Thessaloniki International Fair a Beacon of Commerce in the Balkans and Spotlight on Greece’s Potential

Prime Minister of Greece Alexis Tsipras, Wilbur Ross- U.S. Secretary of Commerce, and Simos Anastasopoulos, President American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce at the fair. Photo: AMCHAM

With nearly 300,0000 visitors and 1700 exhibitors from 22 countries at 17 pavilions from September 8-16, the Thessaloniki International Fair burnished its reputation as the biggest and most important commercial event in southeast Europe.

Honored Nation status for the U.S. for the first time since 2000 proved a strong magnet, and the success of its pavilion was a tribute to public-private sector cooperation, setting a very important example for Greece. The U.S. Embassy, Greek government agency Enterprise Greece, and private consultancies joined with the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) to implement innovations that its Executive Director, Elias Spirtounias, believes are a model for TIF in the future.

Spirtounias said “there were more private sector business elements – in 2017 China showcased its state-owned businesses – and more interactivity. “From the beginning, working with the Embassy, AMCHAM wanted to focus on the business part.”

The well-designed plan was shaped by the U.S. pavilion’s theme “Harnessing Innovation and Creativity. “Technology was a big part of the Fair, but innovation is now vital to all industries so we reached out to all categories of companies – retail, finance, defense, education – members and non-members of the Chamber,” Spirtounias said.

The American delegation was led by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Undersecretary of Energy Mark Menezes. The U.S. Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt told The National Herald “the fair exceeded all our expectations,” words echoed by others.

President of the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, Simos Anastasopoulos, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Senator Ron Johnson, U.S Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt cut the ribbon at the U.S. Pavilion. Photo: AMCHAM

Alec Mally, of the Foresight Strategy and Communication consultancy, who worked hard for the success of TIF 2018 with its CEO Alexandros Costopoulos, said “Without question, the U.S. Pavilion this year has been filled to the brim, with no space available for late-comers.”

The American pavilion presented only American companies or those Greek companies with strong U.S. Affiliations, like Intralot.

“Ambassador Pyatt was catalytic in the company recruiting process,” Spirtounias said.

Grigoris Stergioulis, Chairman of Enterprise Greece, which is designed to assist foreign investors and enterprises to do business in Greece and to attract foreign investment, said “There was a huge group from Microsoft, Google, Sysco, Facebook, Proctor & Gamble, Lockheed Martin, Coca Cola, Exon Mobil and more. And there were also investors interested in Greece.”

The most important feature of the Fair, in Spirtounias’ opinion, is the opportunity for participants to organize parallel events, like special presentations on technological developments, and round table discussions. “That’s why during my numerous trips to the U.S. we showed the companies we visited a rendering of the pavilion with a stage in the center they would have access to – but we also had a very dynamic program of parallel events, all unique, 72 events during the 10-day fair,” he said.

Wilbur Ross, United States Secretary of Commerce, addresses guests. Photo: AMCHAM

He also emphasized to potential participants that do not yet have presence in Europe – many TIF participants do have a Greek presence – that TIF is an opportunity to test their European appeal. There were many B2G – business to government, and B2B – business to business meetings with representatives from the whole region.

Stergioulis said that most importantly, “we are drawing up a plan to continue communications after the Fair.” Mally also emphasized the importance of “the day after.” One difference between 2000 and 2018 that calls for more follow-up this time is the very important proliferation of startups in Greece that merit continued monitoring and support.

The preparations for the Pavilion, which included numerous trips to the U.S. by Spirtounias and others, enabled Greece to convey important messages to major players, investors and industrialists, messages amplified and reinforced after American participants arrived in Thessaloniki.

Spirtounias conveyed the general message that, “after stabilization, the Greek economy is reaching out and there is an opportunity to network with Greek and other companies and connect with the media.”

Enterprise Greece, for the first time, because of the US having honored nation status, worked very closely not only with the U.S. Embassy but with AMCHAM., which pleased Stergioulis. “Together we designed for two things 1) to assist those new to Greece to enter into relationships with Greek companies 2) a dinner for companies that wanted to learn more about the potential of the Greek economy.”

Mr. Simos Anastasopoulos, President American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, welcomes guests at the U.S. Pavilion. Photo: AMCHAM

Stergioulis said the Fair also helps address “the huge communications gap between Greece and the world regarding our products – they only know oregano, feta, oil, and cheese. The reality of Greek products and services in very different,” and the Fair also helped in that regard as participants bring a clearer picture back to their countries – for example, there is growing knowledge outside Greece on its great IT talent.

There were numerous presentations of interest to potential investors in Greece including one on mediation which is of great interest to potential investors concerned about delays in court reforms.

The development that Greece is becoming an energy hub was prominently discussed – ministers from five countries, including Israel. were present. “You can imagine the kind of conversations that took place.” Spirtounias told TNH.

Experts believe TIF has even greater potential as a beacon of business development for Greece and all the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean. Mally thinks even more U.S. resources should have been devoted to its pavilion. While he praised the Energy Forum, he was disappointed that some events like the Southeast Europe Leader discussion was removed from the schedule at a late date.

Exterior of the U.S. Pavilion, the Most Honored Nation at the 2018 Thessaloniki International Fair. Photo: AMCHAM

Mally, who served as consul general in Thessaloniki and was Washington Desk Officer in 2000 when the USA last was Honored Nation, noted the U.S. Consulate in Thessaloniki – the commercial hub of the Balkans – is under staffed. He has seen the value of properly funded economic and cultural diplomacy during his 27-year foreign service.

Spirtounias and AMCHAM will emphasize in planning meetings that TIF’s continued success demands that “the political part of the fair, such as the speeches by party leaders, must be detached, because they tend to overwhelm the commercial agenda. Politicians can participate, but in forums relevant to business and related issues.”