The dogs have barked and the caravan has moved on… London’s World Travel Market 2016 is over. Exhibitors and visitors have returned home to Aruba and Zanzibar and everywhere in between. Silence has descended on the vast exhibition space of the Excel Centre in London’s docklands area.
We have been going for many years but somewhere in the back of the mind there’s been a growing sense of unease recently. Something to worry about..or not?
The numbers are impressive. 50,000 attendees and 5,000 exhibitors is more than a village fete. Nearly 200 countries represented makes it a truly global rather than regional happening. And to argue that the £2.5 billion of generated business immaterial would be mean-spirited.
But is everything quite as it seems? The 2016 statistics have yet to be tallied and circulated but were the crowds slightly less this year? – and were they the key decision makers and buyers? Were the exhibitors on their stands experiencing unfamiliar quiet periods during the day? This year the opening days were reduced by 25%, to just 3 days, apparently at the request of exhibitors. There is no doubt that the old 4th day was very much a ‘preparing to fly home day’. 2014 is quoted as being the busiest year.
In the 34 years since WTM London opened its doors in 1982 the travel world and its means of marketing and distribution has changed enormously. Global travel, in its many forms, has blossomed. The nature of today’s travel business and the enabling technology was unimaginable all those years ago. WTM 1982 was initiated to bring tour companies and ground operators together in a world dependent on telex communications.
The question now is whether WTM has peaked and entered a slow but steady decline? Are the costs now causing small operators from, say, Malawi to stay away? Such exhibitors are also faced with an escalating number of similar events. There is WTM Africa in Cape Town, Ndaba in Durban and the grand-daddy ITB in Berlin all to be considered. The costs for each are high in terms of stand rental, travel, accommodation and time away from the business. Perhaps larger operators are now asking the same question in readiness for a similar decision. In earlier years British Airways and many major airlines were well represented but now apart from the Gulf contingent most have gone. Glitzy Etihad is the latest departee.
But don’t expect the Excel Centre to look empty next year. The reasons for exhibiting and attending are many. Not least is to check out new niche arrivals. For the first time in 14 years, Sudan returned to exhibit this year. The industry is dynamic and new products are always there to be launched. And however instantaneous digital communication has become traditional face to face meetings are a powerful business generator. WTM is also an impressive shop window on the world and the travel opportunities on offer.
The peak may have been 2014 but demand is likely to remain high for a few years yet even if it is becoming more UK centric. Having said that, the UK is and will remain a very large, growing and competitive market with its own distinctive characteristics. WTM is therefore far from a spent force but it does need to take stock of where it’s going and revitalise some of the formula and how it presents itself. It can’t afford to become the equivalent of a funfair in the age of the theme park.
14 Nov 2016