Brand Licensing Europe (BLE) is ready to put boots back on the ground. The annual trade show is set to take place in person again this month, and while many in the industry are keen to do business face-to-face again, continued hesitancy around international travel means virtual events likely aren’t going anywhere yet.
BLE is scheduled to run from November 17 to 19 at ExCel London. But according to the BBC, the UK government was reporting around 37,000 new cases of COVID-19 daily at press time. To cater to those unable to (or uncomfortable with) traveling to the UK right now, BLE’s in-person event will be followed by an online companion offering running from November 30 to December 1.
BLE’s organizer, Global Licensing Group, reports that 1,736 virtual and in-person meetings had been booked through its platform as of press time. At last count, attendees are coming to the event from 73 different countries, and GLG expects a significant number to still register in the final days before BLE.
Last-minute registration is unusual, says Daryl Shute, brand director at UK-based Magic Light Pictures, because people’s agendas are normally filled with meetings well in advance of a major trade show. Shute is attending BLE in person this year, but says the industry seems much more cautious about making travel plans.
“My feeling from talking to people is that a lot of international agents are coming to meet with UK licensors. But I don’t get the sense that international licensees—and European licensees, in particular—are coming,” Shute says.
Much of that uncertainty stems from ongoing shifts in the UK government’s response to the pandemic and chatter around a potential return to working from home, Shute explains. If this uncertainty continues into 2022, it could mean that trade shows will have to provide meaningful opportunities for virtual deal-making in addition to in-person meetings, or risk international teams doing that business outside of their events.
The question then becomes, how will deal-making at trade shows be affected if international teams aren’t able to attend?
Meeting with local teams in person and only dealing with international partners virtually could make inking global agreements difficult down the line, says Robert Goodchild, commercial director at UK-based Aardman Animations. Online trade shows simply aren’t as productive, he says. Goodchild is also attending BLE in person this year, but says not all of Aardman’s agents will be there.
“There’s just no replacement for the business that gets done when you’re in the same place at the same time,” Goodchild says. “When the rest of your job is on hold, and you’re spending the whole day at the venue, it’s a catalyst for decision-making.”
And ironically, Goodchild says that type of focus is particularly important now because the pandemic—the thing keeping everyone apart—has also led to a boom in content creation that demands licensing teams meet up to strike agreements.
“The market has been quite buoyant for content creators over the last 18 months, and we want to make the most of that by finding licensing partners,” Goodchild explains. “Jumpy Zoom calls aren’t the best way to sell beautiful content.”
In response, virtual trade shows have been busy innovating to create higher-quality video platforms capable of showing off products, and to develop augmented reality showrooms as a way of recreating the experience of face-to-face meetings. By comparison, in-person events require the shipping and setting up of booths, as well as the transportation of physical assets like prototypes or items for swag bags, which can run up participation costs.
Despite the price-tag of attending in-person events, and the additional work that has to take place afterwards to do business with international teams virtually, Planeta Junior’s international marketing manager Ainhoa Montánchez Fernández says these conferences are still worth it. Based in Barcelona, Montánchez Fernández plans to travel to London for BLE.
Montánchez Fernández says Planeta Junior is preparing for hybrid events (or online-only ones should a trade show be cancelled last minute) by developing a collection of digital assets that can be accessed quickly by all team members and sent to partners.
“If [BLE] took place tomorrow, we would be there,” she says. “It is harder to plan for these hybrid events because it takes more time to build online assets as well as organizing for the in-person conference. But for us, it’s a celebration not only of our brands, but also of being there and seeing everyone again.”