Will defence events return to normal in 2021?
Last year we spoke to event organisers and exhibitors about their enthusiasm for a return to normal business in 2021, but is the world ready for live events yet? Harry Lye rounds up views from the industry.
Significant progress has been made in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines have begun to show their efficacy on a mass scale. However, concerns remain about international travel and the emergence of new Covid-19 variants.
While live events are likely to maintain largely impossible for the immediate future due to ongoing lockdowns and high case rates in many corners of the globe, the second half of this year could tell a different story.
Several events due to take place this year have already been called off, including Paris Air Show and the Royal International Air Tattoo 2021. However, IDEX went ahead in the United Arab Emirates last month with a testing regime in place for attendees.
A season of uncertainty
Announcing its decision to call off the 2021 Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT), the directors of RAF Charitable Trust Enterprises said that the decision was made in light of ‘uncertainty surrounding Covid-19’ adding that ‘there were simply too many risks associated with pressing ahead.’ The organisers also cited insurance problems, should the event have to be called off closer to time.
At the time, RIAT CEO Paul Atherton wrote: “If we knew with some degree of certainty what the situation would be in the summer, we'd be able to plan ahead but, the truth is, we simply don't know. We have reached a point where, to plan further, would involve us committing large sums of money to secure the event infrastructure.
“Without any insurance being available this year, this money would be lost if the air show had to cancel nearer the time. It was simply too big a risk to take.”
In its own cancellation notice, the Paris Air Show organisers said they took the ‘inevitable’ decision as a result of the ‘international health crisis and the large number of visitors that this popular show attracts’. It added the decision to cancel was agreed upon unanimously by the event’s board.
Last December, Paris Air Show chairman and Daher Group chairman Patrick Daher said: “We are obviously disappointed not to be able to hold the 2021 edition of the Paris Air Show. After many months of all trade show activities being suspended throughout the world, the entire international aerospace and defence community was very much looking forward to being able to meet.
“We have already started work to ensure that the 2023 edition celebrates the resurgence of the aerospace industry on an international scale.”
In this current environment, it would not be appropriate for us to send staff members or contractors to an exhibition.
Defence Media digital content director Grant Turnbull told us that while the vaccine rollout had provided a ‘glimmer of hope that we might be at the beginning of the end of this terrible period’, 2020 had taught the company to ‘constantly have to expect the unexpected.’
Turnbull added: “We are not quite out of danger just yet, especially as new Covid-19 mutations are discovered and vaccinations are not universally taken up. In this current environment, it would not be appropriate for us to send staff members or contractors to an exhibition.
“We feel this would unnecessarily increase the likelihood of them contracting the virus and possibly contribute to new outbreaks – both are unacceptable and irresponsible.”
However, he added that Defence Media was hopeful this situation would change by the second half of 2021, allowing for more opportunities for face-to-face business and events – even if only in the UK.
Optimism for DSEI 2021
Clarion Defence and Security managing director Sally De Swart told us that the pandemic had presented significant challenges to the events industry, but added that with the support of stakeholders such as the UK Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Trade, and the strength of its relationships with its exhibitors made Clarion feel it had navigated the bumps in the road ‘extremely well’.
Clarion is the organiser of Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), which is set to go ahead as a live event this September in London. As of now, 80% of the exhibitions floor space has already been sold.
De Swart added: “The uncertainty we faced as an industry throughout 2020 has also presented a number of opportunities. It has given us the chance to look hard at our events and identify areas in which we can deliver more value for our customers and increase relevancy for our audience.
“It has also radically driven the digital development of our offering – something for which appetite has been growing for some time. So there will be an additional, strong virtual element to DSEI 2021 for those unable to attend in person.”
The global defence community values face-to-face events extremely highly, and while the virtual world has stepped up to support and enable business throughout the pandemic, there is no substitute for the value of meeting in person.
Commenting on plans for DSEI 2021, De Swart added: “Our primary objective, taking account of course of all necessary health and safety considerations, is to deliver an exceptional environment to do business – DSEI has always been known for this and we fully intend to meet our customers’ expectations.”
De Swart added defence events should go ahead if rules allow. “The global defence community values face-to-face events extremely highly, and while the virtual world has stepped up to support and enable business throughout the pandemic, there is no substitute for the value of meeting in person,” she said. “There are things that happen on the event floor that cannot be replicated virtually: those serendipitous meetings and connections, chance discoveries of new products and technologies.
“Also, as DSEI is an event that supports organisations at all levels of the supply chain, it is one of the only opportunities small suppliers have to get face-to-face with those higher up the chain to highlight their capabilities. These interactions are what keeps the defence industry ticking and drives development beyond the show floor. We cannot underestimate the importance of the melting pot of ingenuity that events such as DSEI offer, and the positive impact the defence industry has on wider UK prosperity.”
The future of digital events
Over the past year, digital events have become a mainstay and several companies have told us about their benefits, especially from a cost perspective. But as the world returns to live events, will digital alternatives carve out a niche of their own?
“Exhibitions have always been a hugely important part of the defence sector, particularly from a marketing and sales perspective,” said Turnbull. “But the pandemic has forced many companies to adapt and we’ve seen a huge surge in demand for companies that want to expand their use of digital marketing and sales tools such as social media, or virtual events.
“It hasn’t been lost on many of our clients that they can achieve many of their sales and marketing objectives using digital tools, and not pay the huge sums of money that are often associated with international travel and attending exhibitions.”
We cannot rush the return of in-person events until the Covid-19 pandemic is well and truly under control.
On the current trajectory, at least for the UK, defence events in the second half of the year are likely to go ahead under the UK’s roadmap out of lockdown. If rules and circumstances allow, there is clear support from the industry to get back to a degree of face-to-face business.
Despite this, the overall landscape of the defence industry has changed in many ways.
Looking to the future, Turnbull said: “We don’t expect the exhibition landscape to look the same post-Covid, but of course, we welcome the return of defence shows as it provides a fantastic opportunity to see colleagues, clients and friends, and learn about the latest developments in defence.
“We also understand that the events industry provides a significant boost to national economies, including the UK, and will be a key part of any post-Covid recovery period. However, it is crucial that this is done responsibly, and safety must be a top priority. We cannot rush the return of in-person events until the Covid-19 pandemic is well and truly under control.”
// Image: The exhibition floor at a previous DSEI event. Credit: Clarion