Exhibition Showcase Talks To Rajesh Agrawal, IAS, Executive Director, ITPO and Chairman, India MICE Alliance

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“Rajesh Agrawal is an officer of the prestigious Indian Administrative Service. He has been an administrator for the last more than 25 years with proven track record as a leader, practitioner and policy maker in complex fields like skill, human resource development, power, fertilizer, agriculture sectors. He has institutionalised and steered reforms both at central government level and in the state of Manipur, Jharkhand, Bihar across power, fertilizer, agriculture and MSME sectors. Agrawal has been instrumental in shaping up policy guidelines for skill development initiatives in the country and has been a focal point for overseeing implementation of the same. He represented India as the official delegate on the World Skills Governing Council for three years. With his vast and varied experience he is now supporting the implementation of Pragati Maidan re-development project into a world class International Exhibition-cum-Convention Centre (IECC)”

ES. To start with, please share with us your comments on this pandemic. How do you feel our industry has been affected?
Rajesh. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the world on an unprecedented scale and in unimaginable ways. It has impacted all walks of life with lockdown of cities, quarantine measures spread across the globe, restrictions in movement and business activities. The industry pertaining to MICE/ Trade fairs and business events was amongst the first ones to be affected. The situation developed at fast pace and within three months the entire exhibition industry came to a grinding halt. The mass cancellation or postponement of events due to COVID-19 started with Asia Pacific extending to Europe and the other parts of the world. These cancellations or postponement are impacting all stakeholders including the exhibiting companies, service provider, venue providers, transport & travel industry and hospitality sector.

The exhibition industry plays an important role in growth of the MSME sector by helping them in their quest for new markets. The lack of exhibitions compounded with falling demand worldwide is putting many MSME units on immediate risk of bankruptcy and closure. This is applicable for both the exhibition players (e.g. service providers like stand constructers, logistics, catering, etc.) and the customers (exhibitors and visitors of trade fairs) in this industry. Though the pandemic has impacted all sectors of the economy to some extent, there is no reason to lose hope. Every Challenge brings with it a lot of opportunities too.We need to together look at all possibilities and innovations which can help us meet the end objectives of reducing information asymmetry, trade promotion and growth of MSME sector, even with all precautions that may be necessary in present scenario. Innovation and Adaptation are going to be the key words going forward. India with its huge market is sure to rebound soon especially with the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s vision of “Atmanirbhar Bharat”. The Indian Exhibition industry also needs to ready itself to play its due role in resurgence of our economy.

ES. What do you see the roadmap ahead for MICE sector? What can be the optimistic target for restart of exhibitions in India?
Rajesh. The corona virus pandemic is the most challenging crisis the world has faced since the Second World War. Though this has impacted all sectors of economy, the hardest hit industry is aviation, hospitality, exhibition and tourism which to a large extent are interdependent on each other. The prognosis for revival is quite uncertain as of now, considering we have no knowledge of when the total restrictions on travel will be lifted worldwide.

The impending worldwide economic recession is also a real threat, since it’s unlikely that majority will have the disposable income to travel even after the crisis, besides the fear of infection will persist for at least some time. Having said this, it is also a fact that industry all over the world is striving to restart operations even on a small scale as feasible in current scenario. There have been few trade shows like MBC Architecture Show, May 10-13 in South Korea and Hunan Auto show held April 20 to May 5, 2020 which took place despite Covid 19. These beginnings provide encouragement for industry worldwide to remain optimistic. In India too, despite all odds we should work towards a date to restart MICE industry keeping in view various projections of COVID 19 curve. As of now it seems that we can expect few exhibitions taking place in the third quarter of this FY. The India Mice Alliance and industry experts have formulated a SOP for re-opening of MICE industry in prevailing Covid 19 situation with all feasible safeguards for an organized gathering and have recommended the same to the Government for its consideration. We also need to think of small exhibitions on a regional format which is a need for the country keeping in view its size and diversity.

