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Making An Exhibition Of Yourself

Does the physical, in-person Trade Show have a future in the digitally-interwoven post-pandemic Business of Pleasure?

Last Monday I took a bus and two trains to the World Travel Market, rather than lifting the event onto my laptop. Occupying several hectares of the ExCel Exhibition Centre in London’s Docklands, it is instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with traditional fruit and veg and farm produce markets around the world, only this one has ‘stands’ instead of stalls and besuited tourism professionals in place of barrow-boys and grafters. Just like their cheeky aproned counterparts, they buy or sell. But the Tourism Chapter of The Business of Pleasure accounted for 4.7 trillion U.S. dollars in 2020 (down 42% on the previous year with the impact of the pandemic) and here in the UK we are particularly dependent on our Travel Trade; those indefatigable souls engaged 24/7 in enticing overseas visitors to these little islands, and sending resident islanders off to visit either UK destinations or far-flung foreign shores. And boy do they earn their crust! In 2019 tourism contributed an estimated 237 billion GBP to the UK economy. This is expected to rise to 257 billion GBP by 2025, employing 3 million workers or roughly 10% of the UK workforce.

Last Monday was the 25th anniversary of my first visit to the World Travel Market. The show had begun life in London’s Olympia in 1980, moving to Earls Court in 1992 and thence to Docklands in 2002. West London had been the historic centre of the UK exhibition-world since 1851, when The Great Exhibition, a magnificent steel-and-glass temple to technological advancement, opened in South Kensington. Between May and October 1851, six million visitors (equivalent to one third of the British population at the time) attended the exhibition. I believe the Science Museum and Natural History Museum, located in Exhibition Road, still receive funds from the proceeds of the ‘Crystal Palace’ ticket sales. And thirty-six years after The Great Exhibition, when Queen Victoria visited ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show,’ it was at the newly-opened ‘Agricultural Hall’ at Olympia. A West London lad myself, exhibitions were a big employer in my neck of the woods. My great grandfather was employed for a while by Buffalo Bill’s show, and both my mother and father worked on Earls Court exhibitions at various times. My own World Travel Market debut came in 1996 promoting ticket sales for Matthew Bourne’s Swanlake. The ‘Swans’ had flown from Sadler’s Wells to the Piccadilly Theatre that autumn and I had been tasked with boosting the West End revenues. The show ran for 120 performances, the longest ever London run for a full-length dance classic, but for me personally the highlight was watching these incredible dancers warming-up (‘swanning-up?’) and transforming before my eyes into their avian characters at rehearsals. Unforgettable.

The following WTM I returned to the Cameron Mackintosh stand to join the team promoting Cats, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and Oliver! all of which were emblazoned on the sides of our celebrated CML WTM carriers. The bags cost a small fortune to produce, but in this way our marketing radiated out from West London and travelled all across the globe, then 365 days later the world would return to our stand to get a new carrier for the year ahead (or in some cases loot whole boxfuls to give as gifts back home!). On arrival at our stand, visitors would be greeted by our lycra-clad ‘Exhibition Cats,’ faithfully recreating their sinewy on-stage siblings, and when the original London production closed, after a twenty-one-year run, I scratched my head a bit and came up with the ‘Exhibition Red Death Phantom,’ complete with skull, plumed hat and cape. A great way to lose weight, my Exhibition Phantom could manage a maximum of twenty-minutes under the heat of the exhibition lights before heading off to the gents to cool off. Waistcoated Exhibition Les Miz Students followed, then Exhibition My Fair Lady Flower-Girls handing out sprigs of lavender. And every photographer, and camera crew, naturally gravitated towards our stand for guaranteed eye-popping optics. So when the organisers of WTM approached me about having The Phantom of the Opera, depicted as a travel agent, for their main publicity shots I jumped at the chance. The Company Manager was not so keen. “We’ll have to pay the Phantom, and a wardrobe person, and a wigs-person, and, and…” I okayed the expenses and four of us set forth to the organiser’s offices in Richmond for the shoot. That year saw the whole of ExCel decked out with images of the Phantom (sitting behind an office desk complete with travel agent’s globe) looking out from giant posters every few yards of the exhibition’s main drag.

