It’s showtime for Hong Kong’s convention and exhibition sector as it scales up to meet demand after the lean years of the pandemic. While the industry still faces challenges such as global economic uncertainty, rising operating costs and limited air transport capacity, fairs that left the city during the past few years are returning in 2024 and new shows are preparing to make a grand debut.
In 2019, the sector’s contribution was HK$58.6 billion, about 2.2% of Hong Kong's total GDP, attracting over 2 million visitors to the city. In the two years up to September 2022, only 175 trade shows took place at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC) and AsiaWorld-Expo (AWE) – a 45% drop from pre-pandemic times.
While recovery in the initial months of 2023 was slow, the second half of the year saw a significant upturn. Looking ahead, PwC’s report on the Global Media and Entertainment 2023-2027 Outlook for Hong Kong shows that the industry can expect steady growth in the post-Covid era, to propel total business-to-business revenue at 7.2% CAGR to US$944 million by 2027.
“I think it is important to remind ourselves that Hong Kong remains ideally placed to be the strategic international hub for trade shows, conventions and MICE events,” said Dr Peter Lam, Chairman of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC). He added that the resumption of international travel, the implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the potential of new markets provide many significant opportunities for Hong Kong businesses.
Stuart Bailey, Chairman of the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Industry Association (HKECIA), believes the positive trend could be attributed, at least in part, to the substantial expansion in the size and scope of international events in Hong Kong as well as the Government's stimulus packages.
“Trade exhibitions in the last quarter of 2023 experienced a strong rebound, with a significant number of exhibitors and visitors,” said Bailey. “Across the board, the industry has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels. Some speculate that this recovery may be attributed to the post-pandemic honeymoon period, as global trade remains sluggish.”
Citing a report published by HKECIA in June 2023, Lam said a total of 96 exhibitions were held in Hong Kong in 2022, of which 40 were trade exhibitions, while in 2023, more than 100 international business events were scheduled to take place.
“It was encouraging to see that exhibitor and buyer participation in its 2023 trade shows returning to around 70-80% on average of pre-pandemic levels, while some even reaching 90%. It is also pleasing to note that many exhibitors tell us they still prefer physical fairs over the online format, despite the ease of technology,” said Lam.
For international conferences, the turnout was even more encouraging, with some such as the signature Belt & Road Summit exceeding pre-pandemic levels, he said. “As for the number of visiting buyers, the majority of our exhibitions have recovered to 80 to 90% of pre-pandemic levels. The internationality of the participants spanning over 200 countries and regions should also be underscored.”
Bailey pointed out that exhibitions serve as a reliable indicator of trade, as exhibition stand bookings typically occur nine to 12 months in advance.
“Positive exhibitor sentiment for the year ahead is evident, and January has started well with the HKTDC’s toy fair being highly praised for its success,” he said. “Looking ahead, we have high expectations for 2024, anticipating that it will surpass the aforementioned levels. This is expected to provide crucial support to numerous industries in Hong Kong and serve as a catalyst for bolstering the local economy.”
Full Steam Ahead
Monica Lee-Müller, Managing Director of HKCEC, said Hong Kong continues to retain its unique competitive advantages as a leading city for trade fairs and international conventions.
“After the turmoil of the past three years, all major recurrent trade fairs staged at HKCEC pre-pandemic returned in 2023 or will return this year,” she said. In fact, between July 2022 and June 2023, HKCEC held 127 exhibitions, compared with 110 in a regular year, attracting over 5.5 million visitors.
Next month, HKCEC will host the APLF Leather & Materials fair, as well as Art Basel Hong Kong. Art Basel will feature 243 galleries from 40 countries and territories – a 37% increase in exhibitor numbers compared to 2023, marking a return to the show’s pre-pandemic scale. Vinexpo Asia 2024, Asia’s largest wine show, is also coming to HKCEC in May, after the 2023 edition in Singapore.
Lee-Müller said the number of recurrent trade shows at HKCEC is expected to reach 70, as in pre-pandemic years, with the volume of international exhibitors and visitors in 2024 gradually increasing from 2023, depending on flight capacity.
According to Irene Chan, CEO of AWE, conference and exhibition events at AWE in 2023 recovered to about 70 to 80% of pre-pandemic levels, and is expected to return to normal this year.
New exhibitions at AWE this year include the inaugural “Super Terminal Expo 2024” and “CAPA Asia Aviation Summit & Sustainability Awards 2024” in November. Super Terminal Expo 2024 is the first aviation-cum-logistics expo held in Asia, showcasing innovative initiatives like the smart airport transformation. Also making its debut is “ComplexCon Hong Kong.” Launched in Los Angeles in 2016, this will be its first venture outside the United States. Scheduled in March, it will bring together street style, sports fashion, art, food and music and is expected to attract 30,000 visitors from around the world.
Other large-scale shows AWE will host in 2024 include HKTDC Hong Kong International Diamond, Gem & Pearl Show in March, Asia Fruit Logistica and Jewellery & Gem World Hong Kong in September, and Cosmopack Asia in November.
