By: Peter Marshall & The Travel Retail Collective

As we walked away from last week’s TFWA Asia Pacific Hainan Special Edition, what have we learned? The event offered us plenty of “newness”, including the TFWA 365 platform and a welcome focus on the booming Hainan market, but in places it also exposed a shocking unwillingness on the part of so-called industry leaders to break the mould and light the way.

The Good

Despite the  technical hiccups, TFWA’s debut of its new TFWA 365 system was largely a success. The platform is slick and easy to navigate and will be a welcome addition to the industry’s conferences and networking. The opportunity to dial in from all over the world offers a special opportunity to unite voices, some of whom are rarely –  if ever –  heard from directly by wider members of the industry. 

The e-networking events were a pleasant, if lightweight, way to pass the time in the virtual company of industry friends, while watching TFWA Managing Director John Rimmer and his merry-go-round of guests put on their best efforts at daytime TV. The Euro 2020 results game was a simple but fun highlight which pulled together the audience, regardless of footballing enthusiasm.

First and foremost, though, the chance to hear insights from Chinese retailers and brands operating in the market was a rare and exciting opportunity. It was a refreshing chance to put a face to names many of us have only heard mentioned or tried – in vain – to make contact with.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the event’s selling point was also, in many ways, its downfall. The Chinese retailers appeared, yes. But while they spoke at length, most of them offered little or nothing in the way of inspiring or exciting insights. This echoed a problem seen earlier in the week with the much-vaunted ‘Five CEOs’ panel which headlined the conference.

While constraints on time may have been a factor, questions must be asked about the value of having four or five people talk in an hour’s session if they all deliver nothing actionable or inspiring for the audience. There was never a time when these industry leaders looked challenged by the discussion or even posed a challenge to the market.

While some of the blame will fall on moderators for not probing, this is endemic of a wider issue. Members of the travel retail sector must stop using conferences as a chance to stand on a soapbox and deliver platitudes about their own brilliance and aspirations. Simply put, if you have nothing inspiring or innovative to say then sit down and clear a space for those who do.

For many of those who took to the stage, who boast senior positions at leading companies, it is impossible that they have nothing to add. Unfortunately, no one wants to be the first to share something truly valuable. People pay to attend and watch these conferences. Headline speakers are worthless if they do not deliver value.

The Future

The Hainan Special Edition offers an exciting promise for the future. Certainly, the e-networking could be expanded. Guests would probably like the chance to talk directly and privately, by video or chat function, with others they see in attendance rather than just watching a staged socialising session.

The platform also offers a good opportunity to livestream in people who cannot attend a conference, which will be valuable once physical events return –  bringing back restrictions on travel and time.

But last week also shone the cold light of reality on a problem which has percolated at travel retail conferences for years: no one is saying anything.

People appear and deliver their prepared insights, bat away a couple of questions and congratulate themselves on a job well done. 

Going forward, organisers, and the industry at large, must demand more from those put on a pedestal and given the chance to address thousands. Either panellists must be fewer, topics must be tighter, or discussions must be longer and more in-depth.

The question, going forward, should not be “are you speaking at the next event?” It must be: “What are you saying?”

Peter Marshall

Founder: Arts
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