By Enrico Gallorini
Covid-19 and recent events have cruelly highlighted the unpredictability of our times. From first images of China in difficulty, perceived as somewhat distant from the perception of many other countries, with rather limited waves of effects on the exhibition system in the Far East, we quickly moved on to situations such as the cancellation and postponement of hundreds of tradefairs all over the world.
The situation is so critical that it makes it impossible, in the short term at least, to fully understand what will unfold, so it is problematic to venture any firm forecasts with any authority at this point.
What we can do, however, is to trace the trajectories of reasoning, asking ourselves all together what the role of exhibitions will be in the recovery of each individual industry, where exhibitions are a huge reference point. Today more than ever we must work united as an ‘industry’. We must ask ourselves what we shall expect at the ‘restart’ - when the world is able to reset - rom those fantastic moments of collective meeting, knowledge and face-to-face activity which we call ‘exhibitions’.
Trajectories of reasoning
- Associative support
It is precisely in moments of such intense and sudden crisis that we can see just how good an investment it can be for every operator to invest resources and contribute effectively to the strengthening of associative entities.
The role of UFI (the global association for the exhibition industry), is fundamental in this moment, and requires and deserves investment and economic support from all industry operators. Only together can the
industry put the needs of exhibitions at the centre of government agendas, which more often than not tend to see the exhibitions as a ‘given’.
The role of exhibitions will be essential for the future re-start of the planet.
- The immediate consequences
The explosion of the emergency linked to Covid-19 has led to a series of immediate problems, such as for example logistical problems related to the closure of offices, choices regarding the way of working and the effects on the workforce (tele-work, smart working, furloughs, layoffs), the use of digital tools where possible (e.g. interaction with customers, presentation of news). There is no doubt that this is generating a very strong - albeit unwanted - digital gym both in terms of work methods and client relation processes.
- Governance of financial stress
By their very nature, exhibitions exist in the moment they take place, with a cyclicity given by the production system in which they are immersed. For companies such as exhibition organisers, cancelling or postponing an event will bring about such a contraction in turnover, that restarting can represent an epochal challenge, not only for the organiser itself, but for the entire sector that the collective event represents, and puts at risk the invaluable function of exchange and comparison which promotes growth and innovation.
- Forced innovation
The exhibition industry has been involved for years in an innovation process that woks on several layers. These are the guiding principles for the work of the UFI Digital Committee, and include: digital transformation (reviewing the organiser structure and processes in a context that is now deeply digitalised); experience transformation (helping evolve the business model from a prevailing square metre focus to a customer experience focus); human transformation (remixing the skill set in this age of the
knowledge economy, aligning individuals' attitudes to organisational objectives, bringing businesses and people closer together).
Recent events remind us that that innovation is a process that involves:
- risk management
- navigating the uncertainty
- exploring ambiguity
All the above changes the way the exhibition business functions.
- Asymmetric impact
We can expect this crisis to lead to a sector that has profoundly changed asymmetrically and possibly with different consequences for different operators.
First: There will be some important selections made among the operators. It is not a given that the advantage will be only with the most solid and strong organisers.
Let us remind ourselves of Darwin:
"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change".
In any case, we are likely to have fewer organisers, accelerating an already ongoing trend of M&A.
Second: A transformation of the way organisers work and behave will see more experimentation of new organisational and contractual forms linked to different economic aspects (e.g. smaller structures, focus on data, agile work methodology, agency formats).
Third: The creation of innovative partnerships across different exhibitions will involve some surprising approaches and synergies. In essence, we will have synergistic constellations with operators from various fields.
- Preparing for a new world
Undoubtedly, in this phase of paralysis and isolation, the need for facing the challenges, a common search for ways of responding and experimentation with innovative practices is growing.
History teaches that companies that act effectively during a crisis become stronger after it. The catastrophic changes that have occurred throughout history do not lead to an ‘end of the world’ but to the ‘end of a world’, with the generation of new social, entrepreneurial and vital habitats.
Enrico Gallorini is CEO – GRS Research & Strategy (www.grsnet.it) and member of the UFI Digital Committee