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How resilient are we?

by EN

Paul Woodward, a former MD of UFI and advisor to organisers and venues around the world, assesses the industry’s staying power.

Many years and several career transitions ago, I stood in New York in front of the intimidating board of directors of a very well known publisher. Magazines at that time were still great and profitable gushers of cash. My job; to persuade the men (and they were indeed all men) in grey suits that exhibitions was a business they should be considering. Our exhibitions to be precise.

They didn’t buy it and, who knows exactly where cause and effect lie, but that company no longer exists. What sticks in my mind though, is that one of our key arguments about the benefits of exhibitions was their resilience. 

This presentation took place about a year after the “Black Monday” market crash of 1987 when the Dow had fallen a record 22.6% in one day. That had, inevitably, rattled the business advertising markets and times were a little tough.

Exhibitions, we said, were not immune from economic gyrations but they responded much more smoothly to the ups and downs than most other ‘media’. For most exhibiting companies, they represented a hugely important element of the annual marketing cycle. Businesses only pulled out of strong exhibitions at their peril.

Over the years, this has proven one of the more solid pieces of advice that I’ve offered. And, it’s pretty relevant and vital right now. 

There is a good deal of anxiety about and lots of pressures on the world’s exhibitions markets. To take a few: Germany, the driver of Europe’s economy, is in or on the cusp of recession; the US and China remain at each other’s throats on trade, driving down prosperity in both countries and many other places; Hong Kong, long one of Asia’s safest and most settled business centres, is suffering massive political instability; the economy in Dubai, the safe haven home of the Middle East’s important trade fairs, looks weak.

What are the implications of all this for exhibitions? If you genuinely are one of the top fairs in your category, you’ll probably be fine. People will still want to come and do their once-a-year promotion, checking quietly around to see if all their competitors are still in business. 

It’s probably not such a great time to be launching new fairs and, if your show is already a struggle, it will probably suffer.

As one CEO, managing a very large portfolio of fairs told me: “We all know which of our fairs is going to get hit when times get hard”. 

The autumn trade fair season has got underway in Hong Kong. Given the pictures on our TVs and news of disruption at the airport, visitor numbers are unsurprisingly down anywhere from five to  20 per cent. But, by and large, exhibitors are sticking to their plans and organisers have, relievedly reported that the mood in the fairs is pretty good. There is, of course, an implicit “under the circumstances” in those statements. But the shows have and will go on. 

Some events will use tougher times as an excuse to cancel but, by and large, these are going to be the ones that were already troubled. For those that have been in good health, the key thing is make sure they take place. 

Most participants will discover that there are still business opportunities and that exhibitions remain the best place to uncover them.

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