ES. What do you suggest to entrepreneurs who are facing stress in these times?
Rajesh. As mentioned earlier, I think there is no reason to let despondency set in. The entrepreneurs in the sector need to use this time to introspect and re-strategize their businesses to meet the challenges of the post Covid world. The social distancing norms and improved hygiene etiquettes are there to stay and the industry need to plan exhibitions keeping these in view. The industry need to pro-actively integrate more technology tools also as part of physical exhibitions to enable better outreach and a seamless experience for both the exhibitors and business visitors. The international mobility will also take time to reach back to pre-Covid levels and the industry need to be ready to cater to this new challenge through appropriate technology. At a personal level, I think this is also time to invest towards reworking personal lives with focus on building healthy habits, better immunity and a more happy family. The world has faced many challenges in past too, some of which were higher in magnitude and impact as compared to present pandemic. The world together has been able to overcome all the challenges in the past and there is no reason why we will not find a solution to Covid 19 also, sooner than later.

ES. How will the role of exhibition venue owners evolve post COVID era? How is ITPO preparing for the same?
Rajesh. The Venues across the world will need to align with the requirements of a post Covid world wherein the stalls sizes are expected to go up, the ratio of common areas is likely to increase and entry/exit to the fairs will need to be more seamless. The SOP prepared by the industry and submitted to government through ITPO; allude to the new responsibilities of the Venue owners in great detail. All Venue owners will need to upgrade the infrastructure to meet the requirements of the SOP. Further, the Venues may need to rationalise tariffs for next few years to support the exhibition industry and bring back the exhibitions to its earlier size and grandeur. The India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO) is the apex government body for trade promotion through trade shows and exhibitions. It will work with the industry to restart holding of exhibitions at the earliest possibility and align its prestigious venue to the requirements of the post Covid world. ITPO has already gone ahead and announced significant relief for the industry in tariffs for FY20-21.

ES. As a nodal body for trade fairs in India, how have you served the industry during these disturbing times? What have been the key initiatives and measures?
Rajesh. As stated earlier, despite facing financial constraints itself due to the cancellation or postponement of all events at Pragati Maidan till September 2020, ITPO has announced a substantial relief package for the exhibition industry in April 2020 itself. The sole objective has been to keep the industry afloat in these difficult times and restart the industry as soon as feasible along with all health safety norms in place. We also lead the India MICE Alliance Campaign initiated by Exhibition Showcase, which aims to bring together all segments of MICE industry on one platform to enable assess the impact of the pandemic on the entire industry and have a collective reflection on opportunities for future. A continuous dialogue with all stakeholders of MICE sector has been taken up to instil confidence, boost morale and work towards a joint strategy for re-opening in the post Covid world.

ES. ITPO is heading the India MICE Alliance Campaign. Can you share the key achievements of IMA Campaign under your leadership?
Rajesh. The central objective of this campaign is Survival & Revival of our industry. Through the advisory committee, efforts are being made to reach out to various stakeholders in MICE industry to present their perspectives and suggestions for early revival of the sector. This will on one hand enable the sector present its reasonable demands to the Government in a structured manner for the requisite support, and on the other hand enable develop a roadmap for the industry to follow for getting itself back on the track. It is also our combined endeavour to keep our fraternity motivated and together prepare for the times when our industry will open post COVID-19.

ES. ITPO has submitted SOP to the government on behalf of IMA. What are the developments on that front?
Rajesh. A standardized SOPs for organizers, venue providers, exhibitors, buyers and service providers as per international standards has been prepared and submitted to the Ministry of Commerce and Industries with a copy to Home Ministry with the request to announce a future date for opening of exhibition industry. I am sure the Government will evaluate the proposal and will make announcements at an appropriate time. The Covid curve in India is still on upswing and we expect a decision as soon as it has passed its peak.

ES. As we see that many countries are allowing exhibitions to open. Can we see an opening date for exhibitions in India?
Rajesh. It is difficult to predict an exact date considering the COVID situation. As stated earlier, once we as a country have crossed the peak of Covid curve, we can expect announcement on a future date. The countries where exhibitions have been held or dates have been announced; there too these decisions were taken after Covid had crossed its peak. At ITPO, we are optimistic to hold at least few exhibitions in last quarter of this calendar year.

