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If non-essential shops can open now why not exhibitions?

15 June 2020

The exhibitions industry has managed to decouple itself from the general term ‘mass gatherings’ for very high footfall events but is not specifically aligned to low footfall gatherings such as retail and hospitality and thus finds itself in limbo unable to fully commit to a return to normality.  Conceptually, however, there is very little difference between a retail park and an exhibition centre.  Ikea is already open and in layout terms it is an exhibition of home furnishing concepts and very similar to its exhibition equivalent.  The question is important for the whole events industry because allowing exhibitions to run will show the way for events with denser footfalls.

Unlike the retail sector, which hosts the general public, exhibitions are a much more controlled environment.  At most exhibitions the visitors are all invited and registered which makes contact tracing potentially a lot easier.  The necessary infrastructure is already in place because security checks are normal for entry to an exhibition.  It is reasonable to assume that vulnerable visitors will avoid public places anyway.  Each day is managed by a team of trained operations staff for whom health and safety management is a core competence.  Arguably the hardest operational aspect of running an event is its construction and subsequent breakdown.  Construction sites have continued to operate throughout the lockdown and the Construction Leadership Council’s recently released guidance does not contain anything that would restrict event construction.  In short, exhibitions, especially those with relatively low density of visitors, should be much safer in bio security terms than retail space of an equivalent scale.

The big issue is social distancing.  If IKEA is a glimpse into how exhibitions could work it is not encouraging.  On the first day in the Wembley store shoppers queued for four hours in the sunshine in a line that snaked for over half a mile around the car park.  The issue of course is the so called 2m rule and the need to be seen to be applying it.  To be clear, there is no ‘2m rule’ per se and never has been.  It is only guidance and is caveated with ‘where possible’.  The official stance is that ‘Coronavirus can be spread when people with the virus have close, sustained contact with people who are not infected.  This typically means spending more than 15 minutes within 2m of an infected person.’  Simply interpreted, this means that there is a risk if you have a face to face meeting with someone who is infected for 15 minutes or more without safeguards, there is not a significant risk if you momentarily pass an infected person in an exhibition aisle even if they are closer than 2m.  The problem is that the 2m aspect has become baked into the public consciousness as an inviolable rule like not drinking when driving.  Breaking the rule is seen to be irresponsible and reckless.

Events have to be planned and operationally signed off.  Event companies and venues cannot afford to be seen to be breaking the established social distancing protocols by design or even to be seen to tacitly allow the guidelines to be broken.  Anyone who has been shopping in the last 3 months, however, knows that social distancing is regularly breached for the sake of convenience in food shops, but no one is going to report their local Tesco Express or corner shop because they need it to remain open.  Government ministers might express frustration at the lack of social distancing in the media but ultimately food shops have to remain open.  IKEA is in a difficult position as a high profile store that does not sell essentials.  Anything which is perceived as putting sales before safety risks public censure and possibly being shut down again so the accepted ‘rules’ had to be stringently applied which means a host of operational difficulties resulting in a four hour queue.  Clearly the public’s motivation to acquire flat pack furniture and a scandi bed throw from a store overcame the difficulty of doing so!  The difference with exhibitions is that IKEA can now open every day and pretty soon, as with the food shops, an equilibrium will be achieved that facilitates a profitable flow of visitors.

Exhibitions are only open for a few days and need a critical mass of visitors to make them viable.  The simple fact is that any mathematical model which proves that social distancing at 2m can be achieved pushes the numbers below that level for the majority of exhibitions.  The Government is reviewing social distancing to allow the schools to go back in September and that could simplify things for events. 

The question of course, at this juncture, is largely academic.  All shops need to do is restock and they are ready to open.  The planning for an exhibition takes weeks and months and so September is the earliest that most of these events will now be possible.  Decisions however need to be made now to allow exhibitors to make their plans. 

It is essential that the government follows through with its promise to allow restaurants and pubs to open in early July and that the exhibitions industry is considered part of that tranche of businesses allowed to operate.  Permission given in summer can translate into events in the autumn.  That ‘permission’ must cut through the public consciousness with nuanced advice.  Accepted social distancing needs to come down to 1m or even relaxed further for those environments or they will not open with or without permission.  Higher standards can be imposed for event workers who will have a higher exposure, just as a family walking around a garden centre do not need to socially distance amongst themselves but must observe the rules for those working there.  Since these locations do not need to provide mathematical modelling to prove that everyone can have their own personal 2m circle so events and exhibitions should not be required to do so beyond providing a plausible floor plan.  Unless these conditions can be met the nearest anyone will come to visiting an event in 2020 will be a trip to IKEA.