European Organizers Face Ongoing Identity Struggle

Frances Ferrante, Senior Editor
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IFEMA reopening
The recent designation of FITUR as an Event of Exceptional Public Interest for 2021 also brings with it additional funding.

PARIS — A campaign is being waged throughout Europe to prove how different business events are from other large gatherings when it comes to reducing the potential risk of COVID-19. The latest UFI webinar explored these efforts, which have yielded very different results, in Spain and The Netherlands.

“It’s clear that some countries value exhibitions and understand our industry better than others,” said Pascal Bellat, UFI’s IT Manager, who moderated the webinar.

Building a Case in The Netherlands

Nowhere has the effort to build understanding been more intense than in The Netherlands, where the entire business events community banded together, in cooperation with the authorities and the scientific community, to create the FieldLab program. Its goal: to build a body of research by hosting eight pilot events. The project is being led by Peter Lubberts, the CEO of Backbone International.

“As in other countries, our government said every event is the same because a lot of people come together,” he said. The organizers believe that the risk level depends on the event type, he added. They created four event types: indoor passive (theater, seminar); indoor active (sports event, concert); outdoor active (outdoor sports, concert); and outdoor active (festival, where people walk from area to area). Working together with scientists, they captured data from the pilot events that shows the real infection risks for each type.

Related. Strong Advocacy Leads Way to European Countries Opening Exhibitions

Similar pilot programs are happening in the U.K. and France, among other countries. “You can’t count 50,000 people coming to a football match over several hours as the same as many people coming to a trade show over three to four days,” said Bellat. “In the U.K., a trade exhibition is still considered the same as a festival or a wedding and that’s not logical.”

The next step is for FieldLab’s organizers to take the risk model and recommendations from the pilots, such as pre-event testing, and present it to the government to work toward increasing capacity levels and reopening events.

Related. Industry Calls on German Government to Restart Trade Fairs

Spain Is a Study in Contrasts

The situation in Spain, which just hosted its first exposition, Hospitality Innovation Planet, is different.

“This exhibition has brought a breath of fresh air to Madrid and to our industry,” said Maria Valcarce, Director, FITUR (IFEMA). “April will bring the Fashion Week show, a public contemporary art show and then FITUR, Spain’s leading international tourism and travel show, in May.”

Related. Spanish Government Designates FITUR An “Event of Exceptional Public Interest”

She credits government support and an understanding of the importance of the exhibition industry to the overall economy. The recent designation of FITUR as an Event of Exceptional Public Interest for 2021 also brings with it additional funding.

“Tourism is the most important industry for the Spanish economy,” said Valcare. “In 2019, it was responsible for more than 12% of the gross domestic product and more than 12% of employment. So for the Spanish government, FITUR is a platform that represents that strength of our tourism industry.”