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Breaking Travel News investigates: The future of travel exhibitions in a post-Covid-19 world

Breaking Travel News investigates: The future of travel exhibitions in a post-Covid-19 world

Travel restrictions imposed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic have dealt a crushing blow to the exhibition sector, with many events postponed or cancelled.

As innovative events move online, Breaking Travel News here examines which might excel in the new digital environment.

Exhibitions represent the heartbeat of the travel industry – the forums where buyers and sellers of everything from aircraft fleets and new hotel brands to tourist boards and booking agents secure business, and where new products are launched to the world. They also serve as the barometer for the health of the industry: busy exhibitions floors mean buoyant businesses.

But the restrictions imposed due to Covid-19 have dealt a crushing blow to the exhibition sector, with the triple whammy of curbs on flights, restrictions on mass gatherings and deferred investment decisions. The highest profile cancellation so far has been ITB Berlin 2020 – the first time in the 54-year history of the world’s largest tourism fair – just one week before it was scheduled to take place.

ITB Berlin 2020 was cancelled at short notice

Meanwhile ExCeL London, the site of Europe’s other major travel industry fair, World Travel Market, has been transformed into a temporary field hospital to cope with the overflow of Covid-19 cases.

Outside of Europe, the World Expo committee have taken the hawkish approach to postpone Expo Dubai 2020 for a full calendar year, and will now run from October 2021 to March 2020. The previously unimaginable delay will enable participants to weather the impact of Covid-19, in what will mark the first World Expo to be held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) region, and the largest ever event to take place in the Arab world.

Expo 2020 Dubai has been pushed back to next year

When ITB Berlin and other exhibitions return, will they be a much changed to the pre-coronavirus world? Will physical distancing measures still apply, meaning exhibitions that once occupied one hall will require two, and delegates following one-way paths around the vast halls of the Messe Berlin? Must exhibitors greet clients from behind protective screens, thereby removing the handshakes and close-up interaction that once made face-to-face meetings such an effective networking tool?


In addition to the physical restraints are the financial. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, Covid-19 is expected to result in an annual decline in the number of tourist arrivals of 60 to 80 per cent compared with 2019. This translates to tourism revenue losses of between US$910 billion and US$1.2 trillion, with up to 120 million tourism jobs at risk – by far the worst crisis that international tourism has faced since UNWTO records began in 1950. With travel companies across the board fighting for their survival, exhibitions budgets will be among the first expenses to be cut.

Yet, paradoxically, the lockdown requires companies to stay more engaged and connected with their customers and partners than ever before, and also position themselves to rebound after the pandemic.

Organisers are hopeful World Travel Market can return this year

As coronavirus shutters businesses and disrupts everyday life for billions around the globe, large-scale conferences and small society meetings alike have moved online. The new format offers new opportunities – for reaching wider audiences, reducing the carbon footprint of meeting travel, and leveraging new technology. For some events, the shift may be permanent.

To fill the void left by the cancellation of face-to-face events, a number of providers have stepped in with virtual offerings. Travel technology provider Avian and online start-up community Travel Tech Nation teamed up to produce the aptly-named Online Travel Conference to emulate the real thing, complete with firms being offered ‘virtual booths’ to showcase their products. Topics covered ranged from Covid-19 mitigation to the future of online travel. Henry Chen Weinstein, founder of Travel Tech Nation, said: “In these challenging times, leadership is key. Allowing room for conversation will accelerate the industry recovery and help it come out stronger on the other end.”

With its online Hospitality Tomorrow conferences, Bench Events is also leading the way. By using the latest in conference technology, it has set a precedent of how conventions post-pandemic could operate. Panel sessions and round-table debates feature travel industry heavyweights lending their expertise in ways to navigate the crisis. The first edition attracted an online audience of more than 5,000 participants from 128 countries.

Bench Events has been among the leaders in the shift online

Jonathan Worsley, chairman of Bench Events, said: “Now is the time to continue the conversation and to make those critical connections to build relationships, unity and actionable ways to support one another for a stronger response – as one industry, one community for one tomorrow.”

As its portfolio continues to grow, Bench announced a new event focused on Africa earlier this week.

On a smaller scale, too, the pandemic has showed that we can conduct meetings and conferences from our living rooms, thanks to video apps such as Zoom and FaceTime. Technology is fostering a sense of unity and allowing the continuation of networking during lockdown. Advances in technology means that reliable video conferencing has become accessible and affordable, and can realistically unite boardrooms from opposite sides of the world. Could this taster lead buyers and sellers to conduct the majority of their business remotely post-crisis, thereby signalling the end of large-scale, pan-global exhibitions?

A raft of virtual travel conferences seems to be among the few areas of the industry to flourish amid the pandemic. Travel technology thinktank Phocuswright is ideally pitched to present its findings and conferences in a virtual format. Likewise, TravelWebinars provides a forum for travel brands to reach their audiences through online presentations throughout the working day, while Travel Weekly has delivered a packed calendar of virtual events throughout lockdown.

This leaves exhibition organisers with a dilemma. They need to stay relevant and engaged by offering virtual events during lockdown, but in doing so they risk cannibalising their own core product, with technology creating experiences so beneficial that exhibitors might accept virtual events as the new normal.

The status of travel exhibitions is constantly changing. For the very latest on travel events taking place globally, head to the BTN Travel Events Calendar.

The Farnborough International Air Show will be a digital affair


This July should have seen global aerospace sector gathered for the biennial Farnborough International Airshow. Instead, its organisers have opted for the virtual format. A five-day programme of digital aerospace events aim to keep the industry connected through a mixture of keynote speeches, pre-arranged buyer and seller meetings, conducted through private virtual meeting rooms.

This year’s other large-scale travel gathering, World Travel Market - London is still scheduled to take place in November, according to its organiser Reed Travel Exhibitions. The signs are looking hopeful with the UK emerging from lockdown, and the temporary hospital currently occupying the ExCeL site expected to be dismantled imminently, having remained largely empty for weeks. But the main challenge will be bookings and attendance, with this year’s figures likely to show a sharp decline from the 13,2250 exhibitors and 32,000 visitors recorded last year.

In a further bright spot, ILTM Cannes will welcome the luxury travel sector to the south of France from December 7th-10th this year. In the same month, Barcelona will also welcome IBTM World. The leading global event for the meetings and events industry, the show has been providing the global community with the inspiration, business connections and content you need to create world-class events for your customers. It will return on December 1st-3rd.

Moving into 2021, and CONFEC will bring together top MICE industry professionals from across Europe to participate in a series of one-on-one meetings over two dedicated business days. The show will take place in Limassol, capital of Cyprus, in February.

IMEX Frankfurt was, however, forced to cancel its 2020 show, but pledged to return stronger than ever next year. “Despite the disappointment and impact, we know you will feel, we want you to know that we’re fully committed to serving this industry that we love. We’re already working hard in the background to deliver value and service above and beyond the trade show you were looking forward to and will announce these plans in the near future,” explained a statement. The leading event will return on May 25th-27th, 2021.

Trade shows may move online in the post-Covid-19 world

Middle East

Reed Travel Exhibitions has however cancelled this year’s edition of Arabian Travel Market. Instead it will operate as an online event, ATM Virtual, taking place June 1st-3rd, albeit run from London rather than the UAE. The format will include networking, one-to-one meetings and speeches from figureheads including president of Emirates Airlines, Tim Clark; chairman of the International Tourism & Investment Conference (ITIC) and former UNWTO secretary general, Taleb Rifai; and director of the ITIC, Gerald Lawless. All main stand holders will be able to set up 30-minute video meetings with registered buyers.

Take a look at a roundtable hosted by Breaking Travel News editor Chris O’Toole and recorded especially for the event here.

ATM Virtual will debut next month

The Arabian Hotel Investment Conference (AHIC) 2020 is scheduled to proceed physically but been pushed back to September 21st this year, when the leaders of the Arabian hospitality sector will meet at Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai. The organisers, Bench Events, will be keen to capitalize upon the success of the Saudi Arabia Hospitality Investment Conference (SHIC), hosted in Riyadh last January. SHIC is also scheduled to return for the fourth edition in January next year to maintain the momentum of the kingdom’s focus on becoming a global tourism destination over the next decade.

