- Sales teams from Asia are already in Berlin
- Virtual meetings emerge an option for some exhibitors
- No immediate response from Messe Berlin on refunds
As debate within the industry heats up over Messe Berlin’s sudden decision on Friday evening – or early Saturday morning here in Asia – to axe its Berlin tradeshow, travel and tourism players who have had their sales and marketing plans at the event derailed are determined to carry on with their business activities as much as possible.
Asian Trails, for instance, will be continuing with sales trips as planned.
Laurent Kuenzle, CEO of Asian Trails, told TTG Asia that his team typically conducts pre- and post-event sales trips to “as many of our key clients in Europe as possible”, and their time in Berlin is not limited to just the tradeshow.
“Since my entire team is already in Europe for a week, we will continue with our sales trips as scheduled. We also have some overseas clients who are already in Europe, and we will try to meet them as well if they do not cut their trips short,” Kuenzle said, adding that they are adapting their schedules to the new situation.
Hussein Mohd Said, director of MegaWaterSports Jetski Tours in Langkawi, had just arrived in Berlin when news of the cancellation reached his ears. He intends to use his time in the city to conduct sales visits to local agents who are selling Malaysia.
Singapore tour operator Oriental Travel and Tours will also be keeping to sales meeting plans in the city, and will be relying on instant messaging services to fix appointments, shared co-founder Jasmine Tan.
The Safer Tourism breakfast seminar, co-sponsored by PATA, will proceed as planned on March 5. The event will be led by Peter E Tarlow, a world-renowned speaker and expert specialising in the impact of crime and terrorism on the tourism industry, event and tourism risk management, and tourism and economic development.
PATA CEO Mario Hardy said the cancellation of ITB Berlin “has no direct impact” on his association, as offsite meetings arranged earlier on will continue as planned.
As well, Kempinski Hotels will keep to its planned media breakfast event on March 4 at Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin.
For Vox Group, virtual meet-ups will replace physical meetings. Its chief marketing office, John Boulding, went on social media on Saturday to propose a “face-to-face revival (of impacted business meetings) using Google Hangouts, Skype, Meet, etc.”
At press time, Boulding’s post on LinkedIn suggested that he would on Monday connect with partners Vox Group has appointments with at ITB Berlin, to reconfirm a virtual alternative.
Similarly, COTRI (China Outbound Tourism Research Institute) has also taken to social media to propose webinars to keep conversations going.
Nigel Wong, honorary secretary-general, Malaysian Association of Tour & Travel Agents (MATTA), agrees that going digital is a safe bet. “We will also encourage our members to focus more on digital marketing as this is an effective way to market, and does not require on-the-ground meetings,” he said.
An announcement that came too late
Industry players appear split in their opinion on whether Messe Berlin did the right thing to cancel the annual tradeshow – the first time it has done so in its 54-year history.
On social media, comments flew in from both sides. Those in support of the organiser’s decision said that it was a painful but responsible thing to do as the well-being of all event participants and Berlin residents were at stake.
Hardy, whose own association had just announced the cancellation of the PATA Annual Summit 2020 in Ras Al Khaimah from March 31 to April 3 out of consideration of the safety and well-being of it members, admitted that the decision on event continuity was a tough one to make.
“What I have learnt in the past few weeks is that the current situation is extremely volatile and dynamic, constantly evolving on a daily basis. Therefore, I do not think there is one simple answer to this question. Each situation needs to be analysed individually as there are a number of external factors in play. Are there a large number of active cases in the area? Are there any restrictions on entry to the destination or necessary quarantine requirements for the traveller on their return? What are people’s sentiments towards travelling or attending an event? Will you be able to gather sufficient attendance? These are just a few questions that we need to consider during the current situation,” he explained.
Wong told TTG Asia his organisation was “appreciative of the cancellation in light of the economic factors involved and safety concerns”, but acknowledged that the “cancellation of ITB Berlin is a blow to our European plans”.
