From Switzerland’s Watches & Wonders to Chile’s Air and Space show, from South Africa’s Travel Indaba to the East China Import and Export Commodity Fair, trade shows worldwide have been scrapped or postponed. The losses to organisers and venues will be vast and the disruption to exhibitors’ plans extensive. Trade shows have been places where buyers, whether of passenger jets or hotel shampoo bottles, could compare wares, and sellers could smooth-talk their potential customers in one noisy and exhausting place. Covid-19 has shut the exhibitions business down. If and when it returns, will it be in a much changed or diminished form? Just as people have discovered that they can conduct their meetings from their living rooms, will buyers and sellers conclude that they too can do their business remotely? I spoke to Hugh Jones, chief executive of RX Global, which in good times runs 500 events a year, from the Mipim property fair in Cannes to Shanghai’s International Natural Food and Beverage Expo. RX Global is one of the world’s leading tradefair companies but as an indication of what a fragmented industry this is, it accounts for just 5 per cent of the global market. Unsurprisingly, Jones believes that striking up business relationships will always require face-to-face contact.
In this column I have argued the same. But that doesn’t mean this crisis will not reshape the industry. As part of the Relx business information and analytics group, RX Global has a more powerful backer than many of the smaller trade-show companies. Exhibitions account for just 16 per cent of Relx’s revenues, and Jones has not had to furlough or make any of his 4,500 staff redundant. They are continuing to organise conferences that have been postponed, optimistically, until after September or, if the crisis isn’t over by then, to 2021. Smaller exhibition organisers will not be so lucky. Even a company as large as RX Global wasn’t fully insured against this year’s disaster. Jones describes the insurance he had in place as “spotty”. He won’t be drawn on what sort of industry consolidation will follow the crisis, saying only that his “heart goes out” to the smaller companies. But it seems likely that a post-coronavirus exhibitions industry will have fewer, bigger players. What sort of trade shows will they provide? Some have already gone digital. MipTV, a RX Global fair that brings producers of television content together with potential buyers, was meant to take place in Cannes in March. It went ahead with video content streamed online instead. But that’s hard to do with a fasteners and fixtures fair or a metals show, where visitors need to see up close what they might be buying. Last year, only 4 per cent of RX Global’ revenues came from online presentations — though Jones says the company is also making efforts to use digital advances to improve real-world conferences. It has already trialed and started using matchmaking technology that can tell visitors where to find an exhibitor they may be interested in, and what time they will be ready to have a meeting. Based on a visitor’s meetings in previous years, it can also suggest who they may want to catch up with this time. But using that technology implies that people will be ready to meet face-to-face once more. What if the Covid-19 crisis extends beyond 2020? What if it drags on for several years? Jones accepts the format may have to change, allowing greater distance between stalls and attendees. It may be that an exhibition that once occupied one hall will require two. But, as he points out, that will not be an issue just for exhibitions. If social distancing becomes our way of life, then theatres, restaurants, airports and aircraft will have to be reconfigured too.