TFWA decides to proceed with Singapore show despite SARS fears but Gate One conference postponed

SINGAPORE. TFWA announced on Sunday that it is to proceed with next month’s TFWA Asia Pacific show in Singapore, as planned, despite concerns about the worsening Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)virus outbreak in Asia and elsewhere in the world.

However, the Gate One conference, being organised by TFWA and Airports Council International, due to take place in the same week, has been postponed.

A TFWA statement read: “The Association has reviewed the situation closely and has taken this decision based on prior extensive consultation with all relevant authorities in Singapore, and has also reviewed the advice of the World Health Organization. The Association has been given assurance by the Singapore Health Authority that the control of SARS has improved and that measures implemented on the island to halt the import of new cases are being carefully managed. TFWA Asia Pacific has already attracted a high number of visitor pre-registrations, and new pre-registrations and hotel bookings for the event are coming in each day. TFWA has been in contact with exhibitors and the vast majority have maintained their participation at the event.”

Erik Juul-Mortensen, TFWA president said: “This is clearly a serious situation. However, we have full confidence in the Singaporean authorities’ control of the matter and we firmly believe in the need for this industry to look and plan ahead beyond the current crisis. Our decision reflects our firm support both for the travel retail industry and for the region.”

Andrew Ford, TFWA ceo added: “TFWA, operating under the motto “˜by the trade for the trade’, is committed to provide the industry in Asia with the high quality event it has come to expect.”

The decisions were taken after intense debate by the TFWA management committee in London on Friday. We understand reliably that at one stage the mood of senior association figures was leaning heavily towards cancellation of the TFWA Asia Pacific exhibition and conference before the momentum swung towards continuing with the show.

Comment and reaction: The decision will surprise many in the business. It comes at arguably the worst time in the industry’s 56-year history and involves a trade show in a region (and country) at the epicentre of a global health epidemic.

We respect the individuals within the management committee, all of whom are intelligent individuals committed to the industry. Their collective decision will have been well debated and carefully considered. Nevertheless, it will invoke close scrutiny and inevitable criticism from parts of the business. Brand companies are being asked to spend tens of thousands of dollars on shipping exhibition stands and sending stock and personnel into Singapore for the show at a time when passenger numbers and spending have slumped in most markets. Before exhibitors and visitors make the decision to proceed, they have a right to be armed with all the facts and to have several key questions answered.

The Moodie Report put these to TFWA ceo Andrew Ford. Here is an edited version of that interview.

TMR: What if the SARS situation worsens? Is there a cut-off point to cancel or a contingency plan? Or will you proceed whatever happens?

Andrew Ford: It’s a firm decision to proceed. We have confirmed all the exhibition space and all the speakers for the conference. There are two issues – the moral issue of health and whether enough buyers will attend to justify continuing. The Management Committee felt the assurances were sufficient to continue on both grounds. But obviously we have to review the situation day by day. But we think what the Singaporean authorities have done [to check the spread of SARS] is far ahead of anyone else.

TMR: Was the fact that TFWA would have to compensate exhibitors in case of cancellation one of the criteria for continuing?

Andrew Ford: No, it didn’t enter the equation. Yes, it was discussed but it was not a factor.

TMR: What percentage is “the vast majority” of exhibitors you have referred to as saying they will continue with the event? How many have dropped out?

Andrew Ford: 10% of exhibitors have dropped out.

TMR: You say that you’ve spoken to buyers throughout the region and they continue to pre-register for the show and to book hotel rooms. How many have you spoken to? How many have pre-registered? How many have notified you they will not attend? Can you say who?

Andrew Ford: At this stage it is rumoured that King Power (HK) and Qantas are not attending. But they are only rumours and we still received 17 hotel bookings from buyers last week.

TMR: What about China Duty Free Group?

Andrew Ford: Yes, we are expecting them to attend.

TMR: How do you feel Chinese delegates will be received, given what happened at the Basel watch fair [where Chinese exhibitors and those from Hong Kong were banned from the show]? Will there be a repeat?

Andrew Ford: It won’t be repeated by TFWA. The Singaporean authorities are checking everyone [from China and Hong Kong] as they come in [to Changi airport]and I have faith in the Singaporean authorities.

TMR: Are you expecting either exhibitors or buyers from China, Hong Kong or Vietnam, the worst affected Asian countries outside Singapore?

Andrew Ford: Yes we are and, in fact, Vietnam has got the situation under control.

TMR: Does TFWA plan to survey buyers to see if they will attend?

Andrew Ford: Yes we are doing that this week.

TMR: Will you make those results publicly available?

Andrew Ford: Yes.

TMR: When?

Andrew Ford: We will publish them whenever they are ready. It probably won’t be this week.

TMR: But overall, you believe there will be enough critical mass to justify the show?

Andrew Ford: Yes, that’s why the decision was taken to continue. When the industry has been through crises in the past, it has been important to maintain the events. For example, Cannes in 2001 [shortly after September 11] actually rallied the industry.

TMR: Was there a vote? Can you say what the balance of the vote was?

Andrew Ford: Yes it went to a vote but I can’t say what the vote was.

TMR: Why have you cancelled Gate One, which was due to take place in the same week?

Andrew Ford: “¦ it’s because of the budget constraints the airports are under right now”¦ they [management] are really needed in the front line right now.

TMR: And so you wouldn’t have the got the necessary attendance?

Andrew Ford: That’s right. But the events are completely separate.

The Moodie Report says: This matter raises serious and necessarily testing questions of the association – and about the press.

It is critical at times like this that industry commentators fulfil their role as objective observers and step outside their own parochial interests. Transparency of information is essential and tough questions about the decision to proceed should both be asked and answered.

The decision to proceed is a bold one. But it is also a gamble, as the epidemic is still worsening. TFWA says that Singapore “has made a lot of effort to control the SARS outbreak and has put in place new measures to halt the import of the virus”. But it is equally true that the number of deaths and cases in Singapore is still rising and 46 new cases and 3 new deaths have been reported in the past 7 days.

The whole matter boils down to two key issues: is it safe to attend the show and, perhaps more importantly, will enough buyers attend to justify the heavy expenditure needed by exhibitors at a time when their sales are suffering badly throughout most of Asia and the rest of the world because of the Iraq war and SARS? TFWA has now placed its bet on the answers.

Note: For a daily update on the latest SARS figures, sourced from the WHO, and all key developments as they impact the travel retail trade, see our SARS crisis feature on the home page.

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