The managers of COM2COM reveal how they manage to deliver a trade-fair stand 24 hours ahead of time.

Jean-Paul Roskin and Salvatore Fortunato of the international stand-building business COM2COM both affirm this with absolute confidence, but the two men are completely different characters. One is the creative face of the company and the other is ‘Mr Excel’, as they put it. Nonetheless, an air of magic hangs over the pair: they always do manage to deliver their trade-fair stands 24 hours in advance. Ahead of time. And one thing is for sure: the customers love it.

Jean Paul: “Planning is crucial to good stand building. The briefing is held six months before the exhibition. That gives us the time to discuss everything properly and start ordering the basic requirements: electricity, water, parking, that kind of thing. 80% of a project’s success depends on how well it is organised. Planning is our holy bible. And that is what makes Salva (Salvatore, ed.) worth his weight in gold: he keeps a tight hold on everything going on in production. It’s no coincidence that our people here call him ‘Cap’, short for ‘Capitano’, and a reference to his Italian roots.”
Salvatore (grinning): “Strict but fair.”

This is a good example of the two men’s complementary roles at COM2COM. Jean-Paul, the designer, also handles sales. Salvatore is in charge of stand production and is the internal people manager. Together they have been running COM2COM since 2007, taking the leap in the very midst of the infamous financial crisis. With more than 30 years’ experience working in the sector, this was a calculated gamble.

Jean-Paul: “Years ago we both worked for the biggest stand builder in Belgium. But, to be honest, we got to know each other through our wives. Salva’s wife makes great pasta. Having dinner together was the start of our friendship and professional plans. When we found our own vision was no longer in line with our employer’s, we decided to set up our own business.”

That business was COM2COM. It immediately got off to an impressive start with an ambitious project at Seafood – the world’s biggest fish and seafood exhibition at Brussels Expo.

Jean-Paul: “Our customer’s stand had two storeys with a connecting bridge. The stand was as big as our office at the time. We pulled out all the stops to get that stand built. And we didn’t see a cent in profits, let me tell you! (He laughs.) The customer was satisfied… and is still our customer, by the way. And the stand is still our showpiece project.”

Empathy is really important to understand exactly what the customer needs.

Jean-Paul Roskin, managing director of COM2COM

Today COM2COM employs 15 people and has its own production workshop. What advantages does that offer?

Salvatore: “That we can theoretically build anything. A lot of stands nowadays are built with the Octanorm or BeMatrix standard systems. There are also wooden stands that enable us to produce completely customised work with our computer- controlled machinery. That means that COM2COM can respond flexibly to the customer’s wishes: a wooden stand, a modular system or even a combination of the two.

80% of a project’s success depends on how well it is planned.

What type of stand is most popular today?

Jean-Paul: The modular BeMatrix system really appeals to people. It is a bit like Lego. Wooden constructions are timeless. They are so versatile; on the other hand they take longer to develop and are bulkier to transport. So obviously that comes at a price. Another advantage of having our own workshop is that we are not dependent on subcontractors’ schedules.”

How do you sense exactly what a customer needs?

Jean-Paul: “Empathy is really important. Knowing what makes the customer tick. Personally speaking, I believe it is an advantage to be both a salesman and a designer. It’s kind of an aesthetic empathy, you might say. It enables me to identify quickly what the customer needs at the briefing. And Salva has an incredible affinity with technical matters. There it is again: that Yin and Yang thing of ours (he laughs).”

That brings us to your secret weapon: completing a trade-fair stand 24 hours ahead of time. This clearly sets COM2COM apart from other stand builders. How on earth do you do it?

Salvatore: “Besides our strict project planning, we put a serious amount of work into the actual construction of the stand at the exhibition as well. Our crew try to get something extra done each day so they have a head start the next morning, to get them ahead of time. Such as tidying everything up in the evening so that they can get straight to work the next morning. That makes time for us to tackle unforeseen circumstances. And trust me, there are bound to be some. Needing an extra power socket, for example. It helps that Jean-Paul is available on site during construction, and even afterwards, to act as a problem-solver. And if he really doesn’t know what to do, he calls me.” (he laughs.)