Panel discussion at Arabian Travel Market


Whilst Africa has managed to avoid the spread of Covid-19 better than other continents, concerns over its fragile health systems have led to tight lockdowns across the continent.

The largest trade fair on Africa’s travel calendar, Indaba in Durban, has been pushed back to 2021. Speaking about the annual tourism marketing event, South Africa minister of tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, said: “The risk adjusted approach that we have in South Africa gives us a framework within which we can carve our path towards recovery for the tourism sector. Based on the Covid-19 expected trajectory, the best-case scenario is that tourism sector recovery will only begin towards the end of this year.”

Indaba in South Africa has been postponed until next year

Meanwhile, Africa Travel Week, which comprises of WTM Africa, International Luxury Travel Market - Africa, and Equal Africa, which was scheduled to take place in April at the Cape Town ICC, has been postponed until 2021.

But more boutique, chief executive-level gatherings, which can sidestep some of the logistical challenges faced by larger events, are scheduled to continue at present. The Africa Hotel Investment Forum, is set to take place in October in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Trade shows in Africa have been cancelled in the wake of the virus

North America & Latin America

In the USA, the message is to get the travel and tourism industry kickstarted as soon as possible by getting industry executives networking face-to-face. Industry eyes will be closely monitoring the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) Global Convention 2020. Set for August 25th-28th in Washington DC, it will be one of the first large-scale events to be staged post-pandemic, with over 1,000 travel professionals expected to attend. The conference will also provide an ideal litmus test for the raft of other events taking place in September and beyond, in terms of how a mass-gathering event will operate in the aftermath of Covid-19, as well as providing a barometer as to how quickly the industry can get back on track.

Skift plans to host its New York-based forum as planned

IMEX America is taking place at Sands Expo, Las Vegas September 15th-17th. IPW will also be looking to bounce back strongly in 2021, following its cancellation this year. And Skift’s Global Forumis earmarked for September 21st-23rd in New York.

Elsewhere, Travel Industry Exchange will be going ahead in Miami from October 7th, while the Luxury Travel Advisors’ Ultimate Summit will follow the next month at La Cantera Resort & Spa, San Antonio, Texas.

Authorities in South America are hopeful some events can go ahead

The escalation of coronavirus in Brazil led to the postponement of World Travel Market - Latin America, with new dates of October 20th-22nd now confirmed at the same venue, Expo Centre Norte, in São Paulo. In Peru, the exhibition climate is also looking brighter with TravelMart LatinAmerica set for September 23rd-25th in Lima. While, in Panama, the South America Hotel & Investment Conference will take place on October 5th-7th.

The Caribbean Hotel & Resort Investment Summit (CHRIS), organised by the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, is chalked in for September 8th-9th in Miami. Timings could work favourable for the Caribbean’s largest industry event, Caribbean Travel Marketplace, which took place in Baha Mar, Bahamas in January 2020, shortly before the lockdown, while the 2021 event next January is likely to have seen off the worst of the pandemic.

Caribbean Travel Marketplace is expected to return next year

Asia Pacific

Exhibitions in Asia, such as ILTM Asia Pacific, were among the first to be fall victim to government-imposed restrictions. But, likewise, Asia is also the first continent to emerge from Covid-19 lockdown, offering a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. ITB Asia, sister event to ITB Berlin, is set to run for its twelfth year in October. The three-day event at Singapore Marina Bay Sands is expected to attract more than 1,300 exhibitors. MICE Show Asia is also planned in October, and a new event, Travel Tech Asia, will make its debut in Singapore too.

Events in Asia will be the first to return in the wake of Covid-19

The Pacific Asia Travel Association has remained active throughout the crisis, running a series of webinars and podcasts. The mainstay event on its annual, PATA Travel Mart is also set continue this year, with Sichuan, China playing host on September 3rd-6th.

So, while the coronavirus has dealt tourism a cruel blow, the industry has shown remarkable resilience, continuing to confront challenges through virtual networking. Most encouraging is the number of exhibitions and conferences scheduled to happen in the near future.

The sooner can the industry meet, the sooner the green shots of recovery can take hold.

More Information

The status of travel exhibitions is constantly changing. For the definitive resource of travel events taking place globally, head to the BTN Travel Events Calendar, which includes the details of over 900 events and the latest statuses.