There can be no doubt that the 2019 APLF was one of the most important in its history. The leather trade has had a difficult two years, with some sectors suffering badly and even the stronger ones, such as automotive, looking at a complex and uncertain future.
Trying to fit the pieces together is not easy. Gauging the impact of increasing hide supply numbers while leather using factories adopt new technologies and a myriad of long-term societal changes impact demand is more complex than ever before. Much depends on calculating where each tannery sits in its own complex network with its individual skills.
It could be expected that numbers travelling would be limited somewhat by tightened budgets caused by straightened times, although the many meetings held within and around the show such as the Leather Working Group, the International Council of Tanners, Leather Naturally and the two quite different Sustainability sessions did encourage a higher than expected turnout of technical staff.
This move towards mixing seminars, activities and associated events is increasing at all trade shows and reflects a perceived need to make better use of time while travelling. As with so much in modern life it comes with the negative of taking both exhibitors and visitors off the main floors for short periods. This means that diary schedules are managed more tightly and there is less time for the serendipitous walk about, which could harm innