Exhibitions are Commercial Marketplaces!

By Projeni Pather, AAXO Chairperson

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.

Association of African Exhibition Organisers (AAXO) and the Exhibition Association of Southern Africa (EXSA) have been in discussions with the Department of Corporate Governance and Trade Affairs (COGTA) and the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DSAC) to ensure the swift reopening of 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 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 African exhibition industry faces fierce international competition as exhibitions relocate 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.

Despite the stringent indoor capacities being restricted to 250 people in November 2020, our industry demonstrated that with robust safety measures successfully activated at the Restart Exhibition at the Johannesburg Expo Centre, exhibitions could take place safely. The exhibition was managed under the Event Safety Guidelines for the sector, formulated by the Event Safety Council and 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 ensure safety is maintained.

In November 2021, when indoor capacity was regulated at 750, the South African Government successfully hosted the IATF, Intra Africa Trade Fair at the ICC in Durban, with over 40 African countries participating. In addition, South African Tourism announced the dates for Meetings Africa in February 2022 and Travel Indaba in May 2022. This bodes well for upcoming exhibitions in 2022, as it has set the tone for the reopening of the exhibition industry.

Our current allowance of 1000 pax indoors is a step in the right direction. There has already been an influx of exhibitions being scheduled throughout the country. Although 1000 pax capacity is not the first prize, organisers are confident that they can re-engineer their exhibitions to ensure that all stakeholders’ expectations are met with innovative operational measures.

Our continued discussions with the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture indicate strong support from the government to move indoor capacity for exhibitions to 50% venue capacity. Considering the size of exhibition venues utilised, I believe that 50% capacity would be a reasonable solution to industry woes to date. The next few weeks are critical in ensuring that the Government gazettes our proposed 50% exhibition venue capacity regulation as a matter of urgency.

Let’s get back to business on the exhibition floor!


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