Those of us in the exhibitions industry have every right to say we were the hardest hit by the pandemic, and indeed the global travel industry would say exactly the same. Both industries were brought to their knees as planes were grounded and convention halls locked up, but as 2021 sailed along, the whir of engines began to pick up once more. It is hard to think of an industry marriage that needed to get back to work more than that between trade shows and travel.
RX Global – formerly known as Reed Exhibitions – were quick out the blocks to give the travel industry its grand re-opening, so to speak, with the prestigious World Travel Market London opening its doors at ExCeL on 1 November.
More than 100 regions were represented at the show, with more than 5,000 registered buyers joining them from 142 countries.
Carrie Lee is the show’s marketing manager, and she kindly made time to talk to me about how the show got itself fighting fit and ready.
Martin Fullard: How did this year’s show differ to previous iterations of the event?
Carrie Lee: The focus for us was all about rebuilding the travel industry. This was our first live event in two years. In 2020 we completely pivoted towards virtual, so our theme this year was reconnect, rebuild, and innovate. It was the first time that we had brought everyone within the travel community back together under one roof.
I think that really showed, both with the commitment of the exhibitors attending and the visitors, many of whom travelled in especially.
Our benchmark was based on travel restrictions, which we knew were a big factor, and that as a result the size of the show would be about 50% compared to normal. We also knew the travel industry had shrunk by third during the pandemic.
Additionally, a lot of companies have budget constraints. But just walking around the show floor, which you would have seen, Martin, it was just so nice to have everyone back under one roof; there was such a positive vibe.
The sentiment and the feedback we’ve had, especially across social media, has been amazing. Everyone was just happy to be back networking, being face-to-face and doing business deals.
MF: There were obviously a couple of notable absentee exhibitors. Why was this?
CL: I think each country had their own views, opinions, and obviously their own guidelines that they had to follow. There was one major destination in particular which pulled out a few weeks before the show, but it was all government related. We don’t know the real implications, whether it was due to travel restrictions or the need for visas for travelling into the UK, but it wasn’t because they didn’t see a value in the show, on the contrary. It was a government decision.
And obviously, we must help the exhibitors follow our government guidelines into the UK, which was completely different this time round.
Various countries had to obviously follow their own rules and guidelines, too, which was an added complication. We were really upset they couldn’t be there, but they still supported the portfolio at a sister show.
MF: Do you think that the travel industry needs trade shows like WTM; and what role should they play? Is it your job to say ‘yes, things are different, but we can help’?
CL: Yes, and we have proved that with the sentiment on the show floor and the feedback we’ve had, and we’re still collating data to present a full report. But that sentiment on the show floor was so strong. There’s nothing better than doing a business deal face-to-face, and to actively plan for the future of the travel industry.
We know 2021’s show was a steppingstone in rebuilding the industry, so everyone who attended was part of that effort to future-proof the sector for 2022 and onwards. It’s just nice for us to be able to facilitate those face-to-face meetings, because that’s what the travel industry wanted.
MF: What does the global travel market expect from its trade show? How did you engage with that marketplace to ensure that you delivered the content and the experience that they not necessarily wanted, but needed?
CL: We made a huge effort to produce higher quality content this year, based on the theme of rebuilding. We invited the different sectors from within the industry to join conference sessions and to actively talk about their plans are for 2022 and onwards.
We had sessions on responsible tourism, ideation, hotels, and the personnel challenges faced by the hospitality sector. The travel sector has shrunk as a result of this, and it’s something people are trying to solve ahead of an expected boom in 2022.
Of course, it was really important that we had high-quality speakers this year, and we were delighted that so many leaders in the field from overseas made the effort to travel over.
Obviously, we brought in a few speakers virtually as some couldn’t travel, so it was interesting to explore that hybrid element, on the content sessions that is.
It showed how important and integral our show is to the industry: these speakers wanted to be a part of it, whether it was in person or virtual.
MF: Could this event have worked virtually;
if not, why not?
