By Kate Holton
LONDON (Reuters) – When Victoria Beckham sends her models down the London catwalk on Sunday, many of her most important clients will not be sitting in the front row but following from afar as the coronavirus outbreak hobbles international events.
The drive by London Fashion Week to communicate with absent Chinese buyers is just one of the ways the global events industry is adapting, quickly, to keep the show on the road.
Caroline Rush, head of the British Fashion Council, said it wanted to keep dialogue open and buyers engaged.
“Through the platforms that we’ve put in place, we know that is possible,” she told Reuters. “It will be promoted through Weibo and WeChat and all of the social media channels as well as media platforms and partners that we work with in China.”
The disruption is more serious for others, with dozens of large trade fairs and industry conferences postponed in Asia after airlines cancelled flights and companies curbed travel.
Events due to be held as late as the end of March have already been rescheduled, while the venue of China’s oldest and biggest trade fair, the Canton Fair, has suspended events until further notice. It was due to hold its spring exhibition from April 15, an event that led last year to some $30 billion worth of deals being signed.
In Barcelona, the world’s biggest telecoms conference, Mobile World Congress (MWC), was called off this week.
With more than 100,000 attendees due to be mingling inside the halls, restaurants and conference rooms of the Fira de Barcelona, operators like Vodafone and tech groups such as Amazon felt they could not risk attending.
By Friday 1,380 people had died of the new coronavirus, with 63,851 infected, the majority of which were in China.
While cancellations will undoubtedly hit short-term economic output, the global exhibitions and events industry has proved to be remarkably resilient in the face of previous challenges such as SARS, the global financial crisis and the ash cloud that disrupted flights in 2010.
Figures from management consultancy JWC show industry turnover rose steadily after the financial crash, but much of that growth came from China, soon to be home to the world’s biggest exhibition centre in Shenzhen.
“The industry has shown time and again that when there is a disruption, you may have an event being cancelled…but usually that leads to a bounce back effect the year after,” said Kai Hattendorf, chief executive of the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry.
Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA which organises MWC, concurred.
“(MWC) is the place where business takes place, and that is not going to go away any time soon,” he said.
However, the blow was particularly tough for smaller companies, many of which sink their entire annual marketing budget into making a success of the trade fair.
When a major event such as the financial crash forces companies to reduce the number of staff they send to a trade fair, the hunt for sales generally means they still attend in some form. And when tougher times force a sector’s third or fourth biggest event out of business, it often makes the leading shows even more important.
“If you are running a global platform people will travel a long distance, across many time zones, to attend,” Hattendorf said.
Worth an estimated $325 billion in business sales a year, the global events and exhibitions industry has adapted as the economy evolves.
Where Relx, the world’s second largest exhibitions provider behind Britain’s Informa, once held a large computer hardware show, it now hosts events on rechargeable batteries in Japan, waste technology in Russia and Infosecurity in Mexico.
And for years now the industry has faced talk of whether shows and trade fairs will move online – both Sony and Nokia said they would hold digital product launches when they pulled out of Mobile World Congress.
Holding so-called virtual exhibitions would enable attendees to cut back on spending and travel, an issue that is becoming more important as companies and consumers rein in flying, in part due to environmental concerns.
“Over the last 10, 20 years there have been dramatic developments in how people interact, whether they do that online, by video,” Relx Finance Director Nick Luff told reporters. “But face to face remains a very important part for many industries.”
Many shows now broadcast core presentations and speeches online as well, widening the potential audience and building new revenue streams.
According to a 2019 report for industry body UFI, there was 138 million square meters of exhibitor stands across the world, with 303 million people attending exhibitions.
The British Fashion Council’s Rush said she had faced questions around the long-term viability of London Fashion Week ever since it started streaming some shows back in 2009.
“I think there is something around fashion week, around seeing the fabric, touching and feeling it, and the convening of people and the discussion that happens around it, that sort of community network is hard to recreate online,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Noor Zainab Hussain in Bengaluru, Doug Busvine in Berlin and Hanna Rantala in London; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)