China, that vast Asian country of Confucius, Mao and modern-day communist capitalism, is the centerpiece of this year’s Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF), which got under way this weekend in Greece’s second largest city.
“Between September 9 and 17, the center of Thessaloniki will be transformed into a mini-Chinatown,” says Tasos Tzikas, president of TIF-Helexpo.
More than 200 Chinese firms are showing at this year’s event in a bid to bolster their presence in Greece. Meanwhile, the arrival of high-ranking government officials from Beijing underscores China’s interest in expanding its presence beyond the port of Piraeus, now in the hands of Chinese shipping giant Cosco. Last week, China’s Ambassador to Greece Zou Xiaoli visited Alexandroupoli, near the country’s eastern border with Turkey, which is growing into a transport and energy hub.
“China places great importance on investments in Greece and, as the country of honor at this year’s TIF, it has a strong presence at the event,” Tzikas says. “This year, we have put emphasis on the cooperation between Chinese and Greek businesses,” he says, adding that Thessaloniki authorities are giving foreign investors the red-carpet treatment.
China’s delegation totals about 500 people, including several ministers. Contrary to earlier reports, it was not be led by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang due to next month’s Communist Party congress.
TIF organizers prepared a big welcome in cooperation with municipal officials, with a hand from the city’s Chinese community – a population of about 2,500 people with private businesses mostly concentrated on Giannitson Street, in the western part of the northern port.
“A big part of the city has been decked out with Chinese decorations,” says Tzikas. Red-and-yellow lanterns have been hung up along the city’s main avenues, while a balloon in China’s colors flew over the city on the opening day. Chinese dragons paraded through the exhibition area, acrobats from Beijing demonstrated martial arts skills and there was a show of costumes used in Chinese plays staged by the National Theater of Northern Greece. There is also be a section devoted to Chinese food. At the same time, Chinese and Greek businessmen are talking business inside a 6,000 square meter pavilion.
Tzikas underlines the benefits of being the honored country at TIF. “There is a lot to gain because you get a large pavilion, which can attract large companies that are interested in investing and, in turn, have the opportunity to strike deals,” he says.
This is also to the benefit of the Greek economy and TIF. Last year the honored country was Russia, this year it is China and next year it will be the United States. Washington has signaled that it aims to raise the number and the quality of businesses that visit the exhibition from across the Atlantic.
In a sense, TIF is terrain for amicable competition between economic superpowers as they express their investment interest in Greece.
Asked about how he envisages Greece’s main trade fair, Tzikas says, “TIF is being reborn and the main goal is to make it a [truly] international exhibition.”
“We wasted time during the 1990s back when the exhibition should have struck a major strategic agreement with a leading foreign organization. Istanbul was first to make a move and grabbed the opportunity.”
Missed opportunity; the future
How did Greece miss out on this opportunity and why?
Back at that time, everyone in Greece used to talk about touring Thessaloniki into a hub for Southeastern Europe. Germany is the mecca of trade shows – all such big events are German. There was a trend among major exhibition organizers to look for and establish collaborations in regional markets and the Balkans was one such market. At that time TIF enjoyed a favorable position. It should have sought a strategic cooperation with a foreign exhibition, in Germany or France. But this did not happen. That was perhaps because we had not seriously examined the issue of turning the Thessaloniki exhibition into a truly international event. Also, TIF had failed to reform and modernize its equipment, the products, the personnel, the infrastructure. Sure, there were some efforts to modernize the organization, but we did waste time. As we were preoccupied with developments at home, the international market was busy making deals. Hence the Germans picked Istanbul, which enjoyed several extra features.
What did this mean for Greece?
We missed a chance to access a lot of useful know-how and, at the same time, [to build] networks on a global level – something that the country cannot achieve without help from major show organizers. However, I believe we can do this now due to ongoing geopolitical developments and because I think that Thessaloniki has a second chance at becoming an international exhibition hub.
What are your plans for the future?
There are two challenges we have to conquer in order to achieve this overture abroad. The first is building networks in a global market and cooperating with key show organizers abroad. The second is to renovate the existing exhibition and conference center, and at the same time build a metropolitan park in the center of Thessaloniki that could become a new landmark. We are determined to succeed.
How did you manage to get TIF back on track?
It all started in 2013 when we took the crucial decision to merge TIF and Helexpo – that was the turning point. Regrettably, for many years, the city stared passively as the two organizations took a parallel course, splitting a common objective. Already from year one the results have been stunning, mainly thanks to economies of scale, concentration of powers, the faith of employees in the new vision and fresh shows. The change is also reflected in the numbers. A million people visited Thessaloniki in 2016 compared to 500,00 in 2012. That is a 100 percent increase. We are continuing on the same path. More importantly, the TIF management and workers are together on this one. Our common vision is to make TIF-Helexpo the leading exhibition player in Southeastern Europe and a business hub between Europe, Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Does the TIF have a Balkan profile? Does it attract exhibitions from neighboring countries?
Many of them come, mostly from Bulgaria and Romania. The majority represent the food and agriculture sectors. People come here to take part in a multifaceted entrepreneurial and entertainment event. Meanwhile, of course, we run campaigns in Balkan capitals to promote the September fair in Sofia, Skopje, Belgrade and Bucharest. There is a strong flow of visitors from neighboring countries.
Do you think that all these years of tension, in terms of political uncertainty and union actions, have damaged the business potential and international image of TIF?
I do not think that the presence of politicians is necessarily a bad thing for TIF. In my opinion, the political dimension, the presence of the prime minister, of the opposition leader and of other party leaders all constitute a political legacy for the city and the fair. The city must not lose that.
What should be done? Should we avoid mixing business with pleasure and politics?
I think that in recent years we have managed to keep these separate. The aim is to at some point turn TIF into a forum – a small Davos as it were. Sure, we still get the usual Saturday protests. We tried to talk the Labor Center of Thessaloniki into picking another day for their protest rally – which they are entitled to stage – and keep Saturday, the most important day of TIF, protest-free. Despite all that, on Saturday, Thessaloniki was the center of Greek business, entertainment and politics. As I have already said, this is positive – we just have to manage it in such a way so that one fact does not affect the other. It needs work, we have started [working on it] and we are on a good path.