the equilibrium, to create the feeling that there is a strong representation by the important side, and if it is not sufficient, that it will grow to be sufficient. When we had first 10-15 visitors from India, we all knew that that this was not enough. But the fact was: We had 10-15 visitors from India —  this was a surprise!! And we said, ‘next year we will have 30.’ And this was the attention we paid to it and this brought us greater acceptance, and gave hope both to us and to other participants who could now go back and tell their colleagues.

Q. You’ve had a great personal affinity with the Asia-Pacific. Why?

A. I really don’t know. I’ve had a great respect for the culture and history of this great part of the world. I could imagine myself living in these countries someday. I have had the opportunity to visit nearly every country. I’ve also been to all the European countries and many other parts of the world, but there’s something special about Asia, about all the PATA countries.

Q: Messe Berlin never discloses financial figures on the performance of the ITB. How profitable is the show?

A: It has been profitable for about last 20 years. But we had to invest a lot of money in the first decade of the ITB. At that time we were small. We had to go to Australia, North America, and many other places to convince the tourism industry that they would need something like the ITB.

Q. How profitable is it compared to other shows at the Messe Berlin.

A. We have four shows which are equal standards — the other three are consumer electronics, green week (for the agricultural and food industry), and a building fair for the construction industry. There is also the Berlin Air show, but there is no profit it, which is now changing.

Q. How much support do you get from the Berlin government?

A. Today, I have no complaints about the acceptance of the ITB, including from the Berlin city government, but I remember going to see one of the senators (city councillors) and explaining to him how important it would be to bring the world to Berlin, and I showed him on a map where the various countries were and what I wanted to achieve. And he hummed and muttered and then remarked, ‘Yes this ITB is a very interesting thing and I can see it has some importance but I am not listening and will listen only when it is the size of the Green Week.’

Q. What does he say today?

A. Unfortunately, he’s not with us any more.

Q. Which of the profitable shows is the fastest growing?

A. The growth of ITB has been bigger as it started from zero. Consumer electronics and green week are traditional shows that started before ITB. Now we have two new trade fairs of that size.

Q. How much of a competitive threat do you expect the growing number of other travel trade shows to pose to the ITB?

A. I have nothing against all these other trade shows, and they have their aims and responsibilities, and they will exist. I think there is a need for a trade  show in Latin America and for a trade fair of similar character in Asia, and perhaps there is a need for three or four of them, including a trade event in North America. These do not mean competition for ITB, but are kind of complementing the ITB. They are part of the bigger picture of the tourism industry. We have to recognise and respect that they are very specific developments in Latin America and North America and nobody within the ITB organisation has anything against it. However, there is a need for one global event, just as when we founded it.

Q. Will the other trade shows hurt the ITB in terms of attendance and financially?

A. They won’t hurt attendance at ITB. Financial problems would be a minor issue. The main issue (with trade shows) is that you have to be relevant. You have to maintain your relevance to the industry. The tourism industry has to say that ‘this belongs to us and it is our main event.’ The ITB is not only big but important because all the decision-makers are there. When the delegates from Australia or any other country come, they come not to see Berlin but to meet these decision-makers.

Q. Has the growth of outbound travel from Germany helped the ITB?

A. Yes it has helped, and it is very important, but by no means is it responsible for creating the importance of ITB. Yes, if German outbound diminished it would create some problems for us. But the majority of the delegates come because they know that they can and will meet the leading people from the tourism industry in all parts of the world. Although some journalists do not realise that.

Q. Will you be applying the same philosophy to International Travel Asia (ITA, the new trade show to be launched in Hong Kong in September)?

A. The ITA’s philosophy has to be developed. We have to try, with our dear partner Miller Freeman and see which kind of philosophy will be successful. We are beginning with the tourism ministries in the Asia-Pacific, and rely on the capability and strength of Miller Freeman. They rely on our knowledge of and acceptance in the industry. But in some respects we both have to find what the successful philosophy could be. We are newcomers in the field (of Asian travel trade shows). Other travel events are already taking place — the PATA Travel Mart, the travel show in Shanghai which the Chinese own and support heavily. Let’s wait and see.

It is also a sign of our confidence in Hong Kong. We are convinced that Hong Kong is the right place. We had and still have offers from other places in the neighourhood. Even at ITB 1999 somebody said, ‘why not take it to our country and we will support you,’ and I said ‘perhaps one day we may.’ But I am personally convinced of the future of Hong Kong. It has a very specific atmosphere for international business and a certain open-mindedness. I know it for many, many years and admire it.

Q. Do the tax advantages of Hong Kong help?

A. In order to make money you have to spend money. ITA is an investment — we have a 50-50 shareholding in ITA. Tax advantages have nothing to do with it. Its just the history, the mentality, the overall situation of Hong Kong in that area. A kind of neutral place to hold a major trade show.

Q. Has any dream of yours gone unfulfilled?

A. We should have at least one major hotel close to the ITB fair ground. This is a very practical problem. We are looking for investors to build a property in conjunction with the fair grounds. The designs are ready, and I know many companies who are interested in managing it. But we need an investor. The plans are for a 140-metre-high hotel, four-stars, about 400 rooms. If I had money, I would invest. We are negotiating with an investor. Hopefully it will be ready by ITB 2002.

Q. What about direct flights?

A. You mean from outside Europe? Yes, this will come, too. This year, Berlin is regaining the status of the capital of Germany. Parliament is coming back and government is back and the importance of Berlin will grow. It is the centre of central Europe, so it will help to convince everyone to create the conditions and establish more non-stop flights from outside.

Q. What are you going to do after retirement?

A. My wife and I have bought a boat, and as our house is located along one of the rivers, we now plan to take a tour through the rivers and canals which can be done any month of the year. Anyway, I’m not completely out of business. I will retain links with Messe Berlin. Last year I was elected President of the world association of trade fairs, which is based in Paris, so I will still be involved with the convention and trade fair industry.

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