In Conversation With Balasubramanian S Pillai, ED & COO, IMTMA & BIEC and President, IEIA

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The crisis caused by the outbreak of coronavirus has made sweeping changes to the world including the exhibition industry which significantly has been disrupted. Industry workforce is locked in their homes and economic activities have come to a standstill. Over 100 shows have either been cancelled or postponed to a later date with an estimated loss of Rs. 3,570 crores to the entire exhibitions sector as reported from March 2020. Globally, UFI, the association for global exhibition industry, has estimated the global economic damage for exhibition industry at 81.6 billion euros of total output loss for exhibitions only”

ES. How will this pandemic change the dynamics of our industry? What will be the future of our industry?
Bala. Covid-19 will have a long lasting impact on the way we were conducting exhibitions with more thrust on health and safety of exhibitors, visitors and various stakeholders. With the advent of social distancing exhibition format is likely to undergo changes with temperature checking, wearing of masks, usage of sanitizers, having a quarantine area within exhibition premises, vehicle sanitization, and registration and adhering to health and safety norms in serving of food and beverages during exhibitions, etc. becoming new norms. Venues are also likely to operate a safety and health management system to display strong safety and health considerations over all other matters of business. Event organizers will also share live data, provide resources to enhance knowledge about events, risks and opportunities. Organizers may also explore possibility of virtual exhibitions for those who cannot participate due to travel restrictions, and pre-registration will become mandatory.

ES. As an industry association, how have you served your members during these disturbing times? What have been the key initiatives? What kind of support has IEIA appealed for from the government?
Bala. In these difficult times IEIA has been working strenuously every day. We initiated many membership support activities along with advocacy initiatives for supporting our member companies. IEIA has been working round the clock to keep track of developments and bring accurate information and actionable insights to protect businesses, finances and investments. A Covid section was set up on IEIA website featuring latest developments and government advisories, a daily news bulletin was also launched to keep members updated along with a series of knowledge webinars with exhibition industry stakeholders. for supporting our member companies. IEIA has been working round the clock to keep track of developments and bring accurate information and actionable insights to protect businesses, finances and investments. A Covid section was set up on IEIA website featuring latest developments and government advisories, a daily news bulletin was also launched to keep members updated along with a series of knowledge webinars with exhibition industry stakeholders.

To support exhibitions sector in its preparation for bouncing back strongly, we set up a special ‘ExhiBits dashboard’, as a daily capsule for news briefs, articles and informative stories. On the advocacy front, we submitted a COVID exit strategy for the exhibitions sector and also published the Standard Operating Procedures for conducting exhibitions during the opening up phases post lockdown.

ES. Open Seminar that was due to be held in BIEC this year got postponed. Will we see Open Seminar happening this year?
Bala. IEIA Open Seminar is IEIA’s annual flagship event where Indian exhibition industry converges together with its members, associates and international delegates to deliberate on the developments in exhibition industry and build on business presence and network. IEIA Open Seminar 2020, scheduled to be held in May 2020 was postponed due to coronavirus outbreak. We will take stock once the industry opens fully and decide the next course of action.

ES. What according to you can our industry learn from this crisis? Any silver lining in this?
Bala. Although the pandemic has created several disruptions in exhibition industry with many shows being cancelled or postponed globally, we have had several learnings. Exhibition organizers are likely to adapt a new way of marketing and communications in terms of:

  • Digitalization and Technology: Event organizers have been relying on technology for enhancing their events for quite some time now. This will be intensified further with event organizers opting for live streaming their events to enable participants follow the events remotely. Virtual exhibitions may be offered as an add-on supplement to conventional exhibitions.
  • Health and Safety Norms: Some practices such as social distancing, wearing masks, etc. may become a routine in any exhibitions. Over the long-term there will be more thrust towards organizing eco-friendly exhibitions for maintaining green norms which will bode well for our environment.
  • Focused Visitors: Exhibitions are likely to witness focused business visitors which will help in generating better enquiries and orders.

ES. What is your message to the industry?
Bala. Exhibition industry is passing through a difficult phase and has seen some big disruptions in terms of revenue. However, at the same time it has thrown up new opportunities to reinvent itself and connect with customers more strongly and closely through technology. This shows that nothing can stop us from moving ahead and break the bond between two human minds. I am sure that we will definitely navigate to safer shores soon and once again live freely as in pre-Covid days soon.

ES. How is your venue (BIEC) planning support the industry going forward? Have you announced any measures/policies for cancellations, postponement, waivers etc. that you can share with our readers?
Bala. Customer service is the most important aspect of our business. As a venue provider BIEC is in constant touch with exhibition industry stakeholders and used every opportunity to be visible to its clients, Indian as well as foreign ones, and offer helping hand and supporting them in best possible ways. We are also coming up with standard operating procedures for venues, organizers and vendors.

