Online exhibitions bet on AI and big data to aid beleaguered industry as Hong Kong seeks return to normalcy

Iris Deng
·3-min read

After the Covid-19 pandemic forced exhibitions and trade fairs to shut down around the world, new technology is starting to offer a glimmer of hope. Online platforms aided by artificial intelligence are helping exhibitors continue to connect with buyers and strike deals while being unable to meet in person, according to Hong Kong’s trade promotion body.

“Global sourcing is becoming increasingly focused on digital solutions following the pandemic, but we also believe online exhibitions cannot completely replace physical ones,” Benjamin Chau, deputy executive director of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), told the Post via email on Thursday.

Chau said he believes future HKTDC exhibitions will adopt a hybrid model featuring both online and offline channels, allowing the organisation’s digital sourcing platform to be used for year-round trade fairs and exhibitions.

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“We will keep an eye on the Covid-19 situation and be prepared for all eventualities,” Chau said. “We will resume physical exhibitions when the pandemic abates, while continuing to organise diversified virtual sourcing fairs.”

Like other online platforms, HKTDC is betting on big data to help its customers. Chau said the organisation is using AI and machine learning to more efficiently and accurately match up buyers and suppliers. Natural language processing is also helping to screen out false inquiries and provide personalised recommendations to buyers, he added.

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New technologies have become essential tools for surviving during the Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to disrupt global supply chains and has forced cities and businesses to shut down around the world.

Globally, nearly 4,000 physical exhibitions have been cancelled or rescheduled because of the health crisis, according to industry portal Expocheck. UFI, a global exhibition industry association, estimated in July that the pandemic has resulted in the cancellation or delay of contracts between exhibition participants worth US$296 billion.

About 40 HKTDC events in Hong Kong – including trade fairs, public fairs and business conferences – have been impacted since the start of the pandemic, Chau said. But feedback suggests the shift to online is being received favourably so far, according to Chau.

The online events have helped 22,000 suppliers reach buyers around the world, Chau said. And in a survey of 100 Hong Kong companies during the organisation’s Summer Sourcing Week in July, 84 per cent of exhibitors said AI recommendations largely matched their product or service areas.

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Still, many exhibitors are eager to return to physical trade shows. Nearly 70 per cent of buyers surveyed said they would consider participating in physical HKTDC fairs in the next 12 months.

“Physical events remain crucial for buyers and exhibitors to establish connections and build trust”, Chau said.

There are signs that Hong Kong is on its way to bringing people back to physical spaces. The local business community has been eagerly awaiting reduced travel restrictions between Hong Kong and Singapore, the world’s first leisure travel bubble set to go into effect on November 22.

“We hope the HKSAR government can reach agreement with more countries to establish ‘travel bubbles’ and promote cross-country/region business travel, making it possible to resume international physical trade fairs in Hong Kong and continue to create business opportunities for local traders,” Chau said.

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