THE GOLDEN AGE
For decades the global exhibition industry has been showing a sustainable growth on most of the indicators.
By the late 2010s tens of exhibitions in the EU, China, UAE and the Americas boasted attendance of over 100 thousand people. 32 thousand exhibitions were held throughout the world with 4.5 mln. participating companies and 303 mln. visitors. In 2018 the exhibition industry contributed 325 billion US dollars into the economic growth in terms of contracts concluded as a result of exhibitions.
Exhibition centers in Germany and China competed for the title of the largest venue, sometimes reaching a fantastic scale – up to half million square meters in Hannover and Shanghai. These exhibitions turned into major factors of regional growth for the hosting cities, securing employment and income for millions of individuals and companies – constructors, transport workers, interpreters, catering services and hotels. It seemed this growth period would last forever.
HITTING A METEORITE
The COVID-19 pandemic reversed the state of things in a blink. Thousands of exhibitions all over the world were either cancelled or rescheduled. Millions of the industry employees found themselves temporarily out of work, and the industry lost one of its principal marketing and promotion facilities.
Today employees of exhibition companies, who never had enough time to cope with the necessary tasks, are staying at home, avidly reading the news about the pandemic and calling each other with the same questions: How long do you think this is going to take? When will they remove the restrictions? - as if hoping that someone knows better or has confidential or more reliable information.
Obviously, these are not only exhibition companies that found themselves in such circumstances but also everyone engaged in public events: conferences, forums, musical and theatrical events, etc. All of them are equally eager for some good news.
The news that some of the exhibitions in Germany (that kicked off a cascade of cancelled events) scheduled for October are allegedly not rescheduled, is interpreted in the exhibition community as an adequate reason for optimism. This may prove to be premature and here is why.
Governments making a decision on removal of restrictions are also made of people who are keeping their eyes on the situation in just the same way and can’t predict what it will be like in a few months. Still, due to the nature of their job, politics are prone to making careful yet reassuring statements to encourage their voters, and also just to be on the safe side.
An enthusiastic exhibition company, already bearing losses due to rescheduling and idle hours, desperately collects the last money and spends it on advertising and promotion (all this starts a few months before the event).
But a few months before the event the government assesses the risks and decides to extend the restrictions. The exhibition is rescheduled once again. This scenario may repeat again and again, eventually breaking already a barely alive company. Being on the knife edge undermines the spirits of a down-hearted exhibition industry.
The reason is simple: the government doesn’t have any clear-cut guidelines either to approve or to ban the events. And while weighing up all pros and cons, people’s health always gets prioritized over business.
On top of it, even if restrictions are removed, the decision on participation in an exhibition or visiting it will be made by each company and an employee individually, and they will also have no guidelines to assess potential risks.
The exhibition industry has always been a credible partner and an assistant to business and state. And in the current delicate situation it should not be a part of the issue but rather a part of its solution. This is how the industry business unions are now working on the strategies to resume exhibitions in a number of countries – they are not timidly waiting for approvals but are working on an instrument to deliver stability and safety to all parties.
TERMS AND CONDITIONS FOR EXHIBITIONS RESTART
Making the situation more predictable requires a set of common risk assessment criteria for public events which may be applied by both state and business.
Just like with other public events, the epidemiological risk of exhibitions involves simultaneous presence of many people in one location. However, the degree of participation in the events is different, meaning a different risk. Here the most consistent decision is to develop a scale to rank exhibitions (and other public events) calculated as a people concentration ratio based on simultaneous presence.
For example, let’s consider a risk assessment scale from 1 to 5, where 1 is a high risk event, 2 is an increased risk event, 3 is an average risk event, 2 is a low risk event and 5 is a very low risk event.
If the event is assumed to have one or more people per 1 sqm simultaneously, it is ranked as Category 1. If there is one person per 2 sqm of area, this will be Category 2. If there is one person per 5 or more sqm, the event is ranked as Category 5.
According to the concept of gradual restrictions removal, only low risk events will be allowed at the initial stage. Organizers should be ready to prove compliance of their events with a declared category, including inspection by supervising agencies. Besides, regardless of the category, we need common requirements for all categories. For instance, provision of disposable masks to everyone (a masks sales point with token prices at the entrance) and compulsory identification and tracking of all visitors. This will help tracing contacts of people who may prove to be circulators of infection at a later stage.
WAYS TO REDUCE EPIDEMIOLOGICAL RISK OF EXHIBITIONS
Ranking an event as a low risk one requires compliance with the below conditions:
Assurance of a safe distance for event participants may imply additional costs for organizers. However, given the situation, clear-cut and easy-to-understand patterns and criteria for exhibition approval seem to be the only way for predictable organization of exhibitions and other public events.
About the author: Evgene Vvedenski, Director of Exhibition Unitary Enterprise “Belinterexpo” of the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an exhibition and a MICE expert with a 10-years hand-on experience. E. Vvedenski managed and supervised more than 250 exhibitions, expositions, forums, conferences and workshops in 60 countries worldwide.