A fortnight ago the annual World Travel Market was about to kick off at London's vast and characterless Excel collection of docklands exhibition halls. How does it all look two weeks later?
Some things are constant while others change over time. The constants are the basic heartbeat of the whole show,-the acres occupied by the Gulf states, the massed ranks of USA regional presence, the pretty grim UK area, the girls from wherever parading feathers and , despite the chilly air, little else and the truly awful lunchtime scrum for the local burger stand or the dreary offerings of the 1950/60s style, crammed to the doors, cafetaria downstairs. The scrum getting to and from Excel doesn't vary much either. A bit like a bad mannered version of the great migration but without the charm or excitement. Heaven help the less mobile.Nobody else will.
Change though is apparent as the years go by. Those Gulf spaces are getting less opulent and less busy. Less sightings of the really big names in the industry and hardly any after the first day. The crowds are there but more exhibitors are sitting at empty desks and looking bored. There is a feeling that doing business on the spot now comes second to being seen to be there to be seen and to network.
The Africa area reflects most of these trends. Each year it shrinks and there was a noticeable drop this year. The big players, Kenya and South Africa had taken large stands as always but there was more beige carpet on view .Fewer local tour operators, hotel chains and safari operators were present. Attending the event isn't cheap and now there are spin offs in the form of regional WTMs and other exhibitions some feel that the pulling power of the big one is diminishing to the point where being there ,if only to keep an eye on local competitors, just isn't worth it. Regular stands are disappearing and as they do WTM's significance diminishes. This year there was no Nigeria, until now always a large and noisy stand populated by the London diaspora and behaving like a Lagos street market.Ghana was providing a pale imitation. Newcomers do pop up though. This year it was Sao Tome and Principe chatting to themselves but with no business in sight in Portugese. For the first time no major African airline was there.The regulars, Kenya Airways, Air Botswana, Air Malawi have packed their bags. In essence the African presence has always been limited to eastern and southern Africa. Nigeria apart, and they never really expected or could cope with a tourism bonanza, where are Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Togo....? EU and sometimes individual government aid projects sometimes sponsor the presence of developing countries. Maybe that's how Swaziland this year graduated from a table and two chairs against a sidewall to a smart stand.
Most people when asked said "Things are going well". When pressed on whether that meant business was up, not getting worse or whether they were just being brave, the facial expressions varied. A hotelier who's been there for 20 years simply said "Look, I'm still here".
It's all looking a bit dusty though. The era of megashows like WTM feel numbered. It looks like something which has had its time, seen the best of its days and is in danger of sliding further until a critical point is reached. Already it's down from four to effectively two and a half days. It's losing its glitter and may not be a cash cow for its organisers or a place where the industry does its business for much longer.
- JOHN WILLIAMS.