WTM popularity gets it past 40

LONDON, 6 November 2019;  The UK’s top travel show WTM opened Monday celebrating its 40th annual edition but despite its durable Teflon coating and the sheer weight of longevity, there are no guarantees it will reach its 50th anniversary intact and profitable.

By and large travel marketing gurus sing off the same hymn sheet when it comes to mega travel shows. The hearty chorus is always  “why are here again?” But they keep on attending all the same.

In the good old days of traditional trade shows, WTM and ITB were must-attend events. They constituted anchors at the start and end of frenzied sales season that required a tour of trade shows hosted in a string of European capitals.

Anyone with an ounce of sales skills in travel knew how to plan the business trip calendar. The season of sales started with the curtain-raiser WTM in London, and everyone assumed the networking and negotiations would reap contracts by the time ITB in Berlin convened in March.

The penny should have dropped by now. The logical and orderly organisation of travel sales activity has been thrown out of the window along with the printing schedule for tour catalogues.  The need to have rates sorted at least six months before the first catalogue dropped on to the counter of a high street travel shop in Europe doesn’t apply anymore. Add to the mix the overwhelming market shift that sees Asia emerge as the dominant source of travellers and the voices challenging the relevance of the WTM and ITB grow stronger.

As WTM opened its doors Monday, its marketing chief faced questions from a BBC morning show anchor who put him on the back foot.

She set the tone by noting tourism is responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions.

“Consumers don’t want to climb aboard planes any more,” she asserted… “will travel be radically different from what we have today?”

His answer suggested WTM remains a winning ticket. He estimated as many as 50,000 trade visitors would cram into the exhibition hall to be entertained by destinations keen to win more travellers despite the scourge of “over-tourism.”

Less than two months before the WTM opened the 178-year old Thomas Cook Group collapsed, leaving thousands jobless in the UK. The shuttering of hundreds of high street travel shops sporting the famous Thomas Cook logo sends a chilling message to trade show organisers in Europe.  The continent’s giant tour operators are disappearing fast.

Ultimately, destinations worldwide will question the wisdom of investing in expensive trade shows in Europe when there are cheaper channels to reach out to a more specialised and smaller core of tour operators.

On average a hotel in Asia that chases European travel trade bookings will spend as much as THB1.5 million (USD50,000) on trade show attendance and roadshows between November to March starting with the WTM and ending with ITB.  The estimate includes flights, accommodation, entertainment, booth space and a host of other expenses incurred to ensure the roadshows, sales calls and the trade show sales blitz goes according to plan.

For some hotel GMs, the annual pilgrimage to Europe has always been a job perk. They got to Europe for free, and after showing their faces on the opening days of the two big shows, they could sneak off for a holiday visiting friends and relatives.

Showtime became catch-up time to socialise with colleagues that make up a community of “trade show friends.”

But today, disruptive technology, social media and communication apps such as Skype bring sellers and buyers together year-round with contracts discussed and ultimately confirmed online.  Not a show on the horizon. A whole generation of sales managers has emerged who don’t attend traditional trade shows. They do all their business online, through local travel agents, overseas reps and they save their hotel owners a bundle.

But trade shows will continue to have a networking role where new contacts are sourced, and there are still travel people who need the “mega trade show fix” to boost career confidence.

The question is, how many can we attend?  Everyone in the travel business needs to reduce carbon footprint and be part of the climate change solution. We are not exceptions to the rule. We cannot talk about promoting sustainable, responsible travel if, at the same time, we are continually globetrotting in the name of promoting tourism when there are more practical and environmentally friendly alternatives.

So like the traveller who feels flight shame and reduces air travel for more climate-friendly alternatives,  we need to rethink what we have been happily engaging in for decades; whistle-stop trade show and conference junkets.

We might decide to cut them in half, eliminating shows that require long-haul flights or perhaps we could make use of representatives who are resident in the markets we want to tap?

There are alternatives to globetrotting year-round like circus performers. Of course, trade show organisers will say nothing compares with the show experience; the handshakes and face-to-face networking even a cuddle now and then. They are fun, and for the organisers, they remain for the present very profitable.