Interview with Kyriakos Pozrikidis, CEO, TIF-HELEXPO, Greece

Interview with Kyriakos Pozrikidis, CEO, TIF-HELEXPO, Greece


Helexpo is a major player in Greece’s MICE industry, at the forefront of the country’s culture scene as well. It owns two flagship exhibition and congress centres, in Thessaloniki and in Athens. To start our interview, can you give us a brief overview of Helexpo with perhaps highlight some of the latest facts and figures about your company to illustrate its significance for the country, its economic, trade, and cultural strength?

Our company is one of the oldest in Europe, not only in Greece. We started with TIF (Thessaloniki’s International Fair) in 1926 and since then we kept growing. Stopping during WWII, we started again in 1951 and since then we have been organizing exhibitions every year. In the beginning we had only a general fair every September but in the 1980s, we started organizing specialized exhibitions. Now, in addition to the general fair every September, we have more than 20 exhibitions in different sectors, such as energy, technology, and agricultural, playing a significant role in the economy. AGROTICA, for example, is among one of the five biggest agricultural shows in Europe, and the biggest one in Southeast Europe. We organize exhibitions as well for books and jewelry and our venue in Thessaloniki is only a 5-hour drive from 5 Balkan capital cities, so it is very convenient for entrepreneurs to come and attend a show.

Exhibition centers in Europe and worldwide don’t have a lot of turnover as they create and multiply economic effects for the society and destination where they organize the shows. The multiplier is between 7 and 11 which means that for every one euro that goes to the exhibition organizer, 7-11 euros go to the city where the show is organized. Thus all over Europe, exhibition centers belong to a public entity. Our strategy is to organize exhibitions, fairs, and congresses to increase the volume of business and international trade, as well as earn money for the destination or the city. Hotels and restaurants are fully booked during our exhibitions and events, the taxis are busy, and construction is booming. We promote the image of the city. This is our contribution to the MICE industry and to the GDP of Greece.


The TIF which is your flagship event. You just had the 87th TIF in September.  How was the event? What kind of turnout did you have? What kind of new features did you have in this event? What are some of the main lessons you have learned that you would implement for 2024?

We have put on the TIF since 1926 but the trend now since the 1980s is to have specialized exhibitions, focused on a specific business sector. The Thessaloniki International Fair is a show that has three levels. The first is B2C, business to consumer companies that want to have direct communication with the consumer can do market research, branding, education, and distribute knowledge about the products and services. The next level is the B2B, business to business, where we organize B2B events between companies targeted to promote the product. The third level is B2G, which is business to government, connecting the commercial and political realms. Every year we provide the platform for each government to announce its´ economic policy. We have all the leaders of their positions, and we have foreign ministers that come with their delegations. Several years ago, we created the concept of a Guest of Honor Country for the culture and business of the whole country, not just from a specific sector.

The first Guest of Honor Country was Russia, then China. Thirdly, and with significant success, the United States of America was the Guest of Honor during the Trump Administration. Mr. Ross, the Secretary of Commerce came to Thessaloniki with a large delegation. Immediately after the United States was the Guest of Honor Country at TIF, we received great support from the American Embassy and that continued with the Biden Administration.

One year after that we received investments from Cisco and Pfizer. We did not create these investments, but we provided a platform for discussion to see how they could invest. We have hosted the United Arab Emirates and last year we hosted Bulgaria, illustrating our respect for our neighbors in the Balkan States. We will have Germany this year and we have received an initial acceptance from Mr. Olaf Scholz, the Chancellor of Germany who wishes to visit, which is meaningful because it will have an international impact. We have more than 300,000 visitors, attracted by multi-sector events organized in conjunction with political, cultural, and music events every night, not just business events.


Some have said in the past that Greece missed a great opportunity in the 90s to become a leader in Exhibition and Trade Fairs, and that it is Turkey who finally took advantage of this opportunity. How is Greece, through your organization mainly working to catch up and take a leading position the MICE industry today? What sort of unique advantages does Greece have, as a host of choice for international events and exhibitions? 

It is difficult to compare Thessaloniki, a city with a population of about 1 million and Istanbul, with more than 12 million habitants. Turkey is a large market of about 80 million, so they have organizational power due to the size of their internal market.

Also, Turkey has a different policy regarding investment. The airport in Istanbul and the new exhibition center are both public investments. Our exhibition center in Thessaloniki is from the 1950-1980s. We are determined to provide a new exhibition center that can host smart events, more compact conferences and exhibitions, presenting smart solutions for the products and services of modern attendees.

The advantage that we have is that we can successfully compete with the large international exhibition centers in Frankfurt, Dusseldorf or Milan. Our strategy is to be one of the leading regional exhibition centers and we are already the leading exhibition organizer in the region. In comparison with the infrastructure in the rest of the Balkan states, we are better prepared. Although the venue is not new, we have the experience and the know-how. As we continually update our infrastructure, we will maintain our leading position.

