In the aftermath of the last minute cancellation of the world’s largest world trade travel show Mark Bibby Jackson argues the case for considering virtual conferences and conventions – are they the future of the world travel trade.

When news of the cancellation of ITB Berlin 2020 broke last week, Travel Begins at 40 asked what would happen next? For some, business carried on. For others everything stopped.

Travel business carries on

Asian Trails CEO, Laurent Kuenzle, told TTG Asia, “Since my entire team is already in Europe for a week, we will continue with our sales trips as scheduled.”

Organisations such as PATA declared that the cancellation had no impact on their plans, as they had a series of offsite events cheduled, the major travel trade news service reported.

It might seem a bit like having the half-time show in the Superbowl without the actual game

Indeed, even before the ITB Berlin organisers announced their refund policy, on 3 March they advised that ITB Berlin would continue to serve as a “platform” for those people who had intended to attend the largest trade travel show in the world by allowing them to communicate their scheduled events on the ITB Berlin website.

In a move that could be viewed as closing the stable door after the horse had bolted, a couple of days later this was named the ITB Virtual Convention, and would include “20 exclusive live streams and videos in English and German”. People could also conduct meeting in virtual rooms. In retrospect, no doubt the organisers will realise that this was a decision that should have been made simultaneosulsy to announcing the cancellation of ITB Berlin, a move that was made far too late in any case.

One of the events which was due to take place, perhaps ironically, was a breakfast seminar on Safer Tourism and coronavirus by Peter Tarkow, co-sponsored by PATA.

Virtual conferences: the future?

virtual travel conferences
While some might like travelling to Berlin each March, others are prohibited by the cost

John Boulding, the CMO of Vox Group, tweeted the idea of holding meetings as scheduled, only that they take place on apps such as Skype, Google Hangouts etc, rather than in person.

For some it might seem a bit like having the half-time show in the Superbowl without the actual game. Others, however, might consider the virtues of virtual conferences.

It would be just like the ITB only without the glasses of sekt and canapes

Why organise shows such as ITB Berlin in the first place?

Instead, we could organise a virtual ITB equivalent at a set time, where e-exhibitors post what they have to offer, perhaps using virtual reality presentations, and e-visitors could join them in chat rooms to discuss possible cooperation. The technology for this is already out there.

I know this could all be done anyway informally, but fixing a week when people could meet, at least virtually, would make scheduling meetings all the more easier. It would be just like the ITB only without the glasses of sekt and canapes.

Not only would this avoid the necessity of last minute cancellations and rescheduling of meetings due to the fear of spreading a virus, but it would also open up the conferences to those who either do not have the money to travel to Berlin, or don’t have the time due to other work or family considerations.

No show to no fly

In the current climate should we all really be flying around the world to discuss travel with our industry colleagues when this could be done online?

Carbon Offsetting virtual conferences
It’s not just the spread of viruses that could question the future of ITB Berlin

Climate change has brought the No Fly movement to the forefront of the travel agenda. While efforts to ban the use of single-use plastics throughout the industry is admirable, surely we should also be limiting our carbon footprint by reducing the number of flights we make. Virtual travel conferences and conventions could be a further step in the direction of saving our planet.

In cancelling the ITB Berlin 2020, organisers stated that they looked forward to “continuing the trusted relationship with our partners in the market”. I’m sure that ITB Berlin 2021 will go ahead as scheduled on 10-14 March, but the last-minute cancellation of the 2020 event might have lasting repercussions for the show’s future.

Perhaps the organisers actions in the aftermath of the cancellation of ITB Berlin by announcing the ITB Virtual Convention points the way ahead.

Are virtual conferences the future of the travel industry? I, for one, think it’s certainly worth considering the idea further.

Mark Bibby Jackson is the founder and editor of Travel Begins at 40. If you would like to discuss the possibility of virtual travel conferences with him further then please email him at: [email protected].