Wong said 30 MATTA members were supposed to head to Berlin to engage with the trade and media.
“However, ITB Berlin is not the only European show. There will be other opportunities to promote to the European market. World Travel Mart for instance, is always on MATTA’s itinerary. This is a major show Malaysia will be participating in,” he added.
For those who oppose the cancellation, the common argument is that it runs counter to the travel trade’s persistent messaging that it is still safe to travel.
Luzi Matzig, chairman of Asian Trails, said: “The decision to cancel ITB was wrong. If we, the leaders in tourism, cancel our own industry events, we project a very negative image to our potential customers, tourists whom we would like to visit our own destinations in the future.”
“I believe that the global media hype has blown the Covid-19 problem out of proportion, which is a sorry state of affairs. It will take major recovery campaigns to get travel back to normal once the situation has improved, and I do hope that this will happen sooner rather than later.”
Agreeing, Umberto Cadamuro, COO inbound of Pacto, who was already in Europe when the news broke, said: “Why should tourists travel when stakeholders in the travel industry themselves are not doing so? This is the very negative message that this cancellation has sent (to the public).”
Whether or not Messe Berlin’s decision was right, most industry players agree that the decision to cancel ITB Berlin 2020 should have been made earlier. At just five days to showtime on March 4, many exhibitors and buyers, especially from faraway Asia, were already bound for the show. Sales and marketing materials had, as well, already been shipped up.
Several event planners TTG Asia spoke to suggested that a month’s notice of cancellation would be ideal.
Hardy said: “Each situation may be different, but I would say that generally more advanced notice is advisable, preferably at least a month before the event if at all possible.”
Untangling the mess
Sources have told TTG Asia that calls and emails to their point of contact at Messe Berlin for ITB Berlin 2020 have mostly gone unanswered. Some concerned participants have taken to Twitter to seek answers on refunds from the ITB team.
In a Twitter post on February 29, ITB Berlin said: “Due to the short notice of cancellation and the large number of exhibitors, we ask for your understanding that we will check these questions internally. This can take from 10 days to two weeks.”
Noorzaleha Baharudin, honorary secretary-general, Malaysia Tourism Council, said: “We now have to work on getting refunds for our flights and hotels on our own. We do not expect Messe Berlin to assist us on this. The hotel we were supposed to stay in is charging us a cancellation fee.”
Similarly, several Indonesian travel operators TTG Asia spoke to said that they now have to shoulder the losses incurred for the tickets and accommodation, as well as time and efforts prepping for the event.
Budi Susanta, corporate general manager, The Ubud Village Resort, who received the news about the cancellation upon his arrival in Munich on Saturday, said: “I consider myself lucky that I’m travelling with my owner so we can rearrange our trip plan and budget on the spot. However, many of the Indonesian delegates are staff whose budget are set before they even leave the country. Can you imagine that they now have to switch programmes while they are here? We don’t know whether we can get refunds for our hotels and flights.”
Umberto said that Messe Berlin’s last-minute cancellation of the tradeshow was “unacceptable”.
“(At press time,) we are unable to evaluate our losses since Messe Berlin has so far avoided to address the refund issues,” he said.
Jojo Clemente, president of both Rajah Tours and the Tourism Congress of the Philippines, said the Philippine Tourism Promotions Board, the marketing arm of the Department of Tourism, which has paid for a country pavilion at ITB Berlin 2020, will be writing to the organiser about refunds.
In a statement, Wishnutama Kusubandio, Indonesia’s minister of tourism and creative economy, said that the first batch of delegates who were participating in the show had arrived in Istanbul, Turkey for transit and were summoned home, while the second batch were scheduled to leave on Sunday.
“However, we respect the decision to cancel the event as protecting the public’s health and prevention measures are priorities (amid) the spread of the coronavirus,” he said. – Additional reporting by S Puvaneswary, Pamela Chow and Mimi Hudoyo