The global pandemic: A catalyst for evolution in a face-to-face industry

President – Asia of Informa Markets, Margaret Ma Connolly identifies a silver lining out of this unprecedented global situation, and shares how the company is beefing up its digital capabilities for the future while rethinking its environmental impact

In this hybrid world, data is key – and first-party data is mission critical to many businesses

The impact of Covid-19 has transformed many industries, spurring companies to create new value propositions and evolve how they deliver services and interact with customers through digital solutions.

The exhibitions industry, an industry based on face-to-face connection, has been no different. In fact, it’s one of the industries that has had to adapt the quickest to keep the communities that rely on their platforms connected in the wake of an isolating pandemic crisis.

Now, exhibitions and tradeshows are being seen as a beacon of hope for small-to-medium-sized businesses (SMEs) – which make up over 80 per cent of the industry’s fee-paying customers – as governments look to stimulate economic growth and recovery. But the way connections are being made may have changed forever – and I believe, it’s for the better.

In this hybrid world, data is key – and first-party data is critical to many businesses

Digital: In it for the longhaul
Here in Asia, we were the first region to get hit by the pandemic, and the first to see the light at the end of the tunnel. At Informa Markets, we have successfully run in-person tradeshows in mainland China and Japan since last summer, as well as in Taiwan, Thailand, and India.

The feedback from business owners who have participated is that the power of face-to-face is integral to the way they do business. Integral to rebuilding disrupted supply chains. And integral to building new business relationships.

However, in almost all these areas, travel restrictions have remained in place – and so it’s been practical for us to organise local events, serving local communities, instead of the large-scale international tradeshows we are accustomed to.

Technology has enabled us to mimic that experience, extending the reach beyond the showfloor to international audiences eager to return to connective commercial experiences. And, based on what our customers are telling us about the success of that model, the digital elements that run alongside our physical events look to become an important part of our customers’ future marketing mix.

The hybrid event model is continually evolving, but the basic premise is that buyers and sellers have the option to participate in-person at the show – or online, connecting with one another virtually before, during and after the event – or both.

This varies market by market, depending on the needs of individual communities. It might be through content-rich virtual event programmes, matchmaking services, sampling services or full-scale online marketplaces where transactions can take place. Equally, it can be a mix of these with each offering its own value proposition and bringing unique benefits.

Data: Helping us intelligently meet customer needs
The disruption the pandemic brought to the exhibitions industry was genuinely unprecedented and it made us go back to the drawing board – starting with a better understanding of what our customers really need.

It’s all well and good creating new ways for buyers and sellers to connect – but if they’re not the connections they’re looking for, then we’ve failed. We introduced non-financial key performance indicators (KPIs) around customer engagement with our virtual events and other online platforms, to help us understand what our customers want – and whether we’re delivering the value they expect.

In this hybrid world, data is key – and first-party data is mission-critical to many businesses. For us, it’s no different, and so we have bolstered our expertise in data to become better at capturing behavioural insights to profile users, enabling us to deliver a more personalised experience.

Increasingly, our exhibitions are adopting omnichannel marketing strategies – and they too need to manage data more effectively to track and nurture leads.

Moving faster forward on sustainability
Informa Markets is not alone in taking this time of disruption to rethink how we can improve upon our environmental impacts. We are working across the industry to see how exhibitions can serve as a model for green initiatives, through more sustainable design practices, such as minimising material use, reducing waste and considering indoor air quality.

FasterForward is Informa’s approach to being a sustainable business and taking tangible action to champion sustainable practice across our business and industry. Our goal is to reduce our carbon and waste footprint to ultimately be carbon neutral by 2025 and net carbon zero by 2030.

One of the ways Informa Markets in Asia is working to reduce waste is by steadily lowering exhibitor stand heights across the region to reduce the amount of material needed to build them. We are also increasing awareness of a more reusable approach of frame and fabric stands, where all elements of the frame and fabric overlay can be disassembled and reused. At a pilot at our HOFEX event in Hong Kong, for example, this halved production time and reduced the amount of wood used in construction by more than two thirds.

Elsewhere in Asia, at Children-Baby-Maternity Expo, we removed all carpet, saving around 120,000m2 of carpet a year, and our ProPak Asia show in Thailand worked with its venue’s charity partner to donate 40 cubic metres of PET plastic waste from the event, which was then recycled into medical equipment.

Ultimately, we are committed to developing new approaches to set the standard for sustainable events across the region and sharing our experience with others wherever possible.

A better tomorrow
The pandemic posed incredible personal and professional challenges, but if I can find a silver lining, it’s that it created space that allowed us to re-evaluate the value and impact we provide our customers and develop complementary experiences that improve the way we come to market, the way we connect people, and the impacts we have on our communities.

While we see the lasting value in the in-person experience, perhaps now more than ever, we also have built digital and data solutions that improve and extend connections to keep the communities we serve in business, with the right people, year-round. And that will be the differentiator in what keeps our business, and our customers’ businesses, resilient for the long-term.

Margaret Ma Connolly is president & CEO – Asia at Informa Markets. The Informa Markets business in Asia delivers over 300 exhibitions across China, India, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and South-east Asia, which include Furniture China, Cosmoprof Asia, CPhI India and Food & Hotel Asia.

Connolly joined UBM in 2008, which combined with Informa in 2018. She has extensive experience in managing diverse business portfolios and building cross-cultural high-performing teams.

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