DSEI 2021: Enthusiasm grows for the return of defence events

After a year of event cancellations, the defence industry is looking to Defence Security Equipment International (DSEI) 2021 for a return to form. Harry Lye spoke to the event’s organisers about the enthusiasm for next year’s show and an integrated relationship with the UK’s Armed Forces.

Following a year where Covid-19 brought the entire exhibitions sector to a halt, DSEI in 2021 will most likely be the first significant opportunity for the international defence community to get back under one roof and show off its latest systems, capabilities and ideas.

“While the trajectory of the pandemic is still not clear, what is evident is the enthusiasm and appetite in the defence community to come together again, and the DSEI team is doing all we can to facilitate that,” says DSEI Event Director Grant Burgham. “We have 78% of our exhibition floor space currently sold, and the majority of our biggest industry players are all confirmed. That's a real show of loyalty from the industry and a testament of the value they see in DSEI.”

Whilst virtual events have seen the industry through most of this year, Burgham say she has seen a real ‘enthusiasm’ for the defence community to get back together in the real world.

With most of show’s floor space already sold, that enthusiasm to get back under one roof is evident. However, it isn’t just the usual DSEI crowd that’s eager to exhibit; so far around 68 first-time exhibitors have signed up for floor space in 2021, including Volvo Defense and Harland and Wolff.

On top of this, 60% of DSEI 2021’s international pavilions are already on contract, making clear that interest in getting back together is not exclusive to the UK.

Spotlight on integration

While the support from industry is clear, the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) has also been eager to make its stamp on the show. The MOD is expected to publish, in the coming weeks, its Integrated Review into defence, security and foreign policy, which promises closer ties between the arms of state and the branches of the UK’s Armed Forces, and importantly a platform that DSEI will build on.

“To ensure UK defence is as joined up as it can be at DSEI, the MOD has – for the first time - put UK STATCOM in the lead and shaped the presence across all of the services on site,” says DSEI’s senior defence advisor, RAF Air Vice-Marshal (Retired) Gary Waterfall.

“If you go to the MOD's multi-domain integration theme, and through the themes that are coming out from the integrated review, you can see the importance of this. It would be illogical if we got to the next DSEI, and the three services were pushing different messages, at different times, with UK STRATCOM also featuring separately.

“Under the leadership of defence, the MoD has brought this under one roof. They're engaged and engaging, and very much they're testing us, at Clarion, as to how we can support them and how we can give them the stage they need to show to the world where they sit in the integrated operating concept.”

The army’s relationship with industry will be vital to ensuring it has innovation at the heart of future capability and we will be actively seeking opportunities to develop defence’s relationship through the Army’s land industrial strategy.

This enthusiasm to use DSEI to showcase a new operating concept has been made clear in several MOD statements, including one from Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quinn, who said: “Once again, DSEI is showcasing the best of British defence technology and innovation on a world stage. Bringing together strategic partners, international governments and pioneering defence companies, this show offers a unique opportunity to collaborate, partner and cooperate to further our collective global defence and security agenda.”

The Commander of the UK’s Strategic Command General Sir Patrick Sanders echoed this, saying: “I look forward to seeing you at DSEI 2021 and updating you on our plans for implementing multi-domain integration, and how industries – from traditional defence primes to tech-start-ups – can play their part in the UK's collective success alongside our partners and allies.

“It is hugely validating to have the support of UK Strategic Command behind DSEI 2021. We believe that DSEI offers the single most valuable opportunity in the biennial defence trade show calendar to connect UK companies and their international counterparts with each other and their end customers across the land, sea and air domains.”

This integration across the armed forces extends to other arms of government and industry as all look to next year’s DSEI as a means of forging ever-closer ties.

“As we look to the future, the British Army will be more expeditionary and more engaged for more of the time and our equipment needs to match the threats and exponential developments in technology,” said Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith. “The army’s relationship with industry will be vital to ensuring it has innovation at the heart of future capability and we will be actively seeking opportunities to develop defence’s relationship through the Army’s land industrial strategy.”

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Different look, same show

While the top-line figures of bookings show a trend of enthusiasm, Covid-19 has focused minds and intent for exhibitors and the event organisers.

Although measures may ease somewhat by September 2021, restrictions brought into place by the pandemic will likely affect the look and feel of the show. Whereas some stands in the past could have easily held almost a thousand people, distancing measures will reduce the number of people stands can accommodate.

This may be a downside in terms of exposure, but restrictions may also shift the priorities of attendees. Visitors are likely to come to the event with clear objectives and engagement in mind, rather than just to have a look around. This will allow companies to focus on getting their key message across to a highly focused and engaged audience.

The show’s aerospace presence is gearing up for a massive expansion to three times its previous size.

Waterfall says the venue is well suited to putting on a safe show. “If needed, we can restrict people coming in and coming out. We're very much able to step alongside whatever restrictions are in place,” he explains.

Under current restrictions, DSEI could hold a safe show and the organisers hope that by next September, the overall conditions may allow for an event more akin to past shows.

“The whole venue is 100,000 square meters, it's a large footprint,” says

Burgham. “We’ve already accommodated ‘watch zones’ for screenings of key speeches. Instead of having theatres that are secluded in terms of trying to fit 100 or 200 people in, we are looking at a more open-plan environment, and we have got the space to do it.”

Interest in the show and requests for more space by exhibitors such as the UK Armed Forces have also led to a need for increased VIP space. As we previously reported, the show’s aerospace presence is gearing up for a massive expansion to three times its previous size.

Whatever the restrictions, DSEI is working on delivering targeted engagement for the industry. “We also recognise that there may be some restrictions for our customers overseas, and we will also be able to accommodate some form of engagement or networking virtually,” Burgham concludes.

// Main image: DSEI 2019 at London Excel. Credit: Crown Copyright / MOD