800 years of trade fairs in Frankfurt

Frankfurt has been well known for its trade fairs for some 800 years. In the Middle Ages, merchants and businessmen met at the “Römer”, a medieval building in the heart of the city that served as a market place; from 1909 onwards, they met at the Festhalle. The first Frankfurt trade fair to be mentioned in writing dates as far back as 11 July 1240. The Frankfurt Autumn Fair was called into being by Emperor Frederick II.

Some 90 years later, the Frankfurt Spring Fair also received its privilege from Emperor Louis IV. From that point onwards, trade fairs were held in Frankfurt twice a year, laying the foundation for Messe Frankfurt’s modern-day sector platforms.

From a medieval marketplace to a global trade fair partner

Frankfurt's trade fairs remained a key feature of the city throughout its development. Already in the time of Martin Luther, the "marketplace of Germany" had become a "bustling market for the goods of the world". As many as 40,000 people came to the trade fairs in this city on the Main River, a number even greater than the total population of "Francofurtia" at the time. Even in the early 17th century, as many as one quarter of the merchants came from abroad.

Frankfurt trade fairs enjoyed their first heyday as a centre for international trade, a golden age which brought prosperity through the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Even so, it was clear that the focus of European trade was shifting to the East. In Saxony in particular, a more liberal trade and industrial policy was pursued which Frankfurt and its trade fairs could do little to compete with.

The marked decline in the trade fair business in Frankfurt should also be viewed in light of the new ways of distribution. For many centuries, trade fairs have simply been the place where providers had brought their handmade goods to sell directly from their stands, which meant the town turned into a giant goods depot whenever there was a fair. With the start of industrial production, the form of distribution also changed. The rise of series production and the large volumes with the same quality that this entailed meant that it was no longer necessary to bring all of one's goods to the trade fair. As a result, more and more exhibitors came to the fair carrying only samples of their products. This marked the birth of the sample fair, a concept which was to gradually become the norm.

It was not until the "Gründerzeit" era (late 19th century) that things began looking up again for the Frankfurt trade fair business. The primary reason for this was the new type of industrial technology exhibitions. The first World Exhibitions in London (1851) and Paris (1855) heralded the start of this new type of national exhibition. Frankfurt also took part in this boom: industrial exhibitions, cooking exhibitions, agricultural exhibitions and the first automotive exhibition, not to mention the hugely important electrical engineering fair of 1891, all took place here and met with a tremendous response. These exhibitions – in conjunction with the system of the modern sample fair – can be seen as an early incarnation of the specialised fair, otherwise known as the "Frankfurt system". Even in these early shows, there was already a clear separation between different fields and sectors, divisions which would become the decisive factor for the subsequent development of Frankfurt's trade fair policies.

One thing was very clear after the first large exhibitions: for such mammoth shows – not to mention the increasing number of large cultural events such as the Deutsches Sängerfest (German Song Festival) and the Deutsches Turnfest (German Gymnastics Festival) – the city had too few buildings, and those that it did have were too small. The result of this realisation is well-known, for the construction of the Festhalle marked the creation of one of Europe's largest exhibition halls. It can be seen as the cornerstone of the Ausstellungs- und Messegesellschaft mbH which was founded in 1907.

Initial plans for reinvigorating the trade fair business were put on hold, however, by the outbreak of the First World War. One year after the war ended, the city government made available what was then an unbelievable sum – 500,000 Reichsmarks – for the construction of five provisional halls around the Festhalle. On 1 October 1919 these plans came to fruition: with more than 3,000 exhibitors over a total exhibition area of 16,500 square meters, the first Frankfurt International Trade Fair opened its doors, at this time under the name of Internationale Einfuhrmesse (International Import Fair). It was hoped that this event marked the breakthrough, and that a recurring roster of trade fairs had been assured.

Frankfurt profited from the vigorous, sometimes hectic trading that took place during the 1920s, and from the city's propitious location near the French occupation zone. The Frankfurt trade fair expanded, establishing itself as an "all-round exhibition" with particular strength in the consumer goods sector. The way was soon clear for the establishment of a new tradition. The town council then decided that the Festhalle premises should be expanded into a "trade fair city". Already in 1920/1921 the "Haus Offenbach" administration building and the "Haus Werkbund" (Work Federation Building) were built, soon to be followed by the "Haus der Technik" (Technology Building), "Haus Schuh und Leder" (Shoe and Leather Building) and "Haus der Moden" (Fashion Building). The necessary infrastructure was also established with the construction of warehouses, a rail connection to the freight terminal and the creation of food services operations.

