Time to start again: the role of Italian exhibitions

By Loredana Sarti, general secretary of Italy’s exhibition industry association AEFI.


Ever since I have been working in AEFI I have found that the world of exhibitions is complex and fascinating,and has a significant impact on the country's economy and culture. This has been made all the more evident by my daily work with organisers, fitters, logistics companies and vendors from the most diverse sectors, including hotels, restaurants and taxis. A world of companies and people whose energy moves the country as a whole.

Italian exhibitions are a fully-fledged multiplier of value and socio-economic wellbeing, a strategic tool capable of making a major contribution to the rebuilding of the economy and society at large, and creating optimism for the future.

I have, therefore, been very happy with the attention accorded to exhibitions over the last six months, during which their role as an engine for the national economy has finally been recognised.

AEFI has been invited into the control room of internationalisation, the Trade Fairs Round Table has been launched, and we have participated in the Export Pact, which recognises exhibitions as one of the six pillars of the ‘Made in Italy’ brand. And let's not forget the support given by ICE (Italian Trade Agency) to our industry.

In the months from March to July, in Italy, 88 international exhibitions and 93 national ones were cancelled; if we consider just the international events, that means we lost two million visitors and 40,000 exhibitors.

The consequences have been more than serious, for us, for organisers, for the territory and for all connected industries - without which tradefairs cannot be held. These industries, like us, are facing an uncertain future.

AEFI represents 40 exhibition centres all over Italy which hold 96% of the country’s international events, half of which are also organised by our members.

In these months we have therefore suffered on two fronts, both as exhibition centres and as organisers of tradefairs.


Starting again from exhibitions

We have always held that the figures show that exhibitions are a driving force for our national economy. Eery year, they account for business agreements worth a turnover of €60bn and 50% of Italian exports are born from business contacts made during tradefairs.

So, in this very difficult time, tradefairs play a crucial strategic role in creating relationships and promoting and growing awareness of Italian excellence worldwide.

The aim is always to transform these relationships into business and employment for our country

We have made this video to summarise what we represent to the global market, and what we strongly promote.


Starting again with exhibitions

Italian exhibition centres, even if they have been closed, have never stopped “bringing Italy to the world and the world to Italy”, and have done so in many ways. But it will take more to recover our hard hit industry.

What we are going through at the moment is unique in modern history. There are no best practices or procedures from the past to guide us: we must simply face the situation in a new way.

And, above all, we need a new perspective on certain issues, including:

  1. Internal divisions in the industry: While before we could work separately, even duplicating events because we were certain to find willing visitors to our country, now we must consider that every businessman, whether from Italy or abroad, is more likely to think twice about his travel plans and we, therefore, have to make the most of our unique selling points.
  2. The link with the territory: While before we could consider exhibitions as opportunities to welcome richer tourists and big spenders, now we must make sure that we offer cost efficiency to our foreign visitors, working together with all actors in the supply chain. It is undeniable that Italy has a unique landscape and quality of life, but cost will now be the determining factor of every choice, and we must win with unbeatable value for money and efficiency.
  3. Concrete support from the authorities: While before we could imagine that the exhibitions industry could be self-sufficient, now we very much need concrete support from the government: it must help us to make up our losses – even if only in part – and invest in a future which is still very uncertain. We are, therefore, playing a very active role in international associations, to ensure that funds intended to make up loss of business are exempted from the rules governing state aid. 

To conclude, I am convinced that each of us can make a concrete, determined effort to positively affect the re-opening of our national economy.

In these uncertain times I am often reminded of the words of German poet Berthold Brecht: ...This is what you ask. Expect no answer other than your own (from 'An den Schwankenden - To the Indecisive').