ES. You have stated at several forums that exhibitions are not mass gatherings. Can you elaborate on this differentiation and how can they be organised safely.
Rajesh. An event counts as a “mass gathering”, if the number of people it brings together is so large that it has the potential to strain the planning and response resources of the health system in the community where it takes place. You need to consider the location and duration of the event as well as the number of participants. For example, if the event takes place over several days in a small island state where the capacity of the health system is quite limited then even an event with just a few thousand participants could place a big strain on the health system and then be considered a “mass gathering” event.

Thus, lower profile conferences and events can also fall under WHO’s definition of a mass gathering depending upon the size, location and duration. We believe that B2B exhibitions should be kept out of the above definition of mass gatherings, as they are held with identified exhibitors and registered business visitors along with the requisite onsite health and safety arrangements. Further, these events can be aligned with the limitations of the venue by spreading it over additional days or reducing the number of exhibitors. While planning these events provision for adequate space which promotes social distancing and include orientation of visitors before they actually attend the exhibition as an exhibitor or a business visitor or a service provider. The SOP submitted to government for consideration cover these aspects and we believe that as an industry we can conduct ourselves responsibly to ensure that exhibitions are held with all necessary precautions and procedures in place, as and when permitted by the government.

ES. What is your take on Virtual events?
Rajesh. Technology will definitely play a vital role post COVID, but it is unlikely that virtual events will completely replace physical events. The physical interface in the exhibitions is not a necessity of modern day exhibitions but the key strength as it allows people to meet each other, build friendships and trust, and see new products and innovations with naked eyes. I personally feel that emotions are key to human decisions and those can be strongly harnessed only in a physical interface as compared to a digital interface. However, I definitely see increasing use of technology in exhibitions for better customer experience and also enable a bigger outreach.

ES. What have been the findings so far from your leadership at the IMA campaign? What is the mindset of the industry?
Rajesh. It has been very encouraging experience. The people are very positive and proactive in the discussions. They have always put their views candidly. A number of webinars have been organised and people are optimistic towards early revival of the industry. They are also looking at innovations to help industry reach out to all its customer base in post covid world which still may have few restrictions at least in mind. The Industry consultations have been definitely helpful and will also help in early revival of MICE sector including the Exhibition Industry. The Exhibition Showcase media house has also played a very constructive role for the industry during these times.

ES. How is ITPO planning support to the industry going forward? What are the measures/policies for cancellations, postponement, waivers etc. taken by ITPO that you can share with our readers?
Rajesh. We have announced a relief package for exhibition industry in view of COVID 19. All applicable penalties during Financial year 20-21 on cancellation of events, on re-schedule of events and on reduction in the size of the events have been waived off with facility for multiple re-scheduling during the year. The rentals have been reduced across the board by 20% for FY20-21 on all events either scheduled or proposed to be held. The payment terms have also been relaxed for FY21 with objective of more liquidity in the hands of organisers. ITPO has also provided relief packages to the service providers especially the CHAs with 50% reduction in their empanelment fees. You can visit our website for further details. The above reliefs/ relaxations will instill confidence in the fair organizers and will help support the exhibition industry in these difficult times.

ES. Can you share the vision of ITPO for the Pragati Maidan? What is the status of the re-development project?
Rajesh. ITPO is implementing its ambitious plan for re-development of its landmark fairground Pragati Maidan, involving a modern state-of-the-art International Exhibition-cum-Convention-Centre (IECC), bringing it at par with the best Exhibition and Convention centres across the world. Though there have been delays in the project especially due to unscheduled stoppage of construction either due to pollution concerns or impact of Covid 19, We expect to complete the project during 2021. Once the project is completed, the Pragati Maidan is surely going to be one of the best exhibition cum convention venues in the world. This will definitely give a boost to the Indian exhibition and convention industry, and we expect many new international exhibitions and conventions to take place here once the project is completed and new facilities made operational.

ES. What is your message to the industry?
Rajesh. Personally I am an optimistic person. As stated earlier, my appeal to all stakeholders of the industry would be to remain optimistic and work together for the resurgence of MICE industry with a special focus on Exhibition sector. ITPO will always be there with the industry in all its positive endeavours.