Reflections on TFWA World Exhibition 2009

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.
Martin Moodie

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TFWA World Exhibition 2009 was an event marked by profound contrasts, and dominated by two key moments – one tragic, one inspirational.

Against the backdrop of the worst global economic crisis in the industry’s history, the organizers understandably entered the week with feelings of considerable trepidation. The Moodie Report had been in the same space a few weeks earlier as The Trinity Forum in Macau neared and delegate numbers remained worryingly low.

Though our event benefited from a last-minute pick-up – and a high-quality audience – the Cannes show is a much bigger, more complex exercise. Exhibitors spend very significant sums not only on their stands but also on flights and accommodation – not to mention the often grotesque (and in light of a certain keynote speech – more of that later – I don’t use the term lightly) sums demanded by (some) hoteliers, restaurateurs and taxi drivers.

Those exhibitors rightly expect a heavy contingent of buyers and retailers from around the world (which is why any report on ‘total visitor numbers’ is pretty well meaningless; it’s the buyer/retailer number that really counts).

As any event organiser will testify, delegates are quick to blame the host rather than external factors for any downturn in attendance, even though in reality there is little one can do outside of good marketing and related incentives to solicit greater numbers.

In that context, TFWA can be rightly pleased with this year’s outcome. The association probably doesn’t realise the level of industry cynicism that exists about its (or any exhibition organiser’s) annual declaration of numbers and we think they would be wiser to focus on quality and spread rather than volume (e.g. “visitor numbers down by -12%”).

The reality is that many retailers sent significantly reduced delegations to Cannes this year. But still they (mostly) came. And business (both informal and formal) was done.

The Moodie Report spoke to many retailers and exhibitors during the week, and on a purely business level, TFWA World Exhibition was generally acclaimed as a success. That’s not to say it was perfect (see key aspects below) but it remains the industry’s premier event.

So to the contrasts…

lars_300_400How does one even begin to compare the bleakness, sadness and unbelieving shock of some of the industry’s leading figures sitting in a run-down hospital ward in Cannes in the dark early hours of morning, preparing to say goodbye to a much-loved industry friend – Lars Johansson of Imagination Unlimited International – with the bustle, frenzy and sophistication of a trade show floor just a few kilometres away?

How does one square off the profoundly humbling humanity of the informal gathering of Lars’ friends on the Thursday of the show with the rampant commercialism that lay all around?

Easily, in fact.

Travel retail need make no apology for what it is, a thriving international business that creates millions of jobs. Indeed it can be proud of what it throws up – including quite incredible bonds of friendship across peoples, nations, cultures and religions.

I have never seen those bonds so proudly, poignantly displayed as I did last Thursday afternoon. There, Lars’ wife Beverly spoke with proud, majestic and deeply emotional voice about her husband – and his personality, friendships, achievements and sense of love.

There, IAADFS Executive Director Michael Payne captured a group mood more perfectly than I have ever seen a man do, articulating with warmth, humour and sadness the deep loss we all felt. Michael, like Lars, is a man among men.

How does one reflect on the sight of Lois Pasternak, still mourning the loss of her beloved husband Paul, cradling Beverly in the moments before Lars’ passing? Or the immensity of practical support that poured forth to Beverly from people such as Sandro Bottega and many, many others (they know who they are)?

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And then there were the other contrasts. They began with TFWA President Erik Juul-Mortensen (pictured above and elected as we had anticipated for another year) who, admiringly, did his best to affirm the channel’s commitment to corporate social responsibility, including some of TFWA’s own initiatives.

That led though to perhaps the most astute quote of the week, from Sir Bob Geldof (below), who noted in his inspirational keynote speech: “Your President is trying to unpick the dilemma that your industry faces.” In other words, your industry is synonymous with conspicuous consumption while much of the world is starving.

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But business – big or small, international or local, luxury or mass – need not apologise for itself, provided it seizes its sense of responsibility, and its innate ability to help others less fortunate. We think that travel retail’s track record is outstanding – though rarely documented outside the confines of its own industry’s press.

