Dubai's exhibition and conference season is set to kick up a gear or two this month. In-person events are back on the agenda as visitors get into the serious business of networking face-to-face. Image Credit: Supplied

In these last 12 months, there has been an exponential rise in online – or hybrid – events, enabling audiences to participate in an exhibition from anywhere. Organisers are also producing highly engaging digital content, not just at the time of the show, but through the year, helping them to remain connected with delegates more than ever.

In 2020 alone, our MFME webinar series comprised 80 webinars across 13 show brands, keeping some 17,000 online attendees informed about the latest industry trends impacting their businesses. But despite the benefits of digitalisation, in-person events will always be key. If lockdown taught us anything, it’s that we crave human interaction. And physical events enable that.

They facilitate conversations that help us understand key industry challenges, opportunities and market sentiment. They also create chance encounters that spark innovation, knowledge exchange and lucrative new partnerships in a way that’s difficult to replicate online.

It’s easy to look at an event and say, “Why can’t we take that online?”, ignoring the fact that it takes place not just in a venue, but in a vibrant city. People attend for more than the exhibition. They come to immerse themselves in another destination, to sample the food, soak in the nightlife, and enjoy shopping, arts and culture.

You can't simply take an exhibition online and ignore that critical element. In Dubai, the events sector works hand-in-hand with the airline, hospitality, retail and F&B industries to enhance the events’ experience.

From a government perspective, the value of this collaboration represents a key slice of the overall GDP. That’s why entities such as the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing are so invested in the business events industry.

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Gauge of sentiments

Messe Frankfurt Middle East ran two surveys of more than 6,000 professionals from 130 countries, delving into key areas such as travel, budgets, and the importance of trade fairs in a post-pandemic world. The positive news is that 75% of respondents believe exhibitions will be as or more important than they were pre-Covid, with the majority citing a lack of alternatives to the face-to-face business opportunities offered by sector-specific trade shows.

Further, 66 per cent are planning to travel for business this year, in line with on-going governmental efforts to open more international travel corridors, ease quarantine restriction and spur tourism.

When asked if the respondents believed that the COVID-19 situation is either stabilised or improving, 73 per cent responded with the latter, while a further 83 per cent insisted they are comfortable with traveling to Dubai to attend exhibitions.

The current event safety measures in place, coupled with the government’s efforts to make everyone as safe as possible, has had a really positive impact on participation levels, delivery and upscaling of our traditional trade show portfolios.

Best of both

In-person events are exciting. They’re fun. People thrive on them and enjoy building trust and engagement face-to-face. Live events offer rewards that online events can never fully replace.

Likewise, digital events offer benefits that physical shows can’t. The two formats enhance and complement each other to create a more powerful, engaging and connected audience experience.

Exhibitions will look different in the future, and we welcome that. The augmentation of technology into the traditional exhibition environment was already been underway - but COVID-19 advanced this progress.

Moving forward, the hybrid format will become the norm, but the virtual or digital aspect of exhibitions will simply be a value addition to the physical offering, not an alternative. I’m certain that when this pandemic subsides, the appetite for real life physical exhibitions will be stronger than ever.

As an aside, the city of Frankfurt is known as the city of trade fairs. Frankfurt’s first trade fair that was documented in writing goes back to the year 1150. Since then, the city and its rich trade fair heritage has survived and thrived through two World Wars, multiple invasions, economic depressions, and indeed another flu pandemic aside from the one that we’re currently navigating.

And so, when we see the light at the end of the tunnel, the wider exhibitions industry will continue to thrive, to innovate, and to offer customers a core value proposition.