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The history of Messe Frankfurt


The first steps

In 1585, a small group of merchants requested that their town council "establish a regular exchange" in the form of trade fairs. Those merchants saw Frankfurt, which had enjoyed imperial privileges as a trading city since 1240, as the ideal place for such exchanges. When the merchants' request was granted, the "Frankfurt Fair" was born. Thus, in the 16th century, the city of Frankfurt emerged as a centre of international trade, with a diverse range of goods and coins used as a method of payment. It was the foundation of Frankfurt’s subsequent development into the trading and finance capital that it is today.

These events in 1585 offer a clear example of just how closely the fortunes of trade, exhibitions and finance were - and are -interlinked Frankfurt am Main.

Historical continuity

The city where numerous Emperors were crowned is today "Mainhattan", a modern and vibrant city at the heart of the European finance and service industries. Frankfurt has continued to focus on its many historical areas, illustrative living examples of the commercial chronicle that has characterised Frankfurt's fortune and history over the centuries.

Geographical position at the crossroads of Europe

Frankfurt’s location at the crossroads of Europe has offered a significant advantage from its early history and is a basis of its present prosperity. Even in the Middle Ages, Frankfurt’s location on the most important European trade route, from Paris via Frankfurt and Leipzig to Nizhny-Novgorod, meant that the mediaeval imperial city was well integrated into international trade routes; routes which, centuries later, would find their modern equivalent in high-performance infrastructure. Today Frankfurt is a key hub of international trade, whether it be from New York, Rome, London, Moscow, Tokyo or Istanbul. Whatever transport you utilise - be it a car, train or plane - in many ways, all roads lead to Frankfurt.

Frankfurt trade fairs in the Middle Ages

Frankfurt's trade fairs remained a key feature of the city throughout its development. By Martin Luther’s time (1483-1546), 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, by far exceeding the population figure of "Francofurtia" (about 20,000) at that time. As well, even in the early 17th century, as many as one-quarter of the merchants came from abroad, making the city truly international.

Frankfurt trade fairs were distinctive in this "Golden Age", a prosperous era which brought prosperity through the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, a shift of European trade to the East emerged: in Saxony (a German state East of Frankfurt's province), a more liberal trade and industrial policy was pursued, and Frankfurt and its trade fairs could do little to compete with it. The geographical competition was born, and the Frankfurt trade fairs began to adapt their concepts and a newly competitive environment.

New methods of distribution were developed

For many centuries, trade fairs had simply been the place where providers brought handmade goods to sell directly from their stands, transforming the town into a giant goods depot whenever there was a fair. With the start of industrial production, this form of distribution also evolved.

The rise of series production and large volume trading meant that it was no longer necessary to bring all of one's goods to a trade fair. As a result, more exhibitors came to the fair with samples of their products, marking the birth of the sample fair, a concept that gradually became the norm.

Start of the modern era

At the time of "Gründerzeit" (late 19th century), the Frankfurt trade fair business experienced a new development. A new type of industrial technology exhibition, the first "World Exhibitions" in London (1851) and Paris (1855), introduced a more general and national exhibition concept. Frankfurt was part of this boom: industrial exhibitions, cooking exhibitions, agricultural exhibitions, and the first automotive exhibition, not to mention the enormously important electrical engineering fair of 1891, all took place in Frankfurt - and all were hugely successful. Together with the system of the modern sample fair, this concept emerged as an early version of the specialised fair, also known as the "Frankfurt system." Even in these early shows, there could be seen a clear separation between different fields and sectors. Those divisions were a major factor in the subsequent development of Frankfurt's trade fair policies.

At that time, the city had too few buildings to host large gatherings. The growing number of fairs, and their sizes, along with the demand for large cultural events, led to the construction of the Festhalle (today's Hall 2). It was then, and still is, one of Europe's largest exhibition and event halls. It can be seen as the cornerstone of the "Ausstellungs- und Messegesellschaft mbH", the company founded alongside it in 1907.

In 1914, the advent of the First World War put a halt to all development of trade fair business. But Frankfurt never gave up: one year after the war ended, the city government made available what was then an unbelievable sum – 800,000 Reichsmarks – for the construction of four provisional halls around the Festhalle. As a result, on 1 October 1919, the first Frankfurt International Trade Fair opened its doors with more than 3,000 exhibitors over a total exhibition area of 16,500 square metres -at this time under the name of Internationale Einfuhrmesse (International Import Fair). This fair was seen as a ground-breaking development in the regular schedule of fairs.

 Frankfurt profited from dynamic trading during the 1920s, and from the city's strategic location near the French occupation zone. The Frankfurt trade fair expanded and established itself as an "all-around exhibition" with particular strength in the consumer goods sector. The town council at that point determined that the Festhalle premises should be expanded into a "trade fair city." In 1920-1921, the various other facilities were constructed, along with necessary infrastructures, such as the construction of warehouses, a rail connection to the freight terminal and the creation of food service operations. 

On 25 October 1929,"Black Friday" and the subsequent Great Depression reached Germany as well, and optimism dropped. The global economic crisis and Second World War brought an end to the trade fairs and resulted in the destruction of much of the Festhalle and adjacent exhibition grounds.

Reconstruction and the "Frankfurter Principle."

On 25 August 1946, Mayor Kolb announced that "Frankfurt will be a trade fair city again," with the firm conviction that reviving and reconstructing the trade fair would launch 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 held since Autumn 1919: 1,771 exhibitors, of whom no less than 46 were from outside Germany, were pioneers at this first event. A total of 32 different industries presented their goods, ranging from textiles and machines to foodstuffs, drinks and tobacco, in more than 60,000 square metres of exhibition area with provisional lightweight construction, 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 significant; spurring foreign trade as well as a movement for the reconstruction and expansion of the exhibition grounds.

In yet another aspect, the Frankfurt International Trade Fair played a major role in the birth of today's Messe Frankfurt. The growing diversity of the products on offer quickly created a trend towards greater specialisation of trade fairs. It was reflected in the "Frankfurt principle": individual product groups which had previously been represented in comprehensive multi-sector trade fairs for the consumer goods industry were further developed to create independent industry events.

Industrialisation creates new fair concepts

By 1951, the books and automotive sectors had staged their own trade fairs, as the Frankfurt Book Fair and the IAA. These sector-specific fairs were followed by fabrics in 1959, heating, sanitation and plumbing in 1960 (ISH), home and household textiles in 1971 (Heimtextil), and the Musikmesse for music in 1980. In 1990, the International Spring Fair was reorganised into the Premiere and Ambiente trade fairs. In 1996, the Autumn Fair was renamed 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 Beauty world and Christmas world. They were followed one year later by Paperworld, which covers paper, office supplies, and stationery.

Messe Frankfurt today

The developments of the past sixty years have taken what was once a bustling market for the medieval word and transformed 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. In the words of Petra Roth, Mayor of the City of Frankfurt and Chairperson of the Supervisory Board, Messe Frankfurt has become the "nerve centre of the city".

International orientation for the future

Messe Frankfurt has exported successful brands such as Ambiente, Heimtextil, Automechanika, Light + Building and ISH around the world, thereby creating a global marketing instrument with identically high-quality standards. The international expansion is part of Messe Frankfurt's strategy for the future, and it will continue to shape the global trade fair industry with new concepts, fair ideas and marketing channels.

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