David Bondi, SVP, Informa Markets Asia, said the company was planning 10 events in Hong Kong this year, including the B2B industry’s flagship show Jewellery & Gem World Hong Kong, which are expected to attract over 200,000 visitors in total. One of Informa Market’s biggest events last year, Cosmoprof Asia, returned after a four-year absence with more than 2,400 exhibitors. “The number of visitors was a remarkable 64% increase compared to 2019, coming close to the levels achieved in 2018,” said Bondi.
Welcoming Stimulus Initiatives
Helping to boost growth are the HKSAR Government’s measures to support the C&E industry, which also benefit the hospitality and retail sectors.
“With the Government’s funding support for the industry in staging more than 200 exhibitions over three years starting in mid-2023, and the return of international fairs of other organizers, we are hopeful that conferences and exhibitions will see a return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year,” said Lam.
Bailey agreed that the initiatives are undeniably attracting attention as organizers understand Hong Kong’s distinct advantages as a trade show and convention destination. “The fact that subsidies are exclusively available for recurring events further contributes to the long-term advantage, ensuring Hong Kong's sustained success in this sector,” he explained.
Chan pointed out that the Government is also taking forward the AsiaWorldExpo Phase 2 project, together with the Wan Chai North redevelopment project near HKCEC, to substantially increase largescale C&E spaces by 40%, to 220,000 sq m. “The development includes building the largest indoor multipurpose performance arena in Hong Kong with over 20,000 seats,” she said. “AWE’s convention and exhibition space will also be increased to 100,000 sq m.”
However, Bailey believes exhibition capacity has become a concern. “Although the Government has a long-term plan to increase exhibition space, some of these plans won't be completed for over a decade. Consequently, we are urging for interim solutions that would enable the industry to expand and prepare for the new facilities.”
The Bigger Picture
With the authorities promoting stronger connections with ASEAN countries to promote trade in Hong Kong, Lee-Müller said there was a noticeable increase in trade buyers from ASEAN countries at HKCEC last year. Taking September’s Jewellery & Gem World exhibition as an example, she said ASEAN exhibitors accounted for 21% of overseas exhibitors, an increase of 2.5% from before the pandemic.
Meanwhile HKTDC is working with HKECIA and the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) to promote Hong Kong as an international trade shows and MICE centre. “For example, we joined HKTB in the UFI Global Congress in Las Vegas in November to network with tradeshow organizers from around the world,” said Lam.
At Messe Frankfurt (HK) Ltd, business is back on track. In January, the company jointly organized the Hong Kong Toys & Games Fair, Hong Kong Baby Products Fair and International Stationery & School Supplies Fair with HKTDC. Held over four days, the events attracted some 83,000 buyers from 135 countries and regions, including the Mainland, ASEAN, Japan, Korea, India, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Russia, with buyer numbers from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore growing significantly.
Managing Director Wendy Wen said Messe Frankfurt was also promoting sustainability at its events such as “Econogy,” and bringing together key sustainability players at its dedicated trade fair “Eco Expo Asia” in Hong Kong.
“Zooming into China and ASEAN, we are seeing multiple sectors going from strength to strength, with in-person business strongly encouraged,” she said. “In fact, some of our trade fairs are anticipating record highs this year. For example, our professional audio and lighting trade fair Prolight + Sound Guangzhou has already confirmed a record-breaking 190,000 sq m of exhibition space for its May edition. Adding to the momentum is China’s offer of visa-free entry for business and leisure travellers from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia.”
With open borders and a return to business-as-usual, the company held approximately 340 events worldwide, with more than 84,000 exhibitors and approximately four million visitors contributing to group sales of over €600 million.
The Show Must Go On
“One challenge is the severe shortage of manpower, although it's important to note that this issue is not unique to our industry,” said Bailey. Other factors included long-haul flight scheduling and pricing, which were directly linked to the availability of skilled manpower.
High inflation and escalating costs in travel and accommodation also contributed to making Hong Kong an expensive destination, which could have a dampening effect on the industry. “In terms of visas, Hong Kong generally has a favourable track record,” he said. “However, there are still visitors from some countries who face difficulties in travelling to the Special Administrative Region (SAR). We are also advocating for a relaxation of entry rules for Shenzhen residents, enabling them to visit Hong Kong more than once per week for trade show activities.”
Chan said AWE faced a shortage of frontline staff during peak event periods, especially in teams taking care of catering services, event support and facilities management. She added they would continue to actively recruit and deploy human resources to meet the needs of various events.
“Some practitioners may not return after changing careers, and it will take some time to recover,” explained Lee-Müller. To tackle the labour shortage, she said the company is actively recruiting via internship programmes with universities and tertiary institutions to offer students in hospitality and event management disciplines the opportunity to gain work experience. The industry would also study the feasibility of importing foreign workers with the Government.
Despite the rosy forecast, Bailey said geopolitical uncertainty continued to be a significant factor with democratic elections taking place in important export markets worldwide. “We are waiting to see if these events will impact the industry,” he said.
Lam reiterated that Hong Kong’s role as a gateway to the Mainland – and as a key city in the Greater Bay Area – means it is ideally positioned to help local and international businesses seize opportunities in the market.
“In the coming year and beyond, Hong Kong’s C&E industry will continue to play a pivotal role in helping businesses connect with opportunities worldwide, while reinforcing our role as a leading global business and investment hub and bridge between Mainland China and the world,” he concluded.