If you’re in any doubt, ask the people behind The Smile Train or The Lotus Flower Trust (both beneficiaries of TFWA’s ‘Heart 2 Art’ campaign in Cannes) and many other good causes, and you will find our sector has led countless fund-raising efforts. And yet we are positioned so often as a reactionary, defensive, money-obsessed channel.

I wonder if challenging that perception deserves as much attention as the efforts that we put into preserving, say, tobacco sales or challenging the LAGs regulations?

Overall, and especially given its traumatic lead-up, TFWA World Exhibition must be judged a qualified success, and credit should therefore go to the association’s staff, board and management committee. Some elements deserve further comment though.

KEY ASPECTS OF CANNES 2009

TFWA and Erik Juul-Mortensen’s re-election as President: “Never say never,” may have to become the new motto of the popular Dane, who rightly bowed to pressure and a feeling for what is right by agreeing to stay on for one final year. But if TFWA truly is a vibrant organisation it must both encourage and breed change and focus on succession planning. Who will emerge over the next year? Put simply, someone has to.

TFWA has quality full-time staff but inevitably they sometimes have their own agendas to pursue rather than what is truly ‘by the trade for the trade’. The association needs strong leaders drawn from its membership base. It needs to become less introspective, more embracing of outside forces (its regular ‘non-disclosure’ warning relating to The Moodie Report before meetings is tiresome) and must not equate ‘not for profit’ with an ability to absorb costs that would not be tolerated in private organisations.

It is an exhibition organiser – and a supremely good one – and it should focus obsessively on delivering value to exhibitors and buyers around that proposition.

Opening conference: The best I have seen over 21 years attending the Cannes show. Geldof and William Lauder were the standouts but Juul-Mortensen’s speech was also a noble attempt to reposition the channel’s sense of social vision.

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Opening cocktail: Muted fireworks, nice venue (The Carlton). The perfect balance in a crisis-hit year.

Fringe events: The airline workshop was mediocre; the Asia Pacific event highlighted by Martin Roll’s excellent presentation on South Korea; while the fine Luxottica ‘Sunglasses – Time to Shine’ event (pictured below) underlined the potential for quality forums that the Cannes show throws up.

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Frontier Awards: The 2009 awards were snappier, faster and all the better for it. A good jury made for credible results too. The nomination procedure still niggles though.

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Gala evening: The Moodie Report didn’t attend the Zucchero concert on Thursday night but apparently the Italian artist was a big hit. That’s more than can be said for the pre-concert ‘premium dinner cocktail’ at the Riviera Beach (a marquee suite erected alongside the Palais), which allegedly offered a selection of fine French cuisine. Let’s make that fine and rare. What was effectively a crowded re-run of Monday’s Opening Cocktail fell short of the mark.

Cannes: What Sir Bob Geldof would have made of the absolutely rampant greed of some of the city’s restaurateurs and hoteliers could set up an even more compelling follow-up conference.

To put it mildly, Cannes is a million miles away from the humane, responsible and fair world of corporate capitalism that Geldof espouses. 

You doubt me? Over €20 for two coffees and a water at Brasserie Le Voilier?  €17.30 at The Majestic for a citron pressé and a cup of tea?The list (provided by serious, senior industry figures) goes on and on. What a contrast with any major conference venue in Asia.

The Moodie Report was demonized by TFWA a few years back for its strong criticism of Cannes but many of our comments remain valid. This time let’s not shoot the messenger. Overall the city offers poor value, patchy internet facilities (even in top-class hotels) and wildly varying service.

It’s also difficult (and expensive) to get to for many visitors. Does anyone wonder why the exhibition centre is like a ghost town on the Friday?

Against that, Cannes offers a wide range of hotels and restaurants within close proximity of the exhibition centre; an undisputable luxury atmosphere; tradition; and a proven show facility that can cater for such a logistically demanding event.

You pays your money and you takes your choice. But if the status quo is to prevail (and in our view it should be questioned constantly), then changes must be made.

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[The Nestle International Travel Retail stand on Friday morning, one of many that had closed down early. Should the show close on Thursday?]

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