Last week, APLF confirmed that the industry will be returning to the World Trade Centre in Dubai in March 2023 for the main edition of the trade fair, with Hong Kong not currently on the agenda. Additionally, the organisation confirmed a new Special Edition show to take place in Bangkok in October 2022.

At a press conference to announce the new event, APLF Director Grace Lee said: “The flying time to Thailand’s capital from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) neighbourhoods is on average about one to three hours. So, there will not be any jet lag or complicated Covid or entry requirements.

“Why did we choose ASEAN? There’s a very fast expanding trade block consisting of ten member countries. These countries together create a strong transaction hub of leather and leather goods. ASEAN’s top class leather community accounts for over US$2.5 billion imports of raw hides, skins and leather, a number closely equivalent to China.”

The reasoning is clear. One of the major criticisms of the Dubai show was, however out of the control of the organisers, a lack of south east Asian visitors and exhibitors. By tapping into the ASEAN region and Thailand’s softer Covid policies (in comparison with China), it’s likely that APLF hopes to achieve the same calibre of visitor as a Hong Kong show, but without the headaches inherent in planning for a show at a Hong Kong or mainland China venue.

The ten countries in the ASEAN union are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. So far, the Thai Tanning Association and Lefaso (Vietnam Leather, Footwear and Handbag Association) have pledged their support for the event, and President of the Thai Tanning Association, Kitichai Wongcharoensin, was present at the press conference to express his support.

One attendee at the press conference from Pakistan criticised the decision to once again host the main APLF event in Dubai, and also to have an additional fair in Bangkok for the Asian market. He asserted that it would confuse the industry and would, ultimately, never match up to the Hong Kong fair, which, in his opinion, will always be the superior location.

The reality is that this choice is entirely out of the hands of the organisers. Ideals are one thing but the original Dubai fair, the decision to return to Dubai and even this new Bangkok fair are all plans made on the back foot, with great uncertainty on a global scale and no real forecasts for event organisers. Even if Covid recedes and China returns to something resembling a pre-pandemic normal, geopolitical unrest is on the rise and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be, according to several political analysts, the spark that encourages other global powers to make their move and create further unrest.

ACLE now a local event

ACLE this year will once again be a limited version of what the leather industry knows it to be because of Covid restrictions in China. Furthermore, even with more open international travel, a Dubai fair will draw a markedly different crowd and cannot be compared to the Hong Kong event. Speaking at the event last week, Lee noted the positivity inherent in the Dubai fair’s attendance from the Indian subcontinent, Middle East and Africa, despite the lack of exhibitors and visitors from China. It has its own niche, much as the ACLE and the Bangkok Special Edition will have, for the time being at least.

Perhaps it is unwise to demand a truly international fair that caters to the largest markets in a post-Covid landscape. After all, if the markets themselves are being forced to adapt to shipping costs, raw materials costs, energy and labour costs as well as other factors that result in a shift to more local production and sourcing, why would our trade fairs not follow that logic and rearrange themselves to fit?

This is a global situation which is very far from finding equilibrium and it’s impossible to predict the endgame. More local shows, for individual countries or regions (like ASEAN) may be the best fit for the leather industry in the future, or maybe we will see a single, truly international event. There’s simply no way to tell but, from my perspective, the moves that the APLF is making in response to this uncertainty will create opportunities for the leather industry around the world at a time when many feel they have none at all.

Tom Hogarth, Deputy Editor