What’s the new normal for travel trade events?

The Covid-19 scare hit in February this year. For me, the news was unexpected because just days before the Coronavirus made headlines, I was at Brunei attending the Asia Tourism Forum (ATF) — surrounded by Asian media and travel trade delegates — some even from China, from provinces close to Wuhan.

Wuhan was not a scary word at the time. No one spoke about the virus.

The attendees —tourism boards and exhibitors were focused on the second half of the 2020 market. They were optimistic. The press conferences I attended shed light on major growth plans for the Asia tourism market.

Be it at the dinner table or during networking sessions, my interaction with both Chinese media and travel agents was pleasant. All we discussed was catching up at the next ATF in Cambodia, and how we could join hands to expand tourism opportunities in Asia.

We exchanged cards. We bid goodbye, hoping we would get to see each other next year. Only time will tell if ATF in January will take place as per the original plan or if it will go virtual like other major travel trade events.

Big players like ITB Berlin and Arabian Travel Market are reaching out to the travel fraternity via virtual conferences and webinars. But is this only for the time being? Apparently not. Event organizers are looking at a hybrid model— a healthy blend of online and offline shows to interface with the community.

Regardless, the business of travel is all about being there physically. It’s no fun staring at a screen inside a screen. Industry veterans I spoke to say webinars and virtual meets are good for information sharing, but not for deal-clinching.

I spoke to our Managing Editor Rohit Hangal to gain insights on the industry. Hangal, an avid traveler, who has been in the events space for over two decades, opines that online interactions are not long-term solutions to promote tourism. Tourism and hospitality is relationship-driven, he says.

He is right. Webinars cannot replace face-to-face meetings. One cannot gauge a person’s vibe or body language when striking an important business deal. Physical events are here to stay and will be the primary means to connect buyers with sellers.

As someone who is both optimistic and realistic, I believe the travel trade events will get rolling in November, possibly after WTM 2020 kicks off in London.

Let’s wait and watch.