Yvonne Sandra Kunda, a tour consultant, appeared to be in a jovial mood at the closing ceremony of this year’s Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo (POATE) held at Sheraton Hotel Kampala. She said it was a moment of relief after taking part in the first virtual tourism expo as the sector navigates towards the new normal.

It took Kunda two days to set up her company’s virtual booth. She recollects the 2019 edition, where she secured a booth at Shs500,000 and preparations were less strenuous. “We had marketing materials on display and it was exciting to engage visitors at our booth,” she says.

As an exhibitor in 2019, she met her current employer and also secured her colleague a job in the sector. “The physical expo is the real deal. It is interactive, engaging and gives exposure,” Kunda says.

The virtual experience

Without a doubt, the experience of showcasing tourism products and services online is an arrangement tourism operators are struggling to cope with. The pandemic has affected meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE), but Uganda Tourism Board CEO Lilly Ajarova urges Ugandans to embrace technology in tourism businesses.

She says the virtual POATE 2021 offered an opportunity to embrace transformation. Ajena Jafar, the UTB Digital marketing officer with support from Talent Africa guided exhibitors both on call and online to set up their virtual booths.

Ajena supported tour operators to navigate the Whova App, an all-in-one event management software. “By day two, more people and businesses were struggling to set up the virtual booth. Fortunately, we have a digital team that ensured everyone had a great experience,” he remarks.

The new normal

The virtual expo did not have all the excitement that goes along with a real live event, but the sight of the moderator, Peter Igaga, a media personality, clad in a white tunic, popularly known as a Kanzu, gave life to the virtual event.

Ajarova and three other panelists donned the African Masai Shuka. “We have always had POATE as a physical event. Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the way we do business. UTB has embraced the change and that is why we are going virtual this year with POATE,” says Ajarova.

Level of exhibition

Previously, the size of a booth and location of a stall determined an exhibitor’s return on investment. It had everything to do with sponsorship and packages. Exhibitors usually rush to secure more strategic space.

Much as many potential exhibitors consider virtual events risky compared to physical events, the sixth POATE attracted 978 visitors, 27 speakers, 64 media personalities, 36 sponsors, 424 hosted buyers and 440 exhibitors for the 2021 virtual edition, compared to the 180 exhibitors in 2019.

Exhibitors comprised tour and travel companies, lodgings, airlines, government agencies and authorities, among others. There was no competition for the biggest, most central spot in the exhibition tent; instead exhibitors were listed in alphabetical order.

Regional participation

Despite big numbers gracing the virtual expo, regional tourism representation registered a decline this year. It is only Kenya Tourism Board that continued to reinforce its promotional action with Ugandan tourism market, in partnership with UTB.

“With participants looking for brand experience, I expected KTB to create smart displays that capture potential travellers’ attention, captivate them, and respond quickly to their needs. Unfortunately, they had a poor show,” says Nicholas Mulimira, a travel consultant. Meanwhile, some indigenous tourism operators enjoyed the virtual business opportunities.

Pinnacle Africa, a logistics and leisure company that showcased in the five previous POATE editions, hopes that business engagements will translate into clients and partnerships.

“We have received online business appointments from companies in Southern Africa, Europe that wish to expand to Uganda. The virtual challenge was the different time zones, but we agreed to schedule zoom calls the following week,” explains Francis Kimbowa, the managing director.

Casting virtual doubts

Despite opening the marketing tool to many tour operators, there is a significant number of unknown potential exhibitors, who were not convinced about the value of the virtual expo.

It requires UTB to allay fears that the visitors or agents are legitimate. Denis Ntege, the managing director of Raft Uganda, participated in POATE 2021 and says doubts were inevitable considering that this was a first time experience.

He commends the organisers for the tutorials, conferences on community tourism, presentations on MICE and business to business meetings.

Time to reposition Uganda

The tourism expo comes at a time when Uganda is striving to emerge out of the harsh effects of pandemic. “POATE comes at a time when the tourism sector needs to reassure the world that it is vibrant, resilient and build confidence that it is going to bounce back soon,”Ntege says.

Ntege applauds UTB and the national organising committee for pulling off the first virtual tourism expo in East Africa amidst the global Covid-19 challenges. “It has put destination Uganda at a new pedestal in the supply and value chain of tourism.,” he adds.

Intensive online workshops

Indigenous raft operator Ntege urges UTB to organise vigorous trainings for exhibitors prior to the expo, and calls upon fellow tour operators to embrace digital technology to reach out to new clients. He advises UTB to consider a hybrid expo such as INDABA, ITB, and WTM for tourism operators that may not afford to travel beyond borders.

Cost-effective

Previously, there was limitation on how many people POATE could attract, the high costs of setting up and managing an event, flight expenses and giving the hosted buyers a special safari treat. It was a different experience this year, according to the UTB. Ajarova says the virtual edition was an opportunity for Ugandans to reach a bigger audience. She says exhibitors were not charged any fee to participate in the virtual expo.

“UTB invested in trainings and tutorials on how to set up their booths, make appointments, and the only cost an exhibitor incurred was to buy data,” she says.

Kunda admits that the 2021 edition did not have huge financial costs on tour operators. “The previous tradeshows required one had to pay for travel, meals, booth space, furnishings, internet and electricity and accommodation,” she says.

Environmentally friendly

Diana Kisakye, a tourism marketing executive, says virtual in a way eliminated the production of materials that would otherwise go to waste after the three-day expo, such as brochures, flyers, and handouts.

From her experience, hotels and tour operators invest huge sums of money to create and print appealing promotional content, but do not consider that fact that expo visitors move from stall to stall gathering material, which they dump at the exit points of the expos.

Long term

Besides saving time on travel, the virtual booth which offers an online marketing platform is likely to stay connected for up to a year after the expo. Denis Ntege explains that the POATE platform is going to remain open for the next six months for continuous engagement in tourism.

Participants missed the physical POATE editions that are characterised by dance displays, culinary experiences, photo moments and familiarisation trips. Tour operator James Mwere says it is impossible for an exhibitor to focus on the booth the entire day.

Mwere, a seasoned tour guide also notes that it is hard to make an impression virtually. “The communication style shifts from the personal touch to instant messaging exchange. With this, one loses the ability to put a face to a business in an industry that is defined by hospitality and physical experiences.”

Sponsorship impact

Sponsoring a real live expo creates positive interactions for hosted buyers, attendees, exhibitors who enjoy special hours sponsored by various companies that wish to enhance their brand value.

These businesses invest a huge portion of their marketing budgets in lunch, cocktail parties, souvenirs which creates a lasting impact during the expo. Mulimira says sponsorship at a virtual POATE meant appearing on the website, and missing the chance to create a memorable presence for the targeted audience.

In response, Ajarova highlights the hybrid sessions such as the dinner at the closing ceremony which was both virtual and in-person with limited attendance. “Our sponsors were also able to have a special moment with the audiences during coffee breaks which were both live sessions or pre-recorded.”