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Polarisation of trade shows expected as people ‘travel less but more meaningfully’

The coronavirus pandemic will contribute to a “polarisation” of trade shows, as organisers adapt their offer to suit smaller, bespoke events alongside larger “one stop” shops, believes the head of London Wine Fair, Hannah Tovey.

Hannah Tovey, head of the London Wine Fair

It follows a year that has fundamentally changed the way we do business, with wine and spirits trade shows among the most clear indicators of changing preferences and practices.

Over the past 12 months dozens of international trade shows have been cancelled or postponed, with some choosing to batten down the hatches and weather the storm, while others have pushed head long into a new digital age, transforming their offer so that it can be delivered entirely remotely.

Both approaches have their merits, and there has been much talk about a future whereby events are hybridised between digital and live events. It’s unlikely that either method will disappear. But a “polarisation” is likely, believes Tovey, as people’s priorities shift and international travel becomes less crucial to doing business.

“I do think people are going to re-assess how they maximise their time and attending trade events will be very much part of this,” she says. “We are expecting some polarisation with the wine and spirits shows; more, smaller, bespoke events will take centre stage alongside the large “one stop shop” events like the London Wine Fair. But there will be fewer medium sized events, and I think in the short term, less demand for the super-size international events, with less compulsion to get on a ‘plane.

“People will be much more conscious of how they travel, whether it’s for a one-day event in London or an event that means getting on a plane. People will travel less but more meaningfully. A three-day event which can cover a huge amount of business will be seen as time and cost-effective.”

For 2021 The London Wine Fair has gone fully digital after the 2020 edition was postponed. The team has worked hard to recreate the buzz of the London show by setting the virtual show up as it is physically, split into the familiar Main Floor, Esoterica, Wines Unearthed and The Discovery Zone areas. Content will be run as if it were a live event with Industry Briefings, Tasting Masterclasses, TED-style talks and WSET tutorials streamed live.

“We have had to be incredibly nimble to be able to adapt to all the eventualities and all the uncertainty. A year ago, it was a given that by 2021 life would be back to normal, and we were on course for a 100% live show; at the end of last year, and in fact into January, we were all set up to deliver a hybrid show, but by mid-January we had to switch to 100% digital.”

Rodolphe Lameyse, Vinexpo CEO

Let’s get ‘physital’

Vinexpo has taken a similar approach with the launch of its own digital platform, Vinexposium.Connect, in October (following the cancellation of Vinexpo Shanghai). Going forward, it will be used to supplement all of its live shows, with its CEO Rodolphe Lameyse coining the phrase “physital” to described its ongoing approach.

The ambition is for Vinexpo to provide an efficient platform for communication between members of the trade with the aim of doing business, while also running virtual events and tastings.

“At the moment, we are investing in developing connectivity to deliver a real business element and to enable any winemaker or producer to get in touch with any wine buyer or wine lover on the same platform,” explains Lameyse.

“It’s easy to say and the idea is not a revolution in itself, but the ambition is to bring together the power of the Vinexpo brand with our database and aggregate this into our platform where the wine and spirit industry can exchange, discuss, network, promote and learn from a single platform with the aim of doing business. That’s a very wide ambition at the moment.”

Despite taking huge leaps into the digital realm, the importance of in-person events is not lost on Lameyse, who like many others in the trade is desperate to raise a glass with colleagues in-person. That will return eventually, of that he is confident. But he’s equally clear that Vinexpo’s digital element will continue to improve and get stronger post-pandemic. And it won’t be tied to individual events. Rather Vinexposium Connect will provide a platform to link the trade throughout the year, across all of its international shows.

Trade shows should be a mix of ‘head and heart’

“We went from 100% in person, to 100% digital and now we want to become physital – a mix of physical and digital,” he explains. “The perfect balance of digital, which will save money and time, but nobody wants to lose the physical side of things either. A trade show is a mix of the head and heart. The head is dedicated to business and can be done on the digital side. But the heart you can’t replace. Without heart you can’t do any business in this industry.”

Tovey agrees, noting that the basic human need to interact “is not going away” and that large business-focused events are going to be “essential” post pandemic. Digital will never fully replace a live event, she says, but will provide a very useful “add-on function”.

“We are already working on the 2022 show and will be incorporating a number of the digital elements into this,” she says, which could include offering exhibitors both digital and live stands.

“The world will be a very different place in 2022. Whilst we will be celebrating a sense of normality with live events, the digital world we have been inhabiting for the last 12 months will be here to stay, to a degree. There is a real value that digital brings to an event, especially for international visitors and winemakers unable to travel. It also gives a longevity to the show, with content staying online for three months post event.”

Digital to account for 10% of Vinexpo’s revenue by 2022

Looking ahead, Lameyse expects the digital side of Vinexpo’s business to account for some 10% of revenue by 2022, while growing proportionally, acknowledging that Covid has inadvertently forced companies that had been looking for a way to monetise their digital business for years into positive action.

“For the last 15 hears we have been talking about how we can create space for the digital to complement the floor side,” he says. “We have never been able to break the cycle and know how to position. Now with Covid, we have to.”

Despite describing the past 12 months as a “real challenge”, Lameyse remains reassuringly optimistic about the future. At present, Vinexpo is set to host Vinexpo Paris in June, which would make it among the first trade shows to return in person. Lameyse expects to take a decision on that at the end of this month.

“At the moment our industry is suffering and organisers of trade shows are suffering, but I’m convinced that once we are finished with this crisis, we will have a bright future. There will be a lot of opportunities and this will lead to a radical change if we embrace it properly. I’m excited to be there in that moment, so let’s talk about that in 10 years from now.”

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