Jean-Paul: “Right, we really make an effort to get the stand ready 24 hours in advance. We have a stand at ISM – the world’s biggest trade-fair for sweets and snacks in Cologne – that we build for a customer every year. We have three days to put it up. That means COM2COM sets itself the challenge of building a big, complex project within 48 hours. To achieve that, we have a few tricks up our sleeve that we use to get into the exhibition building while the previous exhibition is still being dismantled. And then it’s a question of rolling up our sleeves and working around the clock.”

What is your most astonishing achievement ever?

Jean-Paul: “Maybe Tokyo. We had two large stands to build at one exhibition. Salva and I were there a day earlier than our crew. But our containers were blocked and customs just wouldn’t release them. We even spent a night in the customs office. It was extremely tense because our crew wasn’t going to arrive until a day later and we had already lost one day. So we started looking for people there to help us put it up. And we did it, we were ready on time.”

Our crew try to get something extra done each day so they have a head start the next morning, to get them ahead of time.

It sounds like you have buckets of juicy anecdotes.

Jean-Paul: “We were at a trade-fair in Barcelona. Our customer had a logo for their stand measuring five square metres, which had to hang so many metres above the ground. And then our customer decided they wanted a second logo. You should realise there is normally a computerised machine to cut it out. Our sign maker sorted it all out, right there, on the spot.”

What does ‘ahead of time’ mean for your customers in practice?

Salvatore: “Ahead of stress. We want to take away our customer’s worries. When they arrive at the exhibition, they are nervous. They really don’t need problems, at that moment, with the stand. Getting the stand ready 24 hours before the opening is our solution to make the exhibition as comfortable and successful as possible for our customers. They mustn’t experience any stress. During construction, we send the customers photos every day so that they see their stand growing and feel reassured.”

Ahead of time. Ahead of stress. We want to take away our costumers’ worries.

Salvatore Fortunato, managing director of COM2COM

Jean-Paul explains the process in very specific terms.

Jean-Paul: “A customer arrives at the car park of a trade-fair in Frankfurt. He is parked on level 8, but his stand is a few levels higher or lower. So we take the van to the right level to unload his equipment. We make a point of attending the first day to offer this service and deal with any last-minute hitches. Afterwards, we clear everything up and ensure that anything left behind gets back to the customer. But we also play this role, taking away our customers’ worries, in the preparatory phase. For example by dealing with the paperwork for the customer. Or by setting up some of the customer’s equipment on the stand, in advance. It’s a fact of life that customers remember the last thing that happened.”

And do satisfied customers come back for more?

Jean-Paul and Salvatore: “Absolutely. They start off looking for a partner to build their trade-fair stand who offers reliability, a good price and an original project. These days, though, we notice that custom- ers are staying with us because of the level of service we offer. We have been building stands for Soudal since 1984. The customer tried two other companies, but came back to us both times. So that’s great.”

COM2COM has since built stands in around 20 different countries. As well as the neighbouring countries, it has also worked in more exotic destinations such as New York, Orlando, Bangkok and Buenos Aires. Not a bad record.

Jean-Paul: “That’s right, we have really learned a lot. But to be honest we don’t actively go in search of projects that far from home. They tend to be pretty time-consuming. But we do offer that service to our existing customers.

So how can you guarantee the same service for trade-fair stands on the other side of the globe?

Jean-Paul: “COM2COM is the only OSPI Partner in Belgium. OSPI is a network of about 140 trade-fair stand builders in more than 50 countries. That means we don’t have to fly over all the equipment and crew for a trade show in America. We create the designs here in Belgium and present them to the customer. Our partner in the relevant part of the world actually implements the plans. Obviously we do take care that the service and quality meet our demands.”

During construction, we send the customers photos every day so that they see their stand growing.

There is a sign hanging in your office with motivating slogans on it like ‘top team’.

Salvatore: “Yes, a gift from a customer. Nice, isn’t it? It’s the result of teamwork.” The result of your entire crew working to achieve the same goal?

Salvatore: “Exactly. It’s not always easy. To deliver our trade-fair stands 24 hours ahead of time, our crew end up working longer hours every day in trade-fair season. And they take longer holidays out of season. The important thing is to communicate well. To understand each other’s needs and know why we do what we do. That motivates people to respect the planning and satisfy the customer. I’m proud to say that our entire team has been working for COM2COM for ten years.”

What is the best compliment COM2COM can get?

Salvatore: “A customer who says a heartfelt ‘thank you’. That strengthens our conviction to carry on do- ing our utmost every day, with the entire team, to satisfy our customers.”