ES. Please share with us your professional journey. What have been the major milestones and most amazing achievements and moments in your career? Any memories which stand out in reflection of your glorious past?
Bala. I have been associated with IMTMA since 2007, heading the trade fairs division which organizes IMTEX and regional machine tool shows across various cities in the country, besides being the COO of BIEC – India’s leading green exhibition facility. Prior to joining IMTMA, I was associated with Informa Group, Intech Trade Fairs &Wisitex Foundation. With over 2 decades of experience in the exhibition industry, I consider myself still a student as the learning never ends. I consider being part of BIEC 10 years and IMTEX 50 years as some of the big milestones in my career. Identifying my association with exhibition industry, Indian Exhibition Industry Association (IEIA) elected me as its President.

I am heading IEIA in one of the toughest times generally for exhibitions and it is a challenge to take it back to its glory levels. I have been active in IEIA for many years now, supporting its mission and driving developments and serving as an Executive Committee member. I will always remain thankful to IMTMA and IEIA for placing their trust in me and giving me this opportunity to take up the mantle and serve the exhibition industry and developing it to greater heights.

ES. Given the Covid-19 challenges how important it is for exhibitions to restart?
Bala. Exhibitions are key to the development of trade and economy in any country. It not only helps industry but helps government to generate huge amount of revenue from tourism, hospitality and many other aspects. With the effect of Covid-19 the global exhibition industry has seen significant damage with nearly 10,000 trade fairs and exhibitions being cancelled or postponed globally, and India is not spared from this. Industries are opening their business and it is now time for exhibition industry also to restart. Exhibitions are key to the development of trade and economy in any country. It not only helps industry but helps government to generate huge amount of revenue from tourism, hospitality and many other aspects. With the effect of Covid-19 the global exhibition industry has seen significant damage with nearly 10,000 trade fairs and exhibitions being cancelled or postponed globally, and India is not spared from this. Industries are opening their business and it is now time for exhibition industry also to restart.

IEIA has come up with SOPs and guidelines for all stakeholders of exhibitions, be it exhibitors, visitors, suppliers, contractors, venues, so we have all the confidence to restart the exhibitions immediately so that we can once again start contributing to the economy of the country. We can support industries as well as the government.

ES. How exhibition venues have been impacted by Covid-19?
Bala. Beginning this year when the pandemic affected our country exhibition industry was the first to get affected because the organizers faced difficulties in getting the exhibitors and visitors from overseas and then post that the lockdown affected the shows. Given this tough situation, organizers postponed the shows scheduled in many venues across the country, this happened not only in India but the entire world. This situation has had a great impact on the venues as many shows which were lined up in the venues were either cancelled or postponed. The uncertainty loomed and the exhibition venue revenues got a hit which severely impacted the operations of these. However, we would see that by the 3rd and 4th quarter of this year exhibition industry would revive and venues will see shows coming back with rescheduled dates.

ES. What stimulus measures are needed?
Bala. IEIA has placed recommendations in front of the government to provide stimulus to the exhibition industry and several measures were proposed and a few of them are listed here:
a. Deferment of income tax liabilities (advance tax milestones of June and September be deferred to December 2020).
b. Release of all income tax refunds with immediate effect.
c. Deferment of the CGST/IGST liabilities.
d. Reduction in GST for all exhibition services from 18% to 12% with full input credit.
e. Collateral free working capital loan facilities for exhibition organisers, service providers and venue owners (for payment of salaries, wages, fixed costs, etc.) to be made available at zero rate of interest so that they don’t become non-performing assets.
f. Moratorium on term loans for exhibition industry organisations for FY 20-21.
g. IRDA to consider covering risks for pandemics together with other natural disasters for the events and exhibitions.
h. 30% venue rental support to all purpose-built exhibitions venues to accommodate rescheduling of events postponed / cancelled due to coronavirus for a period of 12 months.
I. 100% subsidy through MSME / NSIC for Indian exhibitors for participation in exhibitions organized in India to boost economy.
j. Financial support to exhibitors to participate in all exhibitions to be scheduled post relaxation of advisories on ban of events by way of direct funding.
k. Encourage shows in India by providing a 10% incentive to Indian exhibition organisers under a scheme “Exhibitions in India” and boost ‘Make in India’ products.
l. Offer interest rate equalization to Indian exhibition industry for making it globally competitive and make India the sourcing hub for MSME products.
m. Offer incentive package to exhibition visitors for discounts on air travel and accommodation.

ES. What is your take on Virtual events?
Bala. Virtual exhibitions will be useful during times of crises like this as it would help event organizers to plan their schedules. It will act as an add-on to the regular trade shows, it will enable visitors to see and examine the features of a particular product before the show actually begins. However, virtual events cannot completely replace live events as exhibitions offer opportunities that simply cannot be reproduced electronically. Anyone who has ever attended an exhibition understands the excitement of being part of a ‘live’ event and a like-minded group of human beings. Face-to-face meetings will continue as visitors would like to talk to exhibitors and see, touch, and try out a product or service and arrive at a right decision to buy those.

ES. What is your perspective on air travel and business tourism opening up?
Bala. People travelling will see a drastic change post-Covid since Covid has affected the entire world and then the development of vaccine is still in the nascent stage. People will have a different opinion on travelling within the country and outside the country. This would adversely affect air travel and tourism sector, however, the domestic tourism would probably open up soon as people would start travelling within the country following all safety norms and that would probably begin by the end of this year. The opening up of air travel is good news as it would help in exhibition industry development.