Indian jewelry lights up a better future
“We thought we just needed to rework our business models for three months,” said UFI President Anbu Varathan. Paul woodward, recalling the first days of the Covid crisis in India in March of last year. Some 18 months after the closure of the Indian industry, its Bengalaru International Exhibition Center (BIEC) has just hosted its first major event, the IIJS of the Gem & Jewelery Export Promotion Council.
Despite the long wait, Varathan is delighted with the performance of the show. It is one of the five largest jewelry fairs in the world and filled its venue with 70,000 m² of occupied space, 1,300 exhibitors and 50,000 visitors. “It’s actually better than the previous edition,” he smiles.
Indian companies operate according to their official years. Thus, the closure coincided almost exactly with the start of the 2020/21 fiscal year. Varathan notes that about 90 to 95 percent of events across the country have been canceled or postponed. It was therefore a very slow year for exhibitions. “But now we’re back in business,” he says.
He believes that Indian venues could host up to 100 events between September and the end of 2021. BIEC alone will organize 15 to 18 exhibitions. There will be very few international visitors, Varathan admits, noting that the IIJS has only seen around 500 from 10 countries. But India is a huge domestic market, he says, and also points out that many multinationals have a well-established presence in India and can participate through their local offices.
The lack of international attendees will mean some events over the next 6-12 months will be a bit smaller, Varathan admits. But overall, he believes the market across the country is starting to be very positive.
There is still a lot of caution after such a hard and prolonged shutdown. “We can’t relax SOPs,” says Varathan. “Masks and social distancing are a must,” along with other measures such as hand sanitization, improved site cleaning and temperature controls. “You have to follow all the basics. You know, it’s not rocket science, ”he says.
The organizers of the IIJS went further and insisted that all participants and staff were either double vaccinated or given a vaccine and PCR test. “We have fully supported this,” said Varathan, agreeing that it is important at this point to build public confidence in the safety of trade events. “It’s too early to relax,” he says. “We have to at least wait another six months, maybe a year. “
BIEC is owned by the Indian Machine Tool Manufacturers Association of which Varathan is the Managing Director and CEO. How did he and his team at IMMTA deal with the forced 12-18 month suspension from normal event activity? “We were actually busier during that time compared to normal,” he told EW. In order to protect the organization, he said they have become ultra conservative in terms of spending and tried to optimize asset management in terms of location. The association, however, had good reserves and it is fortunate that they were largely able to protect the team without huge staff cuts.
The association has around 500 members and Varathan says they have focused on member concerns and issues. “So I will say that we took more than 100 interventions [on behalf of members], work with deputies, work with the government ”. The issues ranged from cash flow to advice on closing and restarting workplaces, government rules, the industry supply chain, and the availability of raw materials. There was a wide variety of topics, he says.
As with many associations, education and training is a key activity for IMMTA and has grown in importance despite being delivered almost exclusively online. While digital delivery may remain the primary channel for this in the future, Varathan is less convinced of its ability to move salons. Agreeing with many of his industry peers, he believes that “when it comes to trade shows, there is no substitute available for face to face. Technology today cannot replace what face to face can offer ”.
What his team has been able to do, he says, is use digital tools to stay in touch with their stakeholders and allow exhibitors and visitors to connect with each other. The value of this is relatively limited, he believes, but was the best that could be offered when physical events were not possible. Nonetheless, important lessons have been learned and he is confident that we will see a higher level of technology deployed at events in the future.
What Varathan sees as essential is that there is a really sharp focus on the value that technology adds to customers. Without a real understanding of this value, he sees no possibility of developing a viable revenue model for the digital services that are now so widely discussed. This value must come, he says, either in terms of improving efficiency or in terms of stakeholder satisfaction. “We have to be very smart to identify areas where technology can really scale to add real value to exhibitors,” Varathan thinks.
Looking at the bigger picture for India, Varathan is very optimistic about the future. He accepts that it will take another 12 months or so to recover from the impact of the pandemic. But, he said, the combination of a much stronger venues situation across the country, combined with prospects for growth, can only be good news for the exhibition industry. He believes the economy will grow from $ 3 trillion to about $ 5,000 billion over the next five years. With the right government policies in place, he believes this will lead to a 20% increase in manufacturing. In 10 years, Varathan sees India with an economy of 10 trillion dollars and a manufacturing sector of 2 to 2.5 trillion dollars. “It’s a great opportunity for exhibitions,” he says.
Shifting from India to global industry, Varathan concedes that it wasn’t quite the year he envisioned when he agreed to take on the role of UFI president. “It’s been a tough year for UFI, obviously,” he said. But he feels that the organization has reinvented itself very quickly in the face of the crisis. He reiterates the emphasis he described at last year’s Virtual Congress when he took on the role. “I said we have to focus on the restart as being very important,” he said. Leadership, technology and connecting with the community were the other three pillars he focused on.
Varathan knows the reboot job is far from over. He believes that for at least a year, all sides of the exhibition industry community will still respond to the challenges of the pandemic. “So here collaboration with government plays a very important role,” he notes, referring to the UFI’s new global policy initiative. By trying to connect with the trade and tourism ministers who are responsible for the exhibitions industry in one way or another, “it will give these political leaders a better connection with our industry.” This will help achieve a better political environment and better initiatives, he believes. “There is still a lot to do.”
Even after this difficult year, Varathan speaks with great energy and enthusiasm about the future of exhibitions. One of the accomplished professionals in the industry, he leads with a very positive attitude and a winning smile.