CHIANG MAI, 29 January 2018: As the final round of speeches concluded and the dancers twirled off the stage, it left ATF participants to ponder was it all worth the effort?
Now in its 37th year, the 10-member nations are experts at hosting the annual ATF spectacle of tourism goodies almost with their eyes closed. It’s a routine that we have become comfortable with and that could be the event’s ultimate undoing.
There appears to be no driving reason to consider change. A tweak here and there was accomplished that shortened the TRAVEX duration to just two days and 42 potential appointment slots, while the irrelevant ASEANTA half-day conference was scotched from the bulky programme.
Yes, the 38th ASEAN Tourism Forum will be hosted by Vietnam in mid-January 2019, followed by Brunei in 2020 and they will likely prove yet again there is strong appetite for reunions, elaborate shows and extravagant assurances of cooperation.
But amidst the celebrations at ATF 2018 an undercurrent was observed, a stirring of largely unspoken doubts about the future of this august gathering. It’s future beyond 40 could now be in doubt?
Is the ASEAN Tourism Forum, with all of its expensive trappings, running out of steam? Possibly and even its strongest supporter are voicing concern. The tiny hints of foreboding were seen in the frequent mention of the digital era and the role it now plays for ATF’s stakeholders. National tourist office officials said budgets would concentrate more on digital channels. By default it could leave the future of the ATF trade show in doubt. Face-to-face networking will survive, but not necessarily in the manner that was introduced 37 years ago.
Communications and sales in the B2B space are shifting dramatically to digital platforms, faster than we might wish to acknowledge.
ATF 2018 in Chiang Mai attracted just 240 buyers and chats at the booths suggested the count of ‘real’ buyers could have been lower. At best, sellers can meet just 42 buyers in the course of the two-day show and when compared with other major shows, buyer quality was criticised by sellers many of them veteran plays at ATF.
When asked if the ATF was tired and ready for a remake one high-ranking tourism official nodded in agreement. It was a clear yes and a call for the private sector’s ASEANTA association, that leads from the rear in most matters, to step forward and say exactly what it intends to do with the show that it is supposed to manage. ASEANTA has consistently shirked its responsibility, happy to allow governments to manage TRAVEX.
There was talk of the profusion of trade shows at national level that are now dominating the regional calendar. A revolving door mechanism is now in place that swirls the same buyers from one national show to the next. To add to the dilemma there is a shrinking pool of meaningful trade buyers who offer value to regional shows and the advance of digital online alternatives in the business of contracting deny traditional trade show a reason to survive.
As virtual reality technology advances the challenge for the traditional trade show will intensify. There will be casualties, some shows will disappear.
When asked to gaze into the ATF crystal ball the future is muddled by unanswered questions. But one matter is beyond doubt. If ATF is to have a life beyond 40, its architects will need to adopt a different business model than is evident today.