The fairest grounds of them all

| Updated on: Apr 06, 2011
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There is no stopping China's relentless march to being known as the fairground of Asia, or perhaps, even the world.

Ever since it has emerged from behind the bamboo curtain, China has been in exhibitionist mode. At last count, says Paul Woodward, Managing Director, Union des Foires Internationales (UFI), China had 92 purpose-built exhibition sites spread over 3 million square metres. Woodward should know — one of his roles at the UFI, the global association of the exhibition industry, is to lead research on the world tradeshow business.

India, by contrast, he says, has just 12 exhibition venues that occupy barely 2.6 lakh sq m of space.  Of this, our premium stamping-ground for fairs and exhibitions — Pragati Maidan in New Delhi — is in such crying need of an overhaul that organisers of the Auto Expo, one of India's biggest fairs, have been seriously thinking about alternative venues for their 2012 edition.

Anil Arora, honorary secretary of the Indian Exhibition Industry Association (IEIA) and president,, agrees that India doesn't have a single world-class exhibition venue. “Encouragingly, there are small exhibition facilities coming up in smaller centres such as Guwahati, Surat, Karnal and Coimbatore which are becoming important trade centres. However, both Mumbai and Delhi need top-class venues,” he says.

Tools for economic growth

But what's the big deal about creating such a big exhibitions market? Woodward, whose association represents more than 4,500 trade fairs and exhibitions across the world, that together have occupied about 50 million sq m of exhibition space, attracting 150 million visitors, rises to the bait.

He points to Germany and Japan, two countries that have used trade fairs as an important component in their economic rebuilding effort after the Second World War. “Today, almost every town in Germany has an expo ground where manufacturers exhibit their products, while Japan has some of the world's best exhibition centres such as the Tokyo Big Sight,” says Woodward.

And, as Arora points out, “For small and medium enterprises, which don't have the luxury of a large sales force, exhibitions are a major way of developing their business.”

Woodward describes how, for big companies too, exhibitions are important meeting places to understand consumer or client requirements and find potential partners.

He says UFI has attempted research trying to pin down how much of the new business that a company does in the course of a year is generated through contacts made at a trade show. “We found that as much as 10 per cent of a company's new business can come from contacts made at exhibitions,” he says.

Also, Woodward doesn't agree that China has gone overboard building fairgrounds. “The number of venues in China may arguably sound too many. It could be oversupply in the short- to medium-term. But when you look at the other side of the picture — Germany with 80 million people has 3 million sq m of exhibition space — China's figure doesn't look like too much,” he says.

Exhibiting growth

On an average, India holds over 2,000 exhibitions, attracting about one lakh international visitors. Add the concurrent conferences and that's another one lakh visitors. Contrast this with the scene at the world's biggest fair, the Hanover Fair, which alone attracts 6,000 exhibitors and two lakh visitors.

However, the exhibition industry in India is growing at 20 per cent, says Arora. In fact, overall Asia has shown strong growth in the exhibitions market — except for Japan, which has slowed down.

China is now the numero uno in Asia, followed by Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and India in the fifth spot. However, Thailand is snapping at its heels. With the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau doing a series of roadshows in Asia and Europe, and showcasing its exhibition and convention venues to the world, India has to watch out lest it be overtaken by the tiny nation.

The comparisons with China just don't seem to stop. “If we look at China as a benchmark, then we are 40 per of China in terms of the size of the economy, but in the exhibitions space we are only 9 per cent of what China does,” rues Arora.

Ashok Gourish, Business Head for BOSCH Packaging India, says that while the number of venues in India is enough, better infrastructure in and around the exhibition venue will help. “When you compare with international exhibitions, we notice that there is no compromise in the aesthetics and quality of stalls and machines. Sometimes in India we tend to sideline these things.”

According to IEIA, exhibitions can play a pivotal role in accelerating the progress of Indian industry and economy — not just by generating more business, but giving a fillip to the tourism and hotel industry — and India needs to take a cue from Thailand and Singapore and get aggressive too.

Competition certainly is hotting up among countries to be preferred trade fair venues for industries and get more visitors. Delegations from Singapore and Hong Kong have been coming to India to showcase their exhibition might. Take the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) which was here some time ago, promoting the 30-odd fairs it organises. At a media gathering, Johnny Wan, Senior Exhibitions Manager of HKTDC, talked about how Hong Kong hosts eight of the largest trade fairs of its kind in Asia and how its strategic position makes it a great trade destination for Indian companies.

Of course, its Indian counterpart — the India Trade Promotion Organisation — too goes out and promotes fairs. But as many of the fairs are considered private enterprise, the Government agency does not promote all the events too actively. As Woodward points out, “ITPO is in a piquant situation. It is a venue owner, it is an organiser of exhibitions, it is a regulator as well as a promoter.” There is conflict in these roles, he says, but this situation is not unique to India — quite a lot of countries face it.

So what is the way forward? IEIA, in fact, had organised an open seminar in Delhi to brainstorm on this.

The way forward

The first step, according to IEIA, is to create a lot of additional exhibition space around the country, especially in Delhi and Mumbai. In Delhi, Pragati Maidan in the middle of the city is a dream venue with 65,000 sq m of built-up space. “We can easily raise it to 250,000 sq m,” says Brig Raj Manchanda, Informa Events India, a member of IEIA.

Proposals are pending with the Commerce Ministry for the aging complex's upgrade. “We should initiate public-private participation for a speedy development of infrastructure in the exhibition sector,” suggests Manchanda. From relaxing entry barriers for business activities to easing red tape on approvals for exhibitions and kinder tax policies, the Indian association has a huge list of demands to boost the sector.

A lot clearly needs to be done. Till then, China's pole position in this space is secure.

Published on April 06, 2011

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