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Digital ITB Berlin set for 2,000-plus exhibitors

The world’s biggest travel trade show ITB in Berlin will take place wholly online next month, having been cancelled at short notice last year.

But ITB will return to a physical show next year, according to ITB head David Ruetz, who told Travel Weekly: “A digital platform can’t replace a physical encounter.”

Ruetz insisted: “Our plans are for a physical event in March 2022. But we might have two days of a digital ITB after a physical ITB, or we might have a digital ITB within the physical ITB to connect those who can’t be there.”

The decision to move ITB 2021 online was taken last October to help attendees plan

Ruetz said: “Another event helped us decide. We planned an event in October on tourism recovery and one week before the government set restrictions on travel even between districts of Berlin.

“We had to change to an online format at one week’s notice. We don’t want to do this for ITB. We want to give exhibitors time to plan.”

He said the early decision “gave time to develop our new platform” which he hailed as “a combination of Zoom, LinkedIn, Netflix and TikTok”.

Ruetz explained: “The heart of it is the digital exhibitor platform. We didn’t want any 3D fanciness with avatars and 3D stands – that takes a lot of broadband capacity and has the look of video gaming. We want it to be a tool not a toy.”

In addition, he said: “We have a streamed conference for live broadcasts and video on demand.” There is a ‘LinkedIn-style’ platform “giving ideas on who to meet”, and a ‘back office’ where exhibitors “can see every single interaction every day”.

The platform also includes multiple themed ‘cafes’.

Ruetz argued: “We have full transparency. We transferred almost all the features of a physical event and transferred all the contacts to the visitors. It was a six-digit investment.”

In fact, ITB took an existing platform “already used successfully at other German trade shows” and adapted it for its needs.

Ruetz is excited about the results, saying: “We are up to 2,100 exhibitors from 120 countries. We have almost reached the limit of 1,000 selected travel buyers.”

A normal ITB would attract 10, 000 exhibitors and 100,000 visitors, but he argued: “You can’t compare it with a physical show because people would book a flight and a hotel in advance.

“A physical trade show is a huge eco-system. [But] the experience shows a digital event reduces the numbers to the essentials. We expect a lot of last-minute visitors [and] we expect real results – digital meetings that produce real results.”

He added: “Exhibitors who could never before go to ITB have decided to make it. Before you had travel costs and the costs of stands.

“I’m confident we will have a five-digit number of visitors.

“It’s a digital experiment. Attempts have been made in the past with digital platforms, but ITB is the first global digital event of the year [and] there is a need for a gathering in tourism to discuss what lies ahead.

“We have a stunning number of CEOs – Delta Air Lines, Emirates, Tui, Air France-KLM, Ryanair, Uber, Sabre, Celebrity Cruises.”

How will he gauge success? Ruetz said: “ITB will be successful if the platform works, if clients are happy with its performance, if our help lines support people and people accept the complexities of the experience, and if clients tell us after ITB, ‘You were a catalyst again for business and connected us to people’.”

However, Ruetz insisted: “ITB will be in a physical form [next year].”

He noted: “It is 12 months from now and there is time for people to get a vaccine. We’ve learned a lot in the last 12 months and we’ll learn a lot more in the next.

“You can make venues very safe with tracking and distancing. Fairgrounds, expo centres can be made safe for people from multiple countries.

“It could be the physical form of ITB could be a bit smaller [next year]. We don’t know who will survive the next 12 months.”

But he argued: “Travel will resume very quickly, at least VFR and leisure tourism. We all learned you don’t need to make a three-day trip to have a one-hour meeting, but all of us are tired of hanging around a screen.”

In the meantime, Ruetz said: “This digital version of ITB is an important step for us to introduce ITB to a younger generation.”

ITB takes place on March 8-12.

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