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Article from BTNews 8 NOVEMBER 2021

COMMENT: Jeff Mills on WTM

BTN’s Editor-at-Large, Jeff Mills, takes a nostalgic look at the World Travel Market.

I’m not sure that London had ever quite seen anything like it when, in winter 1980, the World Travel Market first took over the halls of the Olympia exhibition complex.

I was the editor of the leading trade newspaper, Travel Weekly (previously called Travel News), at the time and it was my publication which was given the job, some would say the honour, others the task, of being the sponsoring title.

All great fun, of course, even though it was a job which included producing not only some of our biggest weekly issues of the year, about 148 tabloid pages plus supplements if I recall correctly, but also daily newspapers printed overnight and circulated at the show the following morning.

You could argue that the slightly whacky style of the first World Travel Market, which of course soon became known simply as WTM, came in the form of the people chosen to officially open the show, at one end of the spectrum the establishment figure of the Duke of Kent and at the other a young lady called Kimberly Santos of Guam, who also had a title, though not perhaps  quite so aristocratic as the duke’s. She was Miss World.

Mind you the Duke of Kent did make something of a name for himself and softened his image no end when he visited the Oklahoma stand at the show and donned a full-length Native American head-dress. Not surprisingly the resultant pictures were in great demand by the following day’s newspapers.

And he wasn’t alone in wearing odd clothes. Anyone travelling to Olympia on the Tube soon got used to the sight of conference exhibitors dressed as anything from cowboys to Las Vegas showgirls and from Mexican mariachi band members to Zulu dancers.

Many of them were scheduled to perform on the show’s main stage, which often drew crowds of hundreds to see what was, in effect, an international musical spectacular, which just happened to be taking place within an exhibition hall.

A glance at WTM’s history relates that 221 exhibitors from 40 countries took part in the first show and some 9,000 trade visitors attended. That doesn’t include members of the public, who, I seem to remember, were allowed in on certain days.

The real glitz came later when a number of royals were lined up to perform WTM’s official opening ceremonies. They included Princess Alexandra, Princess Ann, Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan and perhaps the most glamorous of all, Princess Diana, who opened the show in 1985.

WTM continued to grow and thrive when it moved home from Olympia just up the road to Earl’s Court, particularly convenient, not only for those based in central London who could pop into their offices and then dash backwards and forwards to the show, but also, I suspect, for overseas delegates keen to take advantage of their time in London to do a spot of Christmas shopping.

It is little wonder that the move to ExCeL London was not immediately applauded by some. Even the attraction of being welcomed to Docklands by the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, did little to compensate for some. Though the appearance of the Irish dance group Riverdance, may have gone some way towards making the trip out on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) worthwhile. Just in the interests of balance, I should also point out that a certain Boris Johnson opened WTM in 2009. He was then Mayor of London.

So coming right up to date and skipping over last year when Covid-19 meant that the show could not be staged in the normal way, it was good to see a return this year to a proper live event.

WTM 2021 was opened last Monday by a high-level contingent from Saudi Arabia led by HE Ahmed Al Khateeb, the country’s Minister of Tourism and Princess Haifa AI Saud, the Assistant Minister of Tourism.

Even if the show did seem a bit lacklustre and quiet compared with the way it once way, it was encouraging to see a decent number of people had made the trip, given the present restrictions and hassles of international travel.

The figures for the first day of the show suggest there were exhibitors from more than 100 countries or regions of countries and more than 6,000 buyers from 142 countries had been registered.

And it seemed that serious business was the order of the day. Responsible tourism was the theme for day one, with 60% of travel executives asked saying they believed sustainability has become the travel industry’s top priority.

Look as hard as I did, there was no sign of exhibitors dressed up in strange costumes and very little entertainment, unless you include the spectacle of overseas visitors trying to work out how to use the DLR ticket machines.

But that’s probably the way it should be in these strange times. Though I can’t help feeling things were better when there was more fun to be had at WTM.

WTM London Virtual starts today

As with many participants Israel has a much smaller stand than usual and seized the initiative by using the Sunborn Yacht for a trade and media lunch.  Specially over for the show was the new Tourism Minister, Yoel Razvozov, seen here with London Director Sharon Bershadsky.

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