CL: We ran WTM completely virtually in 2020. We ran plenty of conference sessions, people were tuning in live, having video meetings; it worked. And it served a purpose because at that point, everyone was in lockdown. People couldn’t travel. It was just what we had to do. Whereas this year our bread and butter, and our whole ethos, is running in-person events. People in the travel industry want to be doing business deals face-to-face. This is what they’ve told us.
We ran many roundtables and research groups before actually deciding what we were going to do this year and they all said that they wanted to get back in person. I’d say it future-proofs us and demonstrates how important it is to have trade events and that in-person experience.
MF: Tell me about your marketing strategy to attract visitors to the show? There is obviously still a lot of anxiety out there. How did you entice visitors to come along? What was your strategy for the marketing?
CL: We had to be very reactive this year. Normally, we have a full marketing campaign where we set specific goals, whereas this year we had to be more reactive to the government’s ever-changing guidance, such as travel restrictions, the red list, and so on.
We had an update every three weeks about what countries were coming off – or going on – the red list. We were targeting visitors from the amber or the green list countries who we knew could travel to the UK relatively hassle-free. There were targeted campaigns and digital marketing aimed at the profile visitors in these countries.
My main strategy this year was around safety. The research that we ran before we went live with registration showed us that people were saying if they could travel, they would travel. But they also wanted to know our protocols. They wanted to know how safe the event was, and what measures we had in place.
This required us to work closely with ExCeL; they were managing the whole process of Covid status upon entry to the venue. Everyone needed to provide proof of vaccination or negative test. This all had to be relayed in the marketing material.
It was vital to the show’s success to instill confidence in the visitors to encourage them to register and book their flights.
MF: Tell me about exhibitor sentiment: was their optimism on the rebook? Are they going to be coming back next year?
CL: Yes, we’ve had rebooks already, with many exhibitors also looking at our regional shows, such as Arabian Travel Market, which takes place in May, as well as WTM Latin America and WTM Africa. All the exhibitors knew visitor numbers would be down, but that wasn’t an issue for them. They appreciate the importance of the show, and the quality of delegate was evidenced in the re-book.
MF: COP26 was happening at exactly the same time as your event. The world is starting to take its carbon impact more seriously than it ever has done before. And with that, there seems to always be a link between our carbon emissions and the travel industry. As a show operator for that particular market, you’re dealing with people which are encouraging people to fly to their destinations. That’s inescapable, that’s part of travel. But that does put you, as organisers, in a position to try and make your show as sustainable as possible. Has there been any discussion about that, are there any plans on what you might do?
CL: Yes, of course. You will have noticed that we used a very small amount of carpet on the show floor this year, opting for the exposed concrete of the ExCeL floor. But the carpet we did use in the aisles was all recyclable. As a show organiser, our operations team worked closely with ExCeL. One of their promises is they want to move to become 100% sustainable.
On top of that, this year is we jumped on the fact that everyone is a little bit more tech savvy, especially with their mobile phones, so we went paperless, giving people the option to download their badge, as well as the floor plan. We had no printing on site.
That was a complete change for us, but by way of a bridge, if someone wanted to print a badge, for example, it was completely up to them.
We also took the decision not to allow any racking on the exhibitor stands, or any of the major partner stands within the media International Centre. What we did instead was to display QR codes to access downloadable information. Everything that we produced on site was digital.
As an event organiser, we know there are lot more steps that we need to take to be more sustainable. That was just one step this year, and next year we will take yet another step forwards.
The travel industry has also now realised how important it is to promote responsible tourism. Everyone wants to be a little bit greener. And we’ve learned consumers are now deciding to visit a destination based on their responsible tourism credentials, and how green they are.
Everyone has had to pivot and think about their own sustainable projects going forward anyway. Our responsible tourism advisor we work with, Professor Harold Goodwin, presented lots of sessions this year with us on how to teach the industry to be greener and how to be more responsible.
MF: So, to conclude, then, the travel industry don’t want to see their signature trade show disappearing anytime soon.
CL: No, definitely not.