The Greek market is 10 million, plus 30 million tourists plus a market of 100 million from broader Southeast Europe, including Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. They have local exhibition centers but prefer to come to Thessaloniki to visit a larger exhibition. This year, 30% of our agricultural exhibition visitors came to Thessaloniki from the Balkans which is very important for us and for them to come to come and see the products. There is no direct competition with Istanbul; we have our own market and they have theirs, plus some satellite countries like Turkmenistan. We feel that we also offer a better product as a city, offering accessibility, nightlife, monetary value, and infrastructure. Greece is an attractive choice, and will be more attractive in the future, especially in the sector of Congresses. Associations now look for new destinations for their Congresses. For example, the European Congress of Doctors has organized their Congress 5 times in Paris and 3 times in Rome and now they are looking for new destinations. Thessaloniki is an excellent option.


One of the master projects in your pipeline is the ConfEx Park that is done through a PPP backed by Growthfund. Can you tell me more about this project, what will it bring to the area, and what other upcoming expansion and development projects are in your pipeline?

It is difficult to find venues with centrality in Europe, as exhibition venues are typically located outside cities. We are very lucky that our venue is in the heart of the city, and we don’t want to lose this central advantage. We need to reconstruct and renovate it from the ground up in a more sustainable way, using photovoltaic heating. It will be the most bioclimatic project venue in Europe and will save 70% of the energy compared to today and 50% of the water. We are planning to build 3 pavilions of 50,000 square meters. There will be a small business hotel, supporting the business center and a large park, with the objective of balancing the quiet life of citizens and visitors, without heavy industrial operations or pollution.


What is the timeline for this new exhibition center?

We are now finished with the preliminary design and our proposal needs to be financed by three sources. The first source is public finance, the second is investment by private investors who will operate the business center and the hotel, and the rest is by our company with a possible loan from the European Development Bank. This is the approximate combination of financing sources. Once the government decides on the financing, it will need 5 years to become operational, to not have to temporarily take our exhibitions off the market. We will need to take it step by step while continuing to operate.


You mentioned how you are trying to make your operations and building more sustainable. What sort of efforts is Helexpo doing to lower its environmental footprint, especially given the impact the type of events you organize can have? What sort of sustainable initiatives, technologies, or circular activities is your company implementing? 

There are directions from the European Community and from the Global Association of Exhibitions to have zero carbon emissions within 5 years. We are following our colleagues in the United States and Europe in this. However, it is an old facility, so we can’t push forward too quickly regarding large investments. However, we are working toward being paperless, have changed to LEDs, and have heavy recycling for all things related to the exhibitions. We are very environmentally friendly through small actions, not just big actions and big investments. For us it is a philosophy about the cultural extent of investing, and we try to be in line with the sustainability agenda of the European Community. We have created an ESG Department that controls and manages all these actions, but the big step will be the new exhibition center.


During Covid, we have seen lots of events moved to the digital space. Is it something that you have still be doing? What is your experience with this? Are you continuing this type of space?

The exhibition industry is human interaction. Digital events have been taking place for the past twenty years but can never replace the human touch. If you go to an exhibition, or you go to a Congress, you meet each other in person and make a real connection.

We believe in the digital era that is coming but it will be supplementary to the exhibition industry. We now have applications for booking meetings with exhibitors, how to direct the exhibition among the pavilions, and how to find services. We have all these digital tools that support the main event. I think that in the next few years, the exhibition industry will not be a business event. It will be a human event. It will be an opportunity for humans to get together. There was a survey of 500 CEOs in Europe after Covid, and they were asked if they were satisfied with the digital era. They answered, “No, it is not the same.” It is not the same thing to buy something from a photo posted by a company that you are not familiar with, and with whom you cannot negotiate. The importance of having the opportunity to touch, smell, or taste the product should not be underestimated.


How are you using the latest disruptive technologies in your operations and events like big data, AI, augmented reality, and other tools?

We are implementing them step by step. We have 20 sectors with all the companies in Greece and abroad in large databases. We are working to follow all the rules of GTP, and to secure all data from external threats.


The US is a major economic, trade, business, and investment partner of Greece, both countries are enjoying a historical strong cooperation, in multiple sectors and going from strength to strength. How do you go about reinforcing Helexpo’s international relations, and how important in the US in that regard? How are you working on strengthening ties with the US?

Our strategy is to be the regional leader of exhibitions. The United States is very close, and it is also very far away. We share a special relationship with the United States and had them as a Guest Host Country several years ago. We also had an agreement with the mayor of San Francisco to be the Guest of Honor City in our technology show, but Covid came, and we had to postpone the date. We have a good relationship. We make some presentations in the US, especially to the fast-food shows in New York with Greek products and we have indirect participation from the United States through representatives in Greece. There are many American companies that are based in Greece and local representatives have the authority to attract and promote further contact. We have a lot of original American companies with a Greek presence.


You have a strong history of working in the events services industry. What are some of your big priorities now, and what would you like to accomplish most in the near future?

The priority of the company is to secure and activate the new exhibition space. It is essential to have a new bioclimatic operating infrastructure. The second priority is to establish and secure our place in the region, as we are the eastern border of Europe, connecting the European Community to the Middle East. Location is crucial to the Greek economy. We have many visitors from the Middle East because we are the first state of the European Community. However, the principal strategy is to organize the leading shows in the region of Southeast Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.


What would be your final message to the readers of USA Today?

Greece is a secure, promising country that has Western cultural attitudes towards doing business. Come to Greece and do business, not only with Greece, but with the rest of the world.