Asia takes the pain

21 May 2003


There may be less of it around, but Asia still means business, as Yeoh Siew Hoon reports on the first day of EIBTM.

I have seen, for the first time, collective suffering.

In the past, there was always one destination or region that was up while others were down.

This year, at EIBTM, from China to Cambodia, from India to Indonesia, from Malaysia to Myanmar, from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh, the entire Asia region is down.

The first day of EIBTM may have dawned bright and sunny weather-wise but in the halls, business was anything but for destinations from Asia which had braved the adverse climate to come and exhibit at this annual trade event.

Organisers said the event was 20 percent smaller than last year due to a combination of factors - SARS, terrorism and a competitive event, IMEX, held just last month in Frankfurt - but within the Asian stand, it felt much smaller than 20 percent and definitely a lot less busier than last year.

Tom Nutley, chairman of Reed Travel Exhibitions, jested at the press conference, "With all the crisis after crisis we've been through the past 18 months, it is amazing we even have a show at all."

Most exhibitors from Asia were disappointed with the lack of interest in the region. Patom S'prayoon, director of sales-travel industry, JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts, said, "I came, not expecting much business but at least some interest. But there is not even interest."

In contrast, the European hall was buzzing - a clear sign that European incentive and meetings business is staying closer to home.

All stands are much smaller. Hong Kong's stand has been scaled right down and is manned by representatives from Europe. Likewise with the China booth manned by 12 exhibitors, all of whom were from European offices.

Thailand which was always the magnet in the Asia hall was not its normal bustling self. The Malaysia booth was jam-packed at one point - when it hosted lunch.

Most exhibitors put on a brave face. "Yes, we do have some difficulties right now but they are only temporary. It won't affect the position held by China as one of the most attractive destinations for leisure and corporate travel," said Yaying Li, managing director, China National Tourism Administration, Frankfurt.

Corporate booths tended to be busier. Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts was visibly busier than most. Whatever business was being talked about however was not business for this year but for 2004 onwards.

In my years attending EIBTM, I have never seen the Asia hall so quiet. Exhibitors joked, "The only people you see in the aisles are other exhibitors."

Another one said to me, "If you see any buyers, bring them here."

At the press conference, Reed Travel Exhibitions said it had targeted 13,800 appointments for buyers.

It shared these buyer numbers with the media - 65 from the US, 78 from Brazil, 37 from Hungary, 30 from Russia, 526 from the UK, 429 from Germany, 292 from France and 258 from Benelux.

Whether it was SARS, the European economy, fear of terrorism or just market forces, it was clear most of these buyers were not to be found in the Asia hall the first day of the final EIBTM in Geneva.

But Asian exhibitors are nothing if not positive. "There's always tomorrow," said James Reed, managing director, Destination Asia. "We have to be positive and proactive and get out there. If we do nothing, we will die."

And that is what these Asian exhibitors who have braved the circumstances to come to Geneva are determined to do - to show that Asia still means business, whether there is business or not.

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