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India's event industry

While India’s economy is expected to continue its rapid growth over the next 10 years, the country’s exhibition industry is still misfiring. Antony Reeve-Crook looks at what is being done to bring India into the premier league.

The Indian economy is expected to quadruple in size between now and 2020, according to a report by Edelweiss Capital. Currently worth US$160m, India’s exhibition industry has the potential to grow to US$990m, according to a recent report compiled for UFI by the Business Strategies Group.

However, these are hypothetical statistics that while widening the eyes of many overseas investors, do little to entice the international exhibition organising community.

At a time when east European specialist organiser ITE is increasing its footprint in India with the purchase of  the as-yet-untitled business operation of the former Expomedia Group, most overseas exhibition organisers are withdrawing. Among the most recent émigrés are Montgomery Worldwide, which closed its Indian division last year, dissolving its joint venture with Inter Ads Exhibitions; InterAdsMontgomery, and Reed Exhibitions, which closed its New Delhi office in a bid to consolidate business elsewhere.

The truth is that far from being honey to the proverbial bees, the Indian exhibition market needs to overcome many challenges before its growth potential can be tapped by organisers.

“Venues are the most important obstacle facing the Indian exhibition, convention and trade show industry business. We need world-class infrastructure to host our big exhibitions,”  says Manish Gandhi, executive director of  Asian Business Exhibition and Conferences, organiser of the upcoming AceTech construction exhibition in Mumbai.

According to the BSG report, venue space dedicated to exhibitions in India was 254,707sqm in 2009, and no new venues are planned for at least two years. The shortage of space in cities like Mumbai and New Delhi is a particular problem, as it is these cities that have the critical mass of potential visitors necessary to support a busy trade fair calendar. Gandhi believes that for the Indian exhibition industry to achieve anything approaching its US$990m market potential, it needs to create an additional 800,000sqm of exhibition space.

 

“Venue creation holds the key to future growth. And venue creation, being a highly capital-intensive activity, needs government support and subsidies,” he says, adding that the real challenge to organisers in India is to scale up the exhibitions and still give value to the exhibitors.

But as anyone who’s tried to organise an event in India will tell you, space is far from the only problem. Regulations and bureaucracy make it as difficult for organisers to manoeuvre as any shortage of square metres. As Gandhi puts it, “Government regulations are not conducive to fast growth in this sector, the problem is that the exhibition sector is yet to get Government recognition.”

The MD of UK logistics company Show Carriage, Ian Croxson, is one of the official partners for the Global Security India 2010 exhibition on 28-30 April. The event, which focuses on homeland security and counter terrorism is, ironically, a rare example of the Indian government being focused towards providing support for the trade show market.
Croxson believes that in the UK, organisers still face an unnecessary struggle to get their shows underway in India.

“As far as UK activity is concerned, we are hampered by the bureaucracy involved under temporary importation into India, in that UK Trade and Investment, unlike other EU-based organisations, is unwilling to issue Bank Guarantees on behalf of UK companies, in favour of Indian customs.

While India is a signatory to the ATA Carnet Convention, it is left for the individual exhibitor to arrange via their corresponding banks.

“The end result is much expense and red tape in preparation, with a certain reluctance to enter the market as it is both complicated and bureaucratic,” says Croxson.
It’s a further example of the complications arising from doing business with India, a country fiercely protective of its domestic market.

However, the temptation to point the finger of blame at the Indian government is not fully justified, according to the MD of Indian logistics firm PS Bedi, Vicki Bedi. He believes the ills of the industry are in part due to the failure to establish a mature exhibition industry association, recognised by the government, that can effectively lobby for government investment. This, he claims, is at least partly down to a “closed community” of stakeholders averse to competition, standing in the way of progress.

“Some of the industry leaders who fear competition  are responsible for not allowing the industry to mature, which has further resulted in a lack of support from the Government, since the importance of the industry - with its very small number of players – is not fully recognised,” he says.

“My company sought to become a member of the then newly formed Indian Exhibition Industry Association (IEIA) about four years ago but nothing happened. And the reason nothing happened is that they didn’t allow anyone else to get in.”

