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European leaders ‘miss a trick’ by not backing exhibitions

European politicians are “missing a trick” by failing to follow the Spanish government’s prioritisation of the exhibition industry, according to one of the UFI leadership team.

Nick Dugdale-Moore, regional director for Europe, told how the nation’s decision to go ahead with a strategically important trade show during lockdown in 2021 sent a “really strong signal” to decision makers and the industry at large.

He drew a contrast with governments in other countries across the continent, urging them to recognise our industry’s benefits and do the same.

Nick said: “The Spanish Minister of Industry, Trade and Tourism – together with the President of the Madrid government and the President of IBERIA airline held a press conference in March 2021 where they explained that Fitur – an international tourism show – would take place in May as planned.

“This was the height of the second lockdown, so many people thought they were crazy.  But the Minister described the event as of strategic national importance and stressed that it was going ahead – ahead with the full support of the Spanish government.

“They obviously had very restrictive measures in place. The travel and other implications meant it was quite complicated, but that sends a really strong signal and really showed that Spain was open for business.

“The uncertainty during the pandemic has been one of the toughest challenges for exhibitors and visitors – not knowing with all these postponements, and with rules and regulations from changing one week to another.

“So to have such a clear signal from Spain sends a really clear message if you’re thinking about exhibiting or visiting.

“By contrast, look at here in the UK, where even to this day, a trade show at Excel or the NEC is classified the same as Glastonbury Festival or a wedding.  That’s not logical, incredibly short-sighted and ultimately not good for UK plc.”

The comments come after the latest UFI Global Barometer revealed Spanish companies would see the return of 79% of the revenue they saw in 2019 this year, compared to 73% globally.

Nick highlighted how the exhibition industry has consistently outperformed global GDP growth, which proves that they can power the economic recovery.

This is an even more pressing issue given the threat of recession and rising inflation already damaging the finances of nations around the world.

He said: “Whatever industry you care to mention, a large part of the business of that industry is done and renewed at trade shows and conferences. 

“That is where those markets meet and do business. That is where they build the relationships and trust which act as the building blocks for trade.

“These business events are huge economic drivers and they should be prioritised by governments and policy makers. Those that fail to do so are missing a trick.”

The future of technology in tradeshows

Figures from the UFI study also highlight Spain as a world leader in the implementation of digital services and a strategic transformation of their companies.

The research shows 83% of companies surveyed have added digital services to their offerings, compared with 65% globally, and 50% have developed a digital roadmap for the entire company – compared to only 24% worldwide.

Figures from McKinsey & Co show B2B ecommerce grew by a decade’s worth over the first three months of lockdown.

However, Nick believes there has been a slow uptake in adoption of digital strategies across exhibition organisers, with the business model remaining largely the same.

He said: “This is surely the difference we should be seeing – not in the environment, in terms of slightly wider aisles or whatever. But surely it’s in the tech, surely this is what we’ve improved.

“Lenin said there are decades where nothing happens and there are years when decades happen. 

“Prior to the pandemic, our industry has been very conservative and how far we’ve gone on the digital transformation journey had been pretty limited. Only about one in five companies had a chief digital officer or chief technical officer at board level.

“So now we’ve gone through this massive change, you’d think there’d be huge improvements and changes to the look and feel of exhibitions. Well at the majority of shows I have visited this year,  I haven’t seen them.”

The UFI study showed 80% of eventprofs believe future exhibitions would have more tech elements, while the impact of digitisation was ranked as the second top issue worldwide.

Staffing shortages

Two-thirds of respondents to the UFI study said they were recruiting new staff since reopening, but were struggling to find the right people.

A total of 66% put themselves in that bracket, compared with 33% who weren’t and just 1% who said it was easy to find suitable team members.

Those findings back up claims by Nick that staffing is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry right now as we continue the recovery.

He said: “The human cost of the last few years has been really awful. I’ve known people with 20 years experience who were laid off, but right across the supply chain and with suppliers especially, the toll has been brutal. 

“And at the same time as massive reductions in the workforce, we’ve been asking people to do completely new jobs – for example running virtual events”. 

Nick added: “We need to explain the narrative that exhibitions really do matter. They are really important not just for business, and for economies, but for society as a whole.

“It’s not for everyone, people seem to either leave right away, or stick in it for life. But you get to work in various industries, meet people from different walks of life, visit different places around the world. What a huge privilege – and such an exciting industry to work in.”

Facing up to challenges

Nick believes there aren’t many “infrastructural” challenges facing the continent right now and it is up to organisers to make the most of what the exhibition industry offers as it develops.

He acknowledged that some exhibitions in Germany are suffering due to the absence of exhibitors and visitors from Russia and China, which together can account for up to 20% of their total.  

Meanwhile, 87% of respondents to the UFI Barometer agree that “Covid-19 confirms the value of face-to-face events” – up from 80% in the previous edition and 78% in the edition prior to that.

Six in ten companies said “lifting of current travel restrictions” and “readiness of exhibiting companies and visitors to participate again” would best support the “bounce-back” of exhibitions.

Now, Nick has urged organisers to put customers “front and centre” so they can show the real value of their offerings.

He said: “The shows that have returned have demonstrated their value that people are eager to go.

“There are winners and losers, but that’s got nothing to do with the pandemic – it was similar beforehand.

“If you’re doing the right things – keeping close to customers, putting them front and centre in giving good value – then it’s a great space to be in.”

One of the potential solutions to tackling the problem of visitors and exhibitors being less willing to travel is the practice of regionalising or geo-cloning shows. 

This could be where a show is a success in Europe which is then cloned to take place in North America to make it easy for participants to be involved.

Almost a third of respondents to the UFI survey told how it was at least most probable there would be fewer “physical” international events as well as fewer participants overall.

Nick added: “It’s more about the need to replicate that show for different audiences – take it to Brazil, take it to Southeast Asia, take it to wherever – by nature we’re an international industry.

“Whatever the future holds, I think we can be confident that exhibitions have a key role to play in the economic success of all industries.  Let’s hope governments around the world catch on.”

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