The optimism did not last long, as "Black Friday" soon reached Germany as well. This was followed by the global economic crisis, the assumption of power by the Nazis and their autarchic economic policies. The war brought an end to the trade fairs and resulted in the destruction of much of the Festhalle and adjacent exhibition grounds.

When, on 25 August 1946, Mayor Kolb announced that "Frankfurt is going to be a trade fair city once again," he did this because he believed that reconstructing the trade fair would help kick-start the rebirth of the entire city.

The Frankfurt International Trade Fair, held from 3 – 8 October 1948, carried on the tradition of the international sample fairs which had been held since Autumn 1919: 1,771 exhibitors, of whom no less than 46 were from outside Germany, played the role of pioneers at the first event. A total of 32 different industries presented their goods, ranging from textiles and machines to foodstuffs, drinks and tobacco, over a total of 60,000 square metres of exhibition area in provisional lightweight constructions, tents or simply in the open air. In comparison to modern trade fairs, the conditions at this makeshift trade fair were rough, yet the economic and psychological effects of the autumn trade fair were enormous, both with regard to spurring foreign trade as well as for the reconstruction and expansion of the exhibition grounds.

There was yet another way in which the Frankfurt International Trade Fair played an important role into the birth of today's Messe Frankfurt. The increasing diversity of the products on offer quickly created a trend towards greater specialisation of trade fairs. This was reflected in the "Frankfurt principle": individual product groups which had previously been represented in the comprehensive multi-sector trade fairs for the consumer goods industry were further developed to create independent industry events. Already in 1951, the books and automotive sectors were spun off as independent trade fairs. They were followed by Interstoff for fabrics in 1959 and ISH for heating and plumbing in 1960. In 1971, home and household textiles were moved from Interstoff to establish Heimtextil, followed by Musikmesse in 1980. In 1990, the International Spring Fair was reorganised into the Premiere and Ambiente trade fairs. In 1996, the Autumn Fair was rechristened Tendence, while at the same time perfume, cosmetics, drug store and hairdressing supplies, Christmas decorations and florist supplies were removed from Premiere and given an independent event in the form of Beautyworld and Christmasworld. They were followed one year later by Paperworld, which covers paper, office supplies and stationery. This is a process which continues today.

The developments of the past sixty years have taken what was once a bustling market for the medieval word and turned it into a high performance centre of global marketing. The world's leading trade fairs for consumer goods, textiles, automotive technology, architecture and technology all have their home in Frankfurt am Main. Messe Frankfurt has exported successful brands such as Ambiente, Heimtextil, Automechanika, Light+Building and ISH around the globe, thereby creating a global marketing instrument with identically high quality standards for SMEs in particular.
Messe Frankfurt has become the nerve centre of the city, referring to the "hidden benefits", or rather the socioeconomic effects. Trade fairs always generate additional sales for Frankfurt and the surrounding region – whether it be in the catering and hospitality trade, stand construction companies or the taxi trade. This means that Messe Frankfurt plays an active role in protecting jobs in the Rhine-Main Region.

A look back shows us that trade fairs are products which are subject to a whole series of external framework conditions and internal factors. Many events from the trade fair's more than 800-year history have proven this. The most important lesson is that traditional values and size alone are no guarantee of longevity or success, and that trade fairs can very quickly forfeit their right to existence if internal and external factors are not repeatedly reconciled. This is just as true today as it was 100 years ago.

In light of the challenges posed by globalisation, Messe Frankfurt moved promptly to place increased emphasis on investment in products and markets. The company's first trade fair outside Germany, Interstoff Asia, was held in Hong Kong back in 1987, and the first foreign subsidiary was established in Tokyo in 1990. Messe Frankfurt now has subsidiaries and branch offices in Paris, Milan, Moscow, Istanbul, Atlanta, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Mumbai,  Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei and Dubai.

In 2003, the Asian subsidiaries in China, Japan, Korea and India were united under Messe Frankfurt Asia Holding Ltd., which is headquartered in Hong Kong. A closely knit network of around 50 international sales partners, covering over 150 nations and 28 subsidiaries throughout the world, forms the basis for Messe Frankfurt’s global orientation.

Today, Messe Frankfurt is a global marketing and service partner for its customers.

Messe Frankfurt is a name that stands for trade fairs and events of the highest quality and for good customer service on a global scale. By pursuing a rigorous brand strategy, its international brands do far more than bear the same name with reference to a specific region. They also maintain the same high standards as Messe-Frankfurtbranded events in Frankfurt itself.