Exhibitions and the Great Reset

We welcome former UFI managing director and industry advisor Paul Woodward, who has joined Exhibition World as guest editor for a six-month stint. Here, he sets out what he’s hoping to do over the period, along with a few thoughts about the key issues the industry is facing:


This really is an exciting time to be launching into the new role of guest editor at Exhibition World and I’d like to use this first piece to tell you what I’m planning to do. By any measure it’s been a lousy year for the global business events industry and the challenges obviously aren’t over yet. But, thankfully, the vaccines seem to be working, the industry is re-emerging and confidence returning.

Almost the entire global business community, with a few notable exceptions, has taken a big hit. Most economies are bouncing back strongly, but they are doing so from the steepest downturn any of us has ever known in our working lives. This isn’t just a recovery; it’s a reset. And, I am convinced as I write this on Global Exhibitions Day, that tradefairs and other business events have a huge role to play in shaping that reset and, perhaps most importantly of all, rebuilding employment and job opportunities across many industries around the world.

I’m grateful to the team at Mash Media for inviting me to take on this role right now. I’ll be in the guest editor’s seat here for the next six months and it promises to be a hugely interesting half year. There are many questions to be asked and, anyone who tells me that they know all the answers will be treated with serious scepticism.

I’ve certainly been frequently wrong in many of my forecasts over the past 12 months, although I’ll stand by most of what I said about operating in a time of uncertainty a year ago in a piece titled ‘And then everything changed’. That concluded: “As Donald Rumsfeld memorably told us back in 2002, it’s the unknown unknowns ‘that tend to be the difficult ones’.”

What I’m hoping is that, by the end of my time at Exhibition World, the fog will have lifted a bit and there will be far fewer of those unknown unknowns as we move into 2022.

This publication is unique in that it was launched with UFI with a global outlook from day one. During my time as UFI’s managing director, I was fortunate to be able to engage directly with that global readership and I’ve seen Exhibition World on CEO’s desks in Asia, Africa, Europe, Australasia and the Americas. We’ll be talking to key people in all those regions about how the industry is bouncing back and what changes they see.


‘Meet the CEO’ features

There will be regular ‘Meet the CEO’ features where we’ll talk to people you’ve heard of and, I hope, a few that you haven’t but, after reading, will wish that you had. We’ll also focus in on different industry sectors to find out what’s special about them. A pump and valve exhibition is an entirely different beast to a boat show or a jewellery fair. They’re all critically important to the industries they serve but they work in very different ways. We don’t always help ourselves by lumping them together into a one size fits all concept of an “exhibition industry”

Hopefully, as the year wears on, it will become easier to determine which changes we’ve seen during the pandemic are permanent and which are temporary. There are lots of opinions on that right now but the truth is that nobody really knows.

While virtual events generally haven’t really worked for the tradefair component of business events, they are transforming other segments of the industry. And, it’s very clear that there will be a critically important digital stream of activity in many previously simple exhibition businesses. These can be complicated and expensive to implement and even more challenging to monetise profitably. Will that create a two-tier industry? Will we see a world where a small number of large businesses dominate B2B marketing across a number industries with a sophisticated mix of face-to-face, digital and data offerings? Others, perhaps more nimble and entrepreneurial but with a simpler business model, would then, as they have always done, launch traditional events into new market niches or, perhaps, new-style events into old market niches vacated by the ‘big boys’. And, if that happens, is it a problem or a good and welcome injection of a new dynamism into a mature industry?

There are lots of other important questions to ask: do the companies which support our industry around the world still have the capacity to build the stands, ship the freight, and provide all the services we need to organise fairs once we’re allowed to? They’ve been decimated by the crisis and are currently struggling to hire the right people as markets reopen.

And, what of travel? Exhibition World has a global focus and it’s clear that international business travel is likely to be impacted for several more years. What does that mean for our business? As primarily domestic markets such as the US and China do just fine, how well can places such as Hong Kong, Singapore and even the mighty German messes survive without their international participants?

You will, I hope, have your own questions that you’d like us to ask and people you’d like to hear from. Feel free to drop me a line at  ewguesteditor@mashmedia.net and let me know what you’d like us to do. I can’t promise to oblige but your ideas and concerns will be at the heart of what we do.