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The case for exhibitions to be reopened

We can only resume business if the venue capacity restrictions for exhibitions increase and the South African government realises that exhibitions are commercial marketplaces.

AAXO and EXSA have embarked on discussions with the Department of Corporate Governance and Trade Affairs to reopen the exhibition industry. Our proposal emphasises that an exhibition is not an event and cannot be switched on and off like other industries but requires months of planning and preparation before being hosted. Hence we have proposed an urgent phased reopening to facilitate the lead time and planning needed to open exhibitions.

Due to the varying rates of progression of the pandemic in different countries, exhibition industries in other countries have been able to host events that would have previously taken place in South Africa. In many countries, exhibitions are no longer grouped with mass events. The South Africa exhibition industry faces fierce international competition, as exhibitions are being relocated to alternative countries.

We are not an insignificant sector. Before COVID-19, the exhibition industry was a vibrant, growing sector, annually contributing R75-billion to the South Africa economy (source: AAXO 2015 Exhibition Industry Study), with exhibitions contributing R23-billion to tourism through the 1 million exhibition attendees visiting the country annually.

The exhibition sector supports thousands of businesses, many SMMEs, allowing them to generate income by meeting potential customers and concluding sales. Many Government departments also utilise exhibitions. The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition specifically uses local and global exhibitions for the Export Marketing and Investment Assistance (EMIA) programmes. The Department of Tourism hosts two of the most significant exhibitions in South Africa to drive the tourism industry: Africa's Travel Indaba and Meetings Africa. The sector is a vital contributor to South Africa's economic competitiveness and acts as the shop window to the world, enabling companies from various sectors to meet prospective customers, generate sales and driving South African exports.

We remain confident that South African exhibitions can take place safely with robust regulations and measures as successfully demonstrated at the Restart Exhibition, hosted in November 2020 at the Johannesburg Expo Centre and supported by SA Tourism. The exhibition was run under the Event Safety Guidelines for the exhibition sector formulated by the Event Safety Council and are aligned with the health and safety protocols from the Department of Health, the World Health Organisation, and many international exhibition industry organisations. These guidelines include a risk-assessed approach, including (but not limited to) sophisticated staggered attendance to manage numbers and track and trace measures to ensure safety is maintained.

If the South African exhibition industry is unable to resume planning for reopening in early October 2021, we fear there is a high chance of the industry ceasing to exist. Several organisers and suppliers have had to shut their doors in the past year. Some of the largest international players who invested in South Africa's exhibition sector have also closed their South African operations, e.g. Messe München (Germany) and Terrapinn (UK). In addition, the Ticketpro Dome, a venue that accommodated a vast number of exhibitions, has ceased operations, has been sold and will no longer be used as an exhibition venue.

An exhibition is a temporary commercial marketplace, where one or more sellers display their goods and services to their customers/buyers. We are confident that, given the nature of an exhibition, it should be allowed to operate irrespective of the levels of lockdown. Our government proposal acknowledges the importance of saving lives and livelihoods by including mandatory safety protocols, risk-adjusted strategies, incremental venue capacity allowances, and stimulating business across all sectors across all levels of lockdown. Exhibitions are not events!

By Projeni Pather for SA Events Council

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