In the past year, thousands of Spaniards died as COVID-19 raged in the southern European nation. The pandemic isn’t over, but that’s not stopping Madrid from breathing new life into the country’s trade fair industry.
Eduardo Lopez-Puertas has a tough year behind him. On March 10, 2020, Madrid’s Ifema trade fair organizers had to close the event’s gates. „Following a bumper year in 2019, there suddenly was an eerie, sad silence in our exhibition halls,“ the Ifema managing director told DW.
„And 10 days later, the Madrid government decided that a hospital would be built on our premises,“ Lopez-Puertas said. But now Ifema is the first organization across Europe to open trade fairs to visitors again. His counterparts in France, Germany and Italy are currently bombarding him with questions.
As of March 22, visitors will be filling the halls again when the Hospitality Innovation Planet, a trade fair for the hotel and catering sector, kicks off. Organizers in Barcelona will follow suit in late June with the Mobile World Congress.
„Madrid is one of the most important fair and congress hubs in the world; we have to prove that we can manage the restart,“ Spanish economist Carlos Martinez told DW, pointing out that Spain is effectively taking the lead in Europe.
From COVID casualties to trendsetter
Madrid was one of the worst-hit cities in Europe when the pandemic struck. According to official figures, some 14,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the city so far.
Given the impact, few in Spain deny the pandemic or believe in conspiracy theories. But restrictions were eased a couple of months ago. The country is reopening, although there’s an 11 p.m. curfew in place and people have to keep wearing face masks. Spain is making big efforts to adapt to the crisis economically.
„We’re a people that emerges stronger from crises,“ Spanish comedian and intellectual Jose Miguel Monzon told DW. He himself chooses not to meet many people these days. A trained doctor, he’s worried about Madrid’s high incidence rate, the highest in the country.
Ifema’s Lopez-Puerto also feels uneasy about the relaunch of the trade fair business. „It’s not easy to forget the horrors of a year ago, but even back then the Ifema hospital was the only one in Spain where no medical staff got infected because of our special air conditioning system,“ he said.
From top fair to top hospital
That hospital was dismantled in May of last year. The trade fair location will soon be welcoming hundreds of experts from the catering and hotel industry who are likely to discuss new business concepts during the pandemic.
„The hospitality sector has been dealt a harsh blow by the pandemic, and that’s why we think the upcoming fair is so important,“ Lopez-Puertas said.
The next international trade in Madrid will be Fitur in May, a renowned tourism fair. To get in, you’ll have to provide a COVID test or a vaccination certificate, if already available. You can also undergo a quick test at the entrance.
For the hospitality trade fair, though, procedures will be in line with those of the past few months, meaning that everything is handled online, including registrations. There will be quick temperature checks at the entrance, exhibitors and visitors will have to adhere to distancing rules.
Wearing masks will be obligatory. Air conditioning and cleaning procedures in the halls are among the most modern in the world. Exhibitors and service personnel will have to bring negative test certificates before entering.
But Lopez-Puertas can’t conceal his nervousness. „As early as August of last year I sent around an encouraging letter to Ifema colleagues, raising hopes we could start working again in September, followed by a letter in January where I told them that their short-term work could soon be over,“ he said. But rising infections stood in the way.
A lot of things broke down during the pandemic, says Lopez Puertas, but the crisis also gave rise to some new things.
„The pandemic has taught us how to organize hybrid fairs, with exhibitors’ stands on the ground and video conferences to enable the exchange of information among the various players,“ Baptiste Boulard told DW. He’s the co-founder of Swapcard, a company helping the trade fair industry to get back on its feet.
„Spanish event organizers have taken a hit from visitors who could not come, and expect massive job cuts,“ Boulard said. That’s exactly what Lopez-Puertas wants to avoid at Ifema, with the help of his innovative hygiene concept, and he wants to show people that Spain has been able to learn from past mistakes.
On March 8, 2020, the government still allowed rallies for women’s rights to go ahead across the country, a measure that helped spread the coronavirus. In February of last year, the ARCOmadrid art fair took place, while fair events in Switzerland and Germany had already been canceled at the time. ARCOmadrid is now slated to conclude Ifema’s first-half business calendar in 2021.
„We’ve worked hard to stage a comeback,“ said Lopez-Puertas. „Our hygiene concept is solid and safe, so let’s pray that everything will work out OK.“
Barcelona more cautious
Barcelona is tight-lipped about this year’s World Mobile Congress trade fair. Before the pandemic, the event attracted over 100,000 visitors but was canceled last year because of COVID-19.
A restart is planned in June, also with a sophisticated hygiene concept that would allow for up to 50,000 visitors. But some big companies have already indicated they won’t participate, including Ericsson, Nokia, Sony and Facebook. The Barcelona trade fair organizers will only provide the premises, while GSMA, which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, will be in charge of the event.