Following the almost total absence of in-person industry shows, exhibitions and events for close on two years due to COVID-19, with many of the big annual events cancelled or moved to the virtual space, there are finally signs of normality in 2022.
Yet there is uncertainty over whether this means that the expo industry is making a comeback in South Africa. Some industry insiders have misgivings about whether the industry can survive on the maximum capacity numbers that have been imposed.
WTM Africa will also return with a hybrid format, with the physical event happening April 11-13 and the virtual event April 4-5.
SA Events Council (SAEC) spokesperson, Projeni Pather, told Tourism Update that the organisation was entering 2022 with a lot of optimism. "Larger exhibitions and events have been returning internationally over the past year without incident. In South Africa, the increase in indoor capacity to 1 000 pax ensures the resurgence of exhibitions in 2022. Several significant exhibitions are either confirmed or in the planning stages.
Increased capacity imperative
“Exhibitions are retail environments, bringing buyers and sellers together. We are working with government to ensure that we are allowed a minimum 50% venue capacity as per shopping centre regulations. But we believe that, given our strict safety protocols, increasing our capacity numbers is imperative to the continuity of our industry,” said Pather.
SAEC has been working through the past two years to demonstrate that events and exhibitions are professionally regulated, and cannot be categorised together with mass gatherings. Events and expos have specific COVID-safety protocols which they put in place to mitigate the risks.
“The enhanced safety measures will probably be a lasting legacy of the pandemic. However, we are confident that our industry is doing everything possible to ensure a safe return to eventing at former capacities,” said Pather.
Vaccination is key
“Widespread vaccination is key to returning to previous capacities and recovery for our industry. The closer we move towards vaccination saturation the more hopeful things look for us to achieve what will become the ‘normal’. Of course, the viral threat remains unpredictable, but we have achieved a healthy communication channel with Government to improve understanding and avoid irrational restrictions.”
Pather said that the past two years had been devastating for expos and events. “Firstly, the industry effectively closed overnight with the initial lockdowns and travel restrictions, and then, the uncertainty ever since has played havoc with our ability to organise business events of any kind.
“Expos need a good couple of months to plan, and the continually fluctuating regulations have seen stop-start planning, postponements, and cancellations, all of these devastating to exhibition organisers, service providers and vendors alike. The closure of large venues like the TicketPro Dome, the demise of numerous event companies, and the loss of livelihoods for most in the sector reflect the extent of the damage.”
Charles Wilson, CEO of Gallagher Convention Centre, said the future looked positive for the industry. “The manner in which we operate and do business has certainly changed, but our industry is made up of the most resilient and innovative people, so we will prevail. Also, taking into account the interest from the exhibitions and events industry in hosting events, the industry’s bounce-back will be quicker than anticipated.”
Wilson said the impact of the last two years had been devastating. “The amount of experience that the industry lost will take decades to rebuild. Money can be made again, but gaining experience takes time.”
He concluded: “Looking at trends, and considering the approach to Omicron that we have seen from the government, as well as the President's remarks during SONA, it is clear that we will find a way to live as normally as possible with COVID.”