However, change is afoot. Anil Arora, the current honourary secretary of the IEIA, knows strength lies in numbers.

“To have our voice heard we have to have the numbers. Over the last year we have put in a lot of effort to get our large organisers involved,” says Arora. “From 10 honourary members (organisers, venue owners and  service providers) it has grown to 30, and this should reach 45 within the next year or so.“

But this number is still short of what it takes to put the association on the Ministry of Commerce’s radar. So the IEIA is now giving out associate membership, tying in hotels, caterers, housekeeping, security agencies and so on, making the IEIA representative of a larger industrial base.

As Bedi points out, “Do you think the government of India is going to look at an association with only 25 members in a country as large as Europe, that has around 1.1 billion people? No. We need a mature, welcoming association with a 200-300 members, and the organisers need to support increased competition.”

The association has also progressed into lobbying at a policy-maker level, recently commissioning a consultancy to conduct an in-depth study of the industry. “If you go to the policy-makers, you need to have this ammunition to show them the importance of the industry, how it generates economic growth, and brings benefits to other businesses,” says Arora. “As things stand today, the appreciation is still not there as to the importance of this segment of the economy.”

India’s International Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO), which falls within the Ministry of Commerce, is the lynchpin for the future success of the Indian exhibition industry. If the organisers, venues and service providers can make a convincing argument to invest in the industry, then they can win the attention of India’s public sector. As it stands now, that support isn’t there.

Look no further than the 2010 calendar of the country’s largest trade show venue, New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan. For the crucial part of the year, April to October, it will be unavailable for exhibitions because it has been given to the Secretariat of the Commonwealth Games. As Arora points out, “this is the importance that we have in the mindscape of the Government – we don’t exist”.

The ITPO is mandated, as well as being a trade promotion authority, with regulating the exhibition industry. It is also a venue owner (Pragati Maidan) and organiser. Together with the Ministry of Commerce, it’s the organisation where most of the solutions to India’s problems lie.

“Yes, the ITPO is probably inefficient, and yes the government of India is probably not concentrating on garnering the full benefits that this industry can bring to the country,” says Bedi. “But I want to ask the people who have been leading the exhibition sector what they have done for the industry, because in 25 years the industry remains fragmented, closed, and has not reached its potential.”

The project the IEIA has given to its consultancy group includes asking it to study the German trade fair model. “We want them to look at how Germany’s exhibition venues helped their economy, and we also want them to look at China, as well as one or two other countries,” says Arora. “We want to see how and what they are doing to promote their industry and how it is affecting their economy.”

Amitabh Kant is the MD and CEO of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor. He was formerly the joint Secretary for the Ministry of Tourism, and to those of us not familiar with his work, he was also the man behind the ‘Incredible India’ campaign, 2002-2006.
Kant believes that the future of India’s exhibition industry lies in the creation of a successful public-private partnership.

“To drive India as an exhibition destination we have the ITPO. But India is such a large country that it needs to be thought of as five different regions,” he says. “We need to create vibrant private sector organisations in each of these that will drive, promote and market business-to-business events, under the umbrella of the ITPO, and ultimately the Ministry of Commerce.”

Kant believes there are three goals to score in order for the Indian industry to thrive: new exhibition infrastructure, fresh promotion and marketing, and establishing the ITPO as the facilitator, catalyst and regulator. And only the latter should be a responsibility of the public sector.

“Unlike China, where infrastructure is being created by the government, India’s infrastructure is being created by the private sector. It’s a public-private partnership model where the government acts as a facilitator and catalyst.

“To my mind, conventions and exhibitions should be totally driven by the private sector. Only the promotion and marketing of India as a MICE destination should be done by the ITPO,” he adds.

It’s crucial to the growth of India’s exhibition industry that it succeeds. Because no matter what the true dollar forecasts for India’s growth are, this is very much a human story. Opening up India’s international exhibition industry will bring benefit to people on every rung of the socio-economic ladder, creating jobs and boosting international ties. With so much scope for foreign investment, India must embrace  its exhibition sector.

As Bedi says, “We have an audience, we have guys who are willing to invest, there is a demand, but still the industry is failing. We all want this cake to get bigger.”

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