Strategic decision-making during times of uncertainty: The case of Italian Exhibition Group

Antonio Daood, Marco Corsino, Renato Medei November 17, 2023 6 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a profound upheaval in companies around the world, bringing to a standstill sectors that had never before suffered a setback. This unprecedented event required companies and organizations to adapt and innovate in a way that challenged even the most structured enterprises. In such a context, a company that has been able to cope quickly and effectively with previously untested conditions has become an interesting case study for undergraduate and postgraduate level strategic management courses. Indeed, as the global socioeconomic environment becomes less and less predictable, it is essential for managers to be able to assess risks and opportunities and make decisions by striking the right balance between intuition, experience, and data analysis. 

The company in question is Italian Exhibition Group (IEG), a major player in the organization of trade shows and events in Italy and Europe. The Italian lockdown in March 2020 posed particularly significant challenges to the entire industry. In IEG’s case, concerns were directed especially at its flagship event: VicenzaOro, an internationally renowned jewelry fair.

Italian Exhibition Group was formed in 2016 through the merger of Rimini Fiera Spa and Fiera di Vicenza Spa. These companies had distinct specializations in different Made in Italy sectors, which made the union strategically advantageous. Thanks to its solid performance, IEG was listed in 2019. Also in 2019, it had organized 48 exhibitions and 190 conferences in strategic foreign markets. Such events accounted for 54.7 percent of the company’s revenues, of which more than half were generated by two key fairs, VicenzaOro (Jewellery & Fashion) and Sigep (Food & Beverage). Much more than a standard trade fair, VicenzaOro had already become a reference point for the industry, the place to exhibit the ability to create typically Italian beauty, anticipate design trends and discover the new frontiers of innovation. Moreover, thanks to strong relationships with trade associations, municipalities and the general public, it had become a prominent citywide event over the years.

VicenzaOro’s success had been built on two driving forces. The first was a set of traditional and well-established operating mechanisms rooted in the efficiency of trade show set-up and dating back to the late 1940s, when Fiera di Vicenza was founded. These mechanisms enabled the rapid construction of the exhibition infrastructure, including halls and stands, designed to attract exhibitors and visitors. The second driving force rested in innovative strategies regarding the exhibition content, its dissemination, audience targeting, and useful solutions to facilitate the meeting of supply and demand within the fair. While the traditional elements were fundamental, the innovative aspect was instrumental in taking VicenzaOro to the next level. With the lockdown, however, the success of this event was in danger of waning and the future suddenly became very uncertain. Marco Carniello, IEG’s Group Brand Director Jewellery & Fashion at the time, and his team were tasked with dealing with this difficult period as stakeholders anxiously awaited news about what would become of the event scheduled for September 2020.

Building VicenzaOro’s success, which definitely exploded in the year before the pandemic, had been the “Golden Team” led by Carniello, a group of about 15 marketing, sales and communications professionals. Known for their high level of expertise, industry experience and organizational efficiency, they had made the event a true flagship not only for the company but for the entire industry, propelling it into the 21st century. It was a diverse team, with 67 percent female presence and a 50/50 split between humanities and business backgrounds. The team’s collective capabilities extended to all types of business events and were held together by the strategic goal of growing VicenzaOro’s reputation as an international fair. The team had identified three key pillars for success: the centrality of the buyer, the creation of a cultural hub, and the provision of unforgettable experiences for participants. These three principles, put into practice through as many key strategic moves, have guided the growth of VicenzaOro.

The first strategic move was to provide value to buyers. By prioritizing buyers’ needs, it was possible to indirectly increase value for exhibitors as well. To achieve this, the working group studied which buyers to attract and how to actively engage them to turn the event into a natural magnet for exhibitors. By working on the concept of community, making each visit stimulating and efficient for buyers, introducing new spaces useful for discussion, such as “le stanze” (the rooms), and activating programs such as “hosted buyers” and “Gold card” it was possible to attract influential buyers, leading to an increase in both quantity and quality.  

The second strategic move was to make VicenzaOro a cultural hub, a kind of World Economic Forum of jewelry. To do this, the Golden Team consolidated relationships with all major national and international institutions, providing a platform for discussion of the most important issues in the industry. Over time, a growing network began to look to Vicenza as an opportunity for critical dialogue, a place to discuss the most important issues in the jewelry world. This approach also allowed for better media coverage, which had a direct impact on the visibility of the event. 

The third strategic move involved enhancing the experience. The Golden Team emphasized the customer journey with the goal of offering visitors an authentic, enjoyable, and sophisticated experience. By leveraging unique Italian experiences related to art, culture, and gastronomy, VicenzaOro made sure to offer its visitors an engaging and memorable event. The small size of the town of Vicenza was turned into an advantage because it could offer an intimate and exclusive atmosphere.

In this context of growth, the setback struck: still under the leadership of Marco Carniello, the Golden Team had to face the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The path taken, despite the obstacles, allowed the group to adapt and endure. The entire decision-making process analyzed in the Case Study is a demonstration of how necessary it is to be able to collect reliable data to inform one’s decisions and how critical it is to make the best use of available resources, as the Golden Team did by choosing, for example, to leverage the Rimini branch’s experience and contacts in the travel and tourism sector to be able to make reliable projections on attendance.

The Golden Team also found itself working under pressure that is easy to imagine, with national and international exhibitors and trade associations demanding clarity on the status of the event, given the restrictions imposed on events after the lockdown ended. With the countdown to the September 2020 edition of VicenzaOro in full swing, the team was aware that one wrong decision could jeopardize the valuable past achievements. After collecting the data, it was then a matter of deciding on a course of action for the upcoming event, identifying a number of possible actions and assessing all their implications. After lengthy email exchanges and virtual brainstorming, the group was finally able to meet in person in April 2020, well aware of how time was running out, since it normally takes 8-12 months to organize a fair like VicenzaOro. At that time, there were several options to consider: proceed as usual, cancel the event, or adopt a new format that integrated a different value proposition, new digital content, setups, and pricing.

The event was finally held on September 12-14, 2020, and involved about 300 exhibitors who showcased previews of their collections. About five thousand visitors, as well as industry professionals, took part in the exhibition event in a covered area of 40,000 square meters. Since then, VicenzaOro has been growing again, registering a 24 percent increase in attendance in 2022 compared to the previous year’s edition, which was still affected by the post-pandemic context. In 2023, the event achieved record results, the best in its nearly 70-year history, both in terms of exhibitors (thus also from the financial point of view) and visitor numbers. This achievement is also due to the business continuity that the Team managed to ensure during the pandemic, with quick but judicious decisions, radically changing model, operational and business cycles. 

This article is based on
Trade-offs at the trade fair: Rethinking VicenzaOro in uncertain
Antonio Daood, Marco Corsino, Renato Medei