Dave Nemeth
Dave Nemeth

Could retail malls and exhibition organisers collaborate?

by Dave Nemeth. Could the exhibition industry and shopping malls work together to save both industries?

by Dave Nemeth. COVID-19 has affected almost every sector of business, but some have obviously been hit far harder than others. Among those affected the most are the restaurant industry, the liquor industry and, of course, the events, conferencing and exhibition industries – the latter of which will take far longer than the others in their efforts to recover from this catastrophe. It will be a long time before we see a large-scale exhibition, especially in the B2C sector, which in the past could easily see foot traffic of 30,000 people over a four to five-day period.

The reality is that, even when events such as exhibitions are allowed to be fully functional once again, this pandemic has caused the human psyche to be changed. In future, many people will wish to avoid mass gatherings and crowds; so exhibitions which could easily have drawn visitors of up to 30,000 will most likely see a drop in foot traffic of anywhere between 30% to 50%. This is obviously speculation, but we have been re-programmed due to this virus and its devastating effects, whether we are aware of it or not.

Other challenges, which will out of necessity have to be faced, are additional expenses for things such as the provision of sanitation stations and the implementation of social distancing measures,  according to the prescribed legislation. There is a possibility that this could remain relevant for many years to come, even if the virus is completely eradicated. A reduction in the number of exhibitors is highly likely, due primarily to the financial impact which the pandemic has had on their business; as well as a higher portion of marketing spend being used on digital channels as people become more comfortable with the medium.

Innovative shifts

How will this industry ever recover and get back to where it was in the past? Before we take a look at some possible innovative shifts, it is important to note that the exhibition industry was taking strain way before the virus completely shut it down. Many exhibitions had experienced a reduction in both exhibitors as well as visitors over recent years. The result was that many expos and exhibition companies were closing their doors. The industry has for many years been talking about reinventing the experience aspect and coupling it with technology, but little has been done in the way of innovation.

Most people within the industry have been in it for many years and have always done things in a certain way and one that they know and with which they are comfortable. The result is that they are often not very open to the idea of change. Digital will never fully replace a physical experience, but it is clear that, going forward, the exhibition industry will have to rely on hybrid events in order to accommodate those people who are prepared to share in the experience from their computer screens.

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with retail. So, let’s look at another industry that will also battle to get back to where it was before COVID-19; and how the change in thinking has affected it. Then let’s see how these two industries could come together in a completely unique way which could be highly beneficial to both. Retail malls are struggling to keep tenants. Some simply did not survive the lockdown and the downturn in the economy. Others have invested heavily in online sales and are therefore looking at reducing their footprint and physical space. We may soon see many large malls, as well as strip malls, just simply not being a viable option anymore.

Exploring synergies

Could there be a synergy between these malls and the exhibition organisers? I travelled extensively to China and India as a retail buyer many years ago and, although we went to many of the traditional trade fairs, our agents would often take us to alternative exhibitions which piggybacked off the main events and were held in physical structures which were initially built as shopping malls. These structures housed varying exhibitors and product categories throughout the year. The experience was obviously slightly different to that of the traditional exhibition experience; but allowed the brands to capitalise on their pop up “stores” by creating interesting window displays, having water supply and great lighting available, as well as the ability to physically lock up their space and even open up earlier or later, if required, for special appointments. There is a possible opportunity here for both exhibition organisers as well as landlords as long as they are prepared to think a little differently and are not scared of change.

So, let us have a look at how this possible scenario could work. Exhibitions would quite likely have to change their branding to incorporate “pop up experience” or something similar. There is currently no limit on the number of people who can go to a shopping mall, only on the number who can be inside a store at one and the same time. Mall owners could block off periods of time, possibly as long as two to three weeks, between different themed events. These new experiences may not be able to charge entrants, as this could possibly change the categorisation from “pop up retail” to exhibition or event.

However, they could possibly increase the parking tariff according to what they would normally charge as an entrance fee. Those persons arriving via alternative transport could only enter with a valid parking ticket in their possession or by the purchase of an exhibitor’s guide, or even having to download an app, at a charge, in order to gain access. If it is a B2C event, then a percentage of sales could be negotiated, and a central payment system set up. These technicalities would require collaboration, as well as an innovative approach by both the landlord and the exhibition company.

Pop-up eventing

Retail malls have also taken on new forms over the years, both locally and globally, where container malls have been built such as Boxpark in London and 27 boxes in Melville. This form of construction could also be perfect for this kind of concept as well as being exceptionally viable for malls which are sitting with large expanses of parking area that is not being utilised. The result could be that pop up events could become part and parcel of the existing mall environment. The empty stores would still have to be fitted out, although they may already house certain basic features such as shelving. The events would still be reliant on the many exhibition companies who specialise in the design and construction of exhibition stands, with the only difference being the space within which they have to work. Many of these malls have fantastic delivery areas and are conducive to receiving the kind of equipment needed to set these up.

Adapting to change is never easy, but even harder for industries which have remained unchanged for years. The truth is that change was needed within both of these industries long before the pandemic, which has now forced it to become a reality. There are very strong industry bodies in the form of EXSA (Exhibition and event association of Southern Africa), AXXO (The Association of African Exhibition Organisers) and SACSC (The South African Council of Shopping Centres) and innovation should be spearheaded by them. It is not good enough to be spending valuable time and resources on presenting solutions to the government on how the old methods can be adapted instead of looking at innovating the industry as a whole.The only certainty in business today, is the death of business as we know it.


Retailing Africa’s retail analyst and columnist, Dave Nemeth is trend forecaster and business consultant at Trend Forward, which he founded; and a design thinker, innovator, business re-designer, trend analyst, keynote speaker and writer.


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