‘We’ll come out of this stronger’
Without a doubt, 2020 will go down in the books as one of the most extraordinary years that we have endured here at Royal Dutch Jaarbeurs in our entire 104-year history. The COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on our society, our health, and economy – and certainly on our industry. I can still remember clearly how our subsidiaries in Asia were the first to be confronted at the end of January with a virus that was first detected in Wuhan. We saw a repeat of this on 17 March 2020 at Jaarbeurs. On that day, the doors in Utrecht closed, and they opened only sporadically and partially over the rest of the year.
‘We’ll come out of this stronger.’ That was the basic attitude of our employees from day one. It’s a heartening mindset, and one that gives us confidence for the future. I am extremely grateful to our staff for their perseverance, their creativity, and their commitment.
In our society, and in some cases also at Jaarbeurs, many people have lost loved ones over the past year. Given this horrific coronavirus pandemic, I am mindful first and foremost of all the regrettable deaths. It goes without saying that our sympathy goes out to all surviving relatives, whom we wish all the strength in the world as they cope with the painful loss of their loved ones.
As is often the case in times of need, here at Jaarbeurs we were able to contribute to the fight against the coronavirus, for example by helping organise one of the largest test locations and then one of the largest vaccination sites in the Netherlands.
At the beginning of 2020, we were pressing ahead with the strong trend we had started in 2016. The refocused strategy we had chosen in 2019 was being pursued vigorously. With strong financial results and a strong cash position, we were, in sports parlance, at the top of our game. But then came the crisis, which would hit the events sector harder than it had ever been hit, and we had to let go of a number of colleagues over the course of the year. That was a painful but necessary decision, and one that we put off for as long as we could. We had to let a lot of flex workers go, and we cut back our permanent workforce by around 100 people (around 80 FTEs).
"In every crisis there are also opportunities"
In every crisis there are also opportunities. Jaarbeurs itself is one example: it was started during the First World War to boost Dutch trade and business. And this crisis, too, offers opportunities. In 2020, in cooperation with our partner Samsung Global, our exhibition halls were fitted out with an extensive system of beacons, thus creating new opportunities for indoor navigation and marketing. But this will also serve as a basis for crowd control, so we can organise our events even more safely. When the doors open again soon, it will be to an even safer, renewed environment. We have gone to great lengths to make sure we have stringent precautions in place, so we can welcome guests safely. Although safety ultimately begins and ends with behaviour, we have done everything we can to make sure everything goes well on that front. In December we were the first event venue in the Netherlands to be awarded the Kiwa seal of approval for COVID-19 prevention measures.
It’s second nature to Jaarbeurs to move with the times, from the barracks on the Vredenburg, where we started in 1917, to the permanent complex of exhibition halls in the heart of Utrecht, where we are today. Together with the City of Utrecht, we continued in 2020 to work on the plans for the New Jaarbeurs from 2023, set to be the most sustainable events venue in Europe.
That gives us confidence for the future. The events sector is going to bounce back strongly, and we have used this time for new initiatives, new collaborations, innovations and accelerated digitalisation. We started up again in June last year with VNU-EA, our China subsidiary, and considering how long we were open for, we produced strong financial results in 2020, in line with those for 2019, which were excellent. We are also counting on this resilience in the Netherlands for 2021, precisely because of our drive to speed up sustainable growth.
For 2021 we will be putting a strong focus on one of the most important sectors in the Netherlands: healthcare. This is a large market, but we also have a social responsibility to contribute to the development of this sector, which has proven to be so important.
In our early years, the slogan of our organisation was ‘Stay the course to reach your goal’. Those who persevere, press ahead, and show flexibility will meet their goals. Without a doubt, the going will still be tough in 2021, but there is land in sight. Thanks to the COVID-19-schemes of the Dutch government, the resilience of our customers and our employees, the considerable commitment of our Supervisory Board, and the important partner we have in the City of Utrecht, we are looking to the future with confidence. The doors will open again, and we will be so pleased to welcome our visitors and guests, both in person and online. We are ready.
CEO Royal Jaarbeurs