Explainer: Are physical events making a comeback in the GCC?
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Explainer: Are physical events making a comeback in the GCC?

Explainer: Are physical events making a comeback in the GCC?

Events that are the leaders in their sector will probably recover quicker as customers will reduce the number of exhibitions they attend, opines Andy White, senior vice president, dmg events

Gulf Business

The events sector has been among the worst hit by the Covid crisis. How has the industry in the GCC tackled the situation?
In March 2020, the exhibition industry came to an abrupt halt and every event organiser in the GCC felt the impact. During the last 18 months the events sector has had to work quickly and creatively to adapt their business models to provide value for the markets in which they operate. Many have gone online to provide alternative ways of staying in touch with their markets through webinars and virtual exhibitions, although the results have been mixed. Because of travel restrictions, we decided at a very early stage that we would need to transition our exhibitions from international to local. This strategy for our recent Index and Hotel Show events in Dubai worked extremely well and will form the basis of how we operate going forward. We have used the 15 months break from live events to speak with our customers and understand their (new) needs. This has really paid off in the UAE and we are hopeful to repeat the same for our upcoming events in Saudi Arabia.

Have you noticed demand returning for physical events?
Index Dubai and Hotel Show Dubai were the first events we organised in 15 months and while they were smaller because of fewer international exhibitors, the number of trade visitors exceeded our expectations. I believe there is a real desire for people to get back to face-to-face after spending the last 15 months communicating over Zoom and being unable to meet with industry colleagues. We’re currently planning to reopen our events business in Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi Entertainment & Amusement (SEA) Expo, INDEX Saudi and The Hotel Show Saudi – all taking place in September as the first live events to return to the kingdom.

We have seen domestic and international restrictions imposed overnight – how do you handle such sudden changes?
The one predictable thing about operating in a pandemic is that it’s unpredictable. Many of the decisions that impact our events are completely out of our control, so we focus on what we can control. That has been supporting local businesses and building an event for the local community that won’t be impacted by travel restrictions. By adopting this approach, we’ve reduced the risks and minimised the volatility that many international events are experiencing. We also assumed from day one that it’s unlikely international exhibitors will travel to the GCC and those that do book stands may cancel at any time, dependent on travel restrictions. This means we’ve had to be flexible with international exhibitors, allowing them to cancel without penalty if they are unable to travel and moving their bookings to 2022.

What can be done to increase confidence among attendees and increase participation at in-person events?
The Dubai government and Dubai World Trade Centre have introduced some very clear guidelines for organisers, which makes it very safe for people attending our events. We have wider aisles, no queuing for registration, socially distanced seminar theatres and a range of other measures designed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our guests. However, even with all these measures in place, we do understand that it could take some time before everyone is confident about attending exhibitions again and we have to ensure that we continue to maintain health safety standards at all our events.

Looking ahead, when do you expect the events industry in the region to recover?
We expect our events to recover to pre-pandemic levels by 2023 or 2024 at the latest, but it depends on the event, the sector and how quickly the world recovers. Events that are the leaders in their sector will probably recover quicker as customers will reduce the number of events they attend. However, the pandemic has also levelled the playing field and in the medium term, to remain competitive, event organisers will have to work harder to inspire, educate and entertain their audiences.

Lastly, with the big shift to virtual events – will they become the norm in the future? Or will ‘hybrid’ events become part of the new normal?
Virtual events have served a purpose during the pandemic, but I think their future is uncertain. If you’re running an event that focuses on providing high-quality educational content, then virtual events may be able to deliver some benefit, particularly if you’re trying to attract a global audience that won’t travel. However, we run product focused trade events in the design, entertainment, and hotel sectors where buyers come to source products. These buyers need to sit in the chair, check the quality and feel the fabric – something they cannot do virtually. Virtual event technology has been around for over 20 years and before the pandemic, very few event organisers ran virtual events, because there simply wasn’t the demand. Has the pandemic changed this? Possibly, but we’ll have to wait and see. I personally believe that the need to meet face-to-face is essential because it builds strong business relationships, the quality of which can never be replicated online.

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