What did we discover in Dubai?

ILM Comment
Published:  05 April, 2022
Credit: APLF Dubai

The “one-off” APLF Dubai fair is over, and it has thrown up many new questions. Where is the best future home for an international leather industry trade fair? Will we be in Hong Kong in 2023, Dubai or both? There are pros and cons for each, writes ILM Content Director Martin Ricker.

The trade fair in Dubai 2022 was international with large leather industry groups from India, Brazil, Pakistan, Italy, Turkey and France. There was also quite a sizeable presence of leather chemical and machinery makers with a large group represented by UNPAC and Assomac in Italy representing both segments. However, at the APLF in Hong Kong in 2019, there were around 1200 exhibitors whereas, in Dubai, the figure was a respectable post-Covid figure of 463.

In terms of visitors and exhibitors, the demographic in Dubai was heavily centred around South Asia with India and Pakistan well represented. A short flight and similar time zone combined with an easy to enter immigration system make the UAE a great destination for South Asians. Especially after the cancellation of more local fairs in Chennai as well as the Hong Kong fair during the pandemic. Dubai was a great platform for these countries, especially without the presence and competition of Chinese exhibitors and others from Southeast Asia.

Dubai also attracts local buyers from the Middle East as well as North Africa but, honestly speaking, it did not feel like the same number or calibre of buyers were at this fair compared with Hong Kong or indeed Lineapelle. Lineapelle has truly cemented itself as the only major leather industry fair in Europe and also has a strong international presence.

The ongoing pandemic restrictions in Asia and general wariness around travel and quarantines, a successful Lineapelle last February in Milan and, more recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine may all have had an impact on visitors’ willingness to visit the Emirates this time round. Especially as it was a step into the unknown for this market segment.

Many hide and skin suppliers, especially from the U.S., stayed away from Dubai because the Chinese were not there. That in itself is a good reason why the fair would be more attractive in Hong Kong in 2023. Few, if any, visitors or exhibitors from places such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea were present in Dubai. The pandemic is not the only reason why they weren’t present and, for those countries, a trip to Hong Kong is much easier than Dubai, although Dubai does have excellent transport links.

On our final walk around the fair, we noted that the second and the third days were a lot quieter than the first day, but the exhibitors that ILM spoke with were all impressed by the setup at the World Trade Centre and it does have world-class exhibition facilities, which are clean and safe with easy access to decent places to eat and drink on-site. Side meetings and conferences were also easy and were close to the main exhibition halls. All in all, a good experience for exhibitors and visitors. The stands were nicely laid out and there was a relaxed but professional atmosphere inside the exhibition area.

Hong Kong 2023

APLF Ltd, organisers of the fair, told ILM that the plan is for the next edition in 2023 to take place back in Hong Kong around late March/early April. Dubai was meant as a one-off.

However, a lot has changed in China/Hong Kong since the leather industry was last there in 2019, and one wonders if the Hong Kong we knew then will ever be the same as the one we may find in the future. One thing is for sure: China remains the largest and most important leather producing country in the world and no international fair can ignore its presence. The same goes for the other APAC countries mentioned above.

Raw materials suppliers and traders would certainly welcome a return of the APLF to Hong Kong and the fact that only two hide suppliers from the U.S. attended the Dubai show underlines just how important Chinese tanners (and leather buyers) are in a global context.

While many countries have managed high and effective Covid vaccination rates, it has allowed their populations to evolve to a “learn to live with Covid” phase bringing an end to perpetual in-out lockdowns and the personal and economic consequences that had on national economies.

Credit: APLF Dubai

China’s zero-tolerance policy towards Covid now seems hopelessly out of touch and must be doing a great deal of damage to its economy. While the Dubai fair was taking place, Shanghai was in complete lockdown, again! I’m sure as the weather improves over the Summer of 2022, the authorities in China/Hong Kong will have to pivot away from this policy and let Covid “run free” through the population, supported by vaccinations.

It will put a huge strain on their healthcare systems, but I cannot see any alternative if they want to open the economy up and allow people to travel freely and visit again. Maybe Covid is the excuse for the central government in China to retreat from a globalised world in which it has benefited the most over the past three decades and return to a more controlled but more prosperous version of itself in the 1980s? One thing is for sure, the zero-tolerance policy around Covid will not work forever. We have learned that you cannot keep Covid away.

Only when travel restrictions in Hong Kong are fully and indefinitely lifted can we be sure that the APLF in 2023 will take place. A large trade show requires months of planning, so any decision on where to host an event next year will have to be taken as early as the Summer of 2022 in my view. Other options, such as hosting the event in Singapore, have also been discussed but, given that Dubai was a relative success this year, the leather industry may prefer to go with what they know rather than taking on the risk of another new venue. Then it’s just a case of keeping fingers crossed and hoping that many of the APAC-based buyers and materials sourcing people will attend because I’m not sure that many did this year.

Watch this space

The location of APLF in 2023 will be decided by the feedback of visitors/exhibitors from APLF Dubai and close monitoring of the travel restrictions in Hong Kong, but it’s too early to make that call right now.

One thing is for sure: most people ILM spoke with at the APLF in Dubai were firstly relieved and happy that a face-to-face trade show was taking place again on an international basis (we must acknowledge that two highly successful editions of Lineapelle have taken place in Milan since September 2021). The fact that people could see each other in person and not via a screen was widely welcomed. No amount of Zoom calls can beat live interactions and, when you have a visual and tactile product such as leather, the best way to really appreciate it is by seeing, touching and smelling it in a physical environment. Leather doesn’t work in the metaverse!  

The APLF organisers will have to make some tricky decisions in the weeks and months ahead. This bet could go either way.

Martin Ricker, Content Director

martin@internationalleathermaker.com