To lead is to serve

New relationships with technology and communicating with clients and colleagues in a different manner have been key to logistics companies weathering the Covid storm. EW looks at some examples.

Some chill winds have been blowing through the exhibition logistics and contracting sector and size has been no defence against the need to make cutbacks and to look for new coping strategies in the face of the Covid-19 challenge.

In the UK, GES’s Blitz has gone into liquidation and, Stateside, major contractors have shed staff, the realisation of warnings that the cessation of business events could cost the business events industry $118bn in 2020.

In the UK, the Events Industry Alliance identified 30,000 direct jobs in the UK exhibitions sector at risk if remaining exhibitions were cancelled in 2020.

Of course, the situation varies around the world. In China, exhibitions are taking place again, and in Germany, too, albeit they look a lot different.

Dave Richards is regional director fairs and events in Europe, for international freight forwarding and exhibition logistics company Agility, a company with roots as a warehousing and has grown to employ 26,000 staff.

Richards says that, even before the pandemic, the industry was changing, and his team at Agility was adjusting with it. “The role of technology, for instance, was changing the expectations of exhibitors and attendees. Both were looking for a richer experience and better return on investment. That will continue to have implications for on-site venue partners and forwarders like us after the pandemic subsides and the industry is able to get back on its feet. In the meantime, the absence of large exhibitions has prompted us to focus on smaller events that can take place safely and still provide a return.”

In the absence of business travel, many shows have reoriented to national markets.

Agility has traditionally been serving customers drawn to international exhibitions at large venues including ExCeL London, Hamburg, Abu Dhabi and Singapore, and Richards admits that events such as product launches and tours have gained traction ahead of the larger international exhibitions.

Richards identifies a new atmosphere of camaraderie and communication, which is more important than ever.

“Everyone’s in the same position,” he says. “This obviously includes discussions on how exhibitions will be different when we next step into the venues. We envisage a fast changing landscape as the sector restarts. All of us will have to be ready to adjust before things get fully back to normal.”

Richards thinks the short-term future will likely involve a change to services and working models.

“There is an industry-wide desire to try to get things back to ‘how they used to be’, and a pent-up demand in industries that get a solid return from exhibiting and attending events - so as a supplier we will continue to engage with our stakeholders and to make sure they are prepared.”

Indian summer In India, RE Rogers was one of many companies that, six months ago, began primarily Working from Home (WFH) as a temporary model for survival.

MD Ravinder Sethi says he never thought the lockdown would last so long.

“Having said that, our all-India customs and freight operations never closed, being essential services. So, in a way we’ve had a ‘hybrid’ model in play all during lockdown,” Sethi says. “Our biggest reassessment is that WFH is not temporary and will now remain (partially) with us post-Covid. It has many advantages, including quality communication flow and faster decision-making.”

Government help for the industry in India has been confined to indirect benefits, such as more flexible banking facilities and delayed taxation benefits, which has put an even greater onus on self-sufficiency. Partial business reorientation to areas other than exhibition logistics have included, at RE Rogers, putting other verticals in play - namely special defence and general freight projects.

“From day one of lockdown, we aggressively strengthened these businesses,” says Sethi.

In India, as in other country markets, there is a holistic supply chain, and Sethi stresses it is most important to ensure timely payments to all vendors, particularly the smaller ones.

Sethi remains optimistic. “Face-to-face exhibitions will return very strongly and I’m looking forward to handling boxes in the traditional manner. The difference for some time would likely be special post-Covid SOPs strictly in place. There will also be a greater dependency at the office level on technology and a redefined WFH in the future,” he says.

“The importance of close mutual trust and teamwork with your colleagues is my advice to everyone,” he adds.

And, amid the coronavirus crisis, RE Rogers managed to complete its ISO - 20121 recertification audit virtually.

The International Exhibition Logistics Association chairman Guido Fornelli told EW the effects of the pandemic led to “new ideas, new tools and new platforms for a new era” being created by the association. Its #togetherstrong advocacy, IELA RELOAD recovery programme (designed by members for members) and the online OPERATIONS SUMMIT have all provided strong value to IELA’s members in 56 countries.

“Our annual congress had to be postponed and Board meetings were held electronically but we are very proud: the Association acted fast, delivering universal support and keeping in touch with key partner associations to intensify collaboration for sharing information and heightening advocacy work in support of the industry,” said Fornelli.

He added that the association’s volunteers who contributed to the IELA RELOAD format made a huge difference to the content. “This is the most important lesson that has been learned post-Covid-19: The community and the association have never been more relevant and crucial than now.”

Fornelli added: “The exhibition market is slowly restarting on a local dimension and our associates who manage the on-site logistics within venues are focusing on providing services mainly to local exhibitors.”

And Fornelli underlined the need for flexibility for members who, he said, have “searched to find work in other segments of the shipping and logistics industry and also found different ways to keep their teams together, through training sessions and by reviewing their procedures as well as maintaining their assets. Not to mention those who, in various ways, collaborated in the creation of hospitals and the supply of medicine during the most serious moments of the sanitary emergency”.

See for the full interview with Guido Fornelli.