China’s comeback was clearly one of the hottest topics at UFI APAC Conference in Kuala Lumpur, as the full reopening of the world’s second-largest economy has greatly improved the business outlook prospects for the Asian travel and MICE sectors in 2023.
“Asia is coming back in spades, especially in Southeast Asia,” said Mark Temple-Smith, COO of Informa Markets, whose major exhibitions in the region returned as some of its strongest-ever shows in 2022.
“But the obvious part that was missing was China,” he added, as Chinese buyers and sellers were largely absent at trade shows in Asia and around the world over the past year.
But all of that is changing as China fully reopens, and Chinese delegates are starting to return to international trade fairs and events. UFI APAC Conference, for instance, saw a 20-strong delegation from China.
The market is now waiting to see how quickly the Chinese MICE industry returns to pre-pandemic normality.
For Informa, Temple-Smith foresees a “very robust recovery” from China. “I don't believe there's any reason any of us should doubt that the recovery in China will be any different… people just want to get back to the meetings game,” he said.
Robust recovery underway
On the domestic grounds, organisers are pulling out the stops to revive the exhibition sector.
“We are full steam ahead in Shanghai,” said Michael Kruppe, general manager of Shanghai New International Expo Center (SNIEC). The process to organise exhibitions in China has greatly eased and reverted to normal. “There’s no more special approval from the police. You only need to, as an organiser, show a plan to the police which basically they will approve online.”
The momentum is already picking up in China’s second- and third-tier cities. Shenyang New World Expo, in Liaoning province, is witnessing events coming back and growing to bigger sizes again, with an upcoming event expected to reach 10,000 pax, shared general manager Diane Chen. The challenge now lies in business scheduling amid tighter timeslots, she added.
When asked if international exhibitors are already returning to China, Elaine Chia, CEO APAC of Comexposium, which organises shows such as SIAL Global Food Industry Summit in Shanghai, says that the first half of 2023 is unlikely to be optimised fully, but expects momentum to pick up in the second half. “I believe we’ll get back to normal by 2024.
Confidence shaken but not stirred
While China’s aggressive zero Covid policies, rising geopolitics tension with the West, and the greater decoupling of the world orders might have impacted confidence in China as a market, industry players do not foresee a change to China’s role as a major engine of global growth, including for the exhibitions sector.
Informa’s Temple-Smith observes that some exhibitions have shifted their post-pandemic game plan from being solely focused on China to “China plus one or China plus two”, whether temporarily or permanently.
But he says that supply chain disruptions are a bigger challenge for the global economy and may have push businesses to source for alternative products.
“We should be mindful that as an industry, when there's disruption in supply chains, it causes an opportunity for us and we can step in and help those manufacturers source new suppliers or suppliers source new manufacturers,” he said. “Disruptions lead to opportunities.”
Monica Lee-Müller, managing director of Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (Management), remains bullish about the long-term prospects of Greater China. “Hong Kong, the Greater Bay Area and the Greater China are important markets. You want to be there whenever you can.”
If there’s any positive takeaway coming from the pandemic, it’s the recognition by the Chinese government on the importance of exhibitions as a business sector to the economy, observed Kruppe from SNIEC.
Like the rest of the country, 2022 was an especially torrid year for SNIEC with zero shows, which drastically impacted on the local economy without exhibitions to sustain shops, restaurants, taxis and hotels, among others.
“The government finally understood that without exhibitions, there is no local economy. The government learnt a lesson,” said Kruppe. “I foresee in the next five years, if something like Covid happens it won’t stop exhibitions in China.”