But Trade shows are a bit like icebergs. The stand traffic and daytime appointment schedules are just the visible bit. It’s what happens after the exhibition closes for the day, at the dinners, parties and events, where a huge amount of the business is done. The first Monday of WTM was, for us, the unmissable City Cruises Thames River-Cruise Party, Wednesday Night was reserved for the fabulous Madame Tussauds WTM Party (heroically replaced by the Hard Rock Wednesdays) with the highlight of the week being, for many, the unforgettable Tuesday Night Encore WTM Party at the Café de Paris, where West End show casts were ferried to Piccadilly after the evening performance to perform for the world’s travel trade.

Then every March we would repeat the formula in WTM’s Big Brother (approximately 4 times bigger) ITB, Berlin. Not a million miles away, but far enough for British Airways to misread the luggage labels and dispatch our bags to some other region of continental Europe. Fortunately for me, the Hugo Boss outlet in Tegel Airport was still open, but sadly they did not carry lycra Cats costumes. And it was no time of year to skimp on clothing. With our two ITB stands diagonally opposite each other, we’d need to run back and forth across the courtyard in the snow, man and moggy against the elements, and probably chased by merchandise-hungry hausfraus (ITB’s Consumer Days preceded the Trade Days) while still hungover from a night of serious partying and strictly medicinal (those bitterly-cold Berlin nights!) schnapps-based networking. It was at one of these parties, held in a palatial hotel in the Unter den Linden, that our host, the then head of Kuoni, shared the secret of his success in the travel business of pleasure. “When I started in the business I worked with a very old man, at least thirty-five years old, who told me that I only needed two things to get on in the business. Firstly, I had to remember that no matter how bad things got, they would always get better again. And secondly, I must be stubborn enough to stick with it until the good times returned.”

My lunch guest on Monday was a Belgian Tour Operator who I’d first met at a Travel Show in Brussels in 2000. Okay, WTM 2021 may have been a shadow of its pre-pandemic former self, but we’d seen through worse times together. Two decades previous we’d sat inside a ‘ring of steel’ (tanks, troop-carriers and miscellaneous mobile missile-launchers) in the Belgian capital. It was shortly after the 9/11 attacks and Brussels, as NATO headquarters, was expecting the worst. The end-of-show entertainment had been booked several months previous, and quite prophetically. The ‘NATO Forces Swing-Band,’ resplendent in their military uniforms, performed the greatest hits from the Glenn Miller WWII Songbook as we waited for the sirens to go off. Halfway through the evening, the trade-show’s half-American Organiser took up the microphone to speak. “We thought long and hard about cancelling the event, and then we thought, no, the show must go on. Because the one thing that will get us through times like these is our creativity, and coming together to meet the challenge with that creativity.”

I paraphrase slightly, writing from memory, twenty years on. On the Wednesday of last week I attended the Event Tech Live show in London’s Truman Brewery where exhibitors were showcasing virtual and hybrid event technology that can unite suppliers and customers through seamless digital interfaces without…

Airfares (and lost luggage)

Expensive stand-builds (with mis-read directions)

Entertainment expenses (and accompanying hangovers)

Merchandise costs (and associated pilfering)

But will a virtual handshake really cut it? When you’re entrusting your customers, your company’s life-blood, to a supplier on the other side of the world, in a different time-zone, with a totally different language and legal framework? And will you keep in regular contact with a virtual contact for two decades, visiting each other’s’ homes, getting to know each other’s families, facing the challenges the business inevitably throws at you with that combined creativity?

Well, yes and no.

For many of us it will probably always be important to be ‘in the room’ and ‘face to face,’ (geographically not virtually) at key points in the commercial relationship. But the technology we’ve all mastered during the pandemic, and which was once the sole preserve of mega-corps, now enables a far greater frequency of contact, and relationship reinforcement, than was ever possible previously. And with the challenges the Travel Trade is currently facing, it would be utter folly to not make the best of both worlds.

Copyright David Thomas 2021


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