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The Covid chronicles: “There’s always a way.”

Few sectors have been hit as hard by the pandemic as the trade show and events industry. Johnny Primerano, Head of Scenic & Events at DHL Global Event Logistics, turned a challenge into an opportunity by working with his team to create the Digital World of DHL Global Event Logistics.

Johnny Primerano loves a good challenge. He can tell stories about doorways in Nice, France, that were too narrow for a shipment of transport cases, about pouring rain in Boston that threatened to ruin a shipment of sensitive equipment, or about loading zones in Portugal that had to be secured by the local police. As I sit across from Johnny in his office in Cologne and listen to the Italian native tell his stories, it’s not just the words that captivate me, it’s also the energetic hand gestures and the conviction of his expressions that pull me into his world. It’s challenging moments like these that seem to mean something special to Johnny. “When someone claims something is impossible, that just motivates me even the more,” he says.

But what about when a virus forces people around the world to keep their distance? What about when the very thing that makes an event an event – people coming together – is suddenly a “no go”?

Johnny Primerano is a man of action. „In my job, I always meet people who think that certain things can't be done. But no matter what it was, so far at least, everything has worked out," he says. (Photo: Cornelis Gollhardt)

All for nothing

Thursday, February 27, 2020. At DHL Global Event Logistics, the order books and calendar are full, with events planned all the way through to June. In Long Beach, California, a good 9,000 kilometers from Cologne, Johnny and his team are knee-deep in preparations for the TPM conference, the world's largest container shipping event. “We arrived on Friday evening and were scheduled to tour the location on Saturday,” recalls Johnny. “At the time, the first ripples of fear were rolling Germany and people started avoiding airports.” Johnny had made sure to get informed about the situation in California before leaving. His wife, a controller at a laboratory services company, gave him the green light. As of late February, there had been just one single confirmed case of Covid-19 in California.

Teams led by Johnny Primerano (front, on the left) and Patrick Aßelborn (second from the left) have grown as they worked together on the various products of the Digital World of DHL Global Event Logistics. (Photo: Cornelis Gollhardt)

By midday Saturday everything was in place to start setting up for the event the next day. Back at the hotel, Johnny sat with Event Manager Ralf Kunze and Press Officer David Stöppler talking about the news. New safety measures were being considered by the City of Los Angeles. They sat and waited for more details and after four long hours, the team finally got the bad news: The TPM conference had been cancelled due to Covid-19.

Before Johnny and his team had even started their setup work, they had to return to Cologne. Sitting here today and reflecting on the events in California, his disappointment is still palpable: “So much work and preparation go into an event like that: planning and creating the set, all the coordination with the people on the ground, and transporting all the equipment. Having it cancelled at such a late hour is a bitter pill to swallow.”

Back in Germany, the effects of the pandemic and the associated restrictions were being felt more and more. The next big project on the calendar was the Top Executive Council (TEC) – a collaboration with colleagues in Brand Marketing in the Corporate Center. “Together with our Brand colleagues, we always come up with creative new formats for the TEC.” But once again, one week before the event was set to begin, it was cancelled due to Covid-19 – another disappointment.

“That’s when it became clear it wasn’t just about these two events. That’s when I realized things were about to change.” But bury his head in the sand? “That was never an option,” says Johnny, looking me straight in the eyes. He needed a Plan B – and fast.

A green solution

From Johnny’s office, I follow him into the DHL Global Event Logistics warehouse. Racks of shelves reach up to the ceiling; on the floor there are huge, head-high boxes. In one corner of the warehouse I spot the custom-designed crates for the “Beethoven on Tour” exhibit; on one of the shelves, I see elements for the DHL’s Formula E booth. And that’s when it hits home for me: The world of physical, in-person events is truly on hold, indefinitely. But it was exactly here, in the warehouse, that the idea was born for a new kind of event.

Johnny stops and points to a row of stacked boxes: “That’s the spot where I conducted the first tests back in early March using a simple, 3x7 meter piece of green paper,” he says. While standing in front of this big green background – the green screen – subjects can be digitally superimposed on any kind of backdrop. “We had to tape over the overhead lights on the ceiling because any bit of shadow on the green screen shows up later in the background scene or image,” explains Johnny.

As if by magic

After those first tests with the large roll of green paper, the following two weeks saw a steady stream of creative new ideas. In no time, the team had assembled a whole portfolio of digital event solutions. Whether photo-realistic tours, virtual tours or digital studios – there were suddenly no limits for customers. And within no time the team also had a name for their new product series: Digital World.

With Johnny’s team of graphics specialists responsible for product realization, the team under Patrick Aßelborn, Head of Media & Event Technology at DHL Global Event Logistics, continued to drive product design. “Even before the products had been developed in detail, we started thinking about how to market them,” recalls Johnny. “Walk-in digital tradeshow booths, for example, weren’t new. So we learned about the products out there and thought about how we could differentiate ourselves.” One result is the combination of virtual tour and green screen.

It didn’t take long for people in the Corporate Center to notice the green screen product. The fact that there was a unit in the Group exploring this very solution was a stroke of luck. They all agreed: The green screen represented the next level of Event Management at DPDHL and opened new opportunities for everyone. So they decided to join forces to create a green box in the Post Tower. In the spirit of “We Are One”, coincidentally also the tagline for the TEC, they were ready for their first shoot in just a few weeks’ time. Now they could record live footage of real people in entirely virtual environments. Johnny is particularly proud of the streaming site they developed themselves, which has an unusually low latency of just three to four seconds. I ask them how they achieved this. “Trade secret,” says Patrickwith a wink.

All by hand

Taking what they learned from their experiments in the Cologne warehouse, the team created a digital studio in the Innovation Center and green box in the Post Tower – a large-format green screen. Many of the wood elements required for building are made by hand in their own workshop in Cologne. “I have gradually added more and more equipment to our workshop, because I think it’s important to be independent,” says Johnny.

Green box at DPDHL head quarters in Bonn

Premiere with Frank Appel

In just a little over two months, the green box in the Post Tower was ready to go. The first live shoot took place in May – Frank Appel’s Virtual Roadshow to Sweden – and everything ran smoothly, even if Johnny couldn’t be there himself. A lot has happened since then. “The green box is at the point where it’s TV production-ready,” says Johnny proudly as he looks out over the warehouse. “This is high-end, professional equipment.”

Current demand for the green box speaks for itself. Today, Global Event Logistics is fielding so many requests that they have trouble keeping up at times. And over the past half year, the Global Event Logistics Team has added four additional employees to its ranks.

New line of business

Later, Johnny and I are back in his office as he lists the many products they have created since the crisis began. There are
hardly enough fingers on his hand to count them all. He estimates that their Digital World products will comprise more than a third of the business in the long term, along with tradeshows and media technology.

Johnny seems to be fueled by a fascinating and somehow contagious mix of optimism, drive and perfectionism. I ask him where this comes from. “I was self-employed for four years,” he replies. “And when you’re competing with hundreds of others, you only get noticed if you can make things happen that others can’t. Saying it can’t be done is not an option. There’s always a way.”

Despite his undeniable drive and optimism, Johnny still speaks longingly about the “old days.” “I really miss the travel and the challenge of organizing events on site,” he says. It’s those stories of narrow doorways, pouring rain or problematic loading zones that are missing now because of the pandemic – those special little challenges that Johnny loves about his work. But for now he’ll continue enjoying his adventures in the digital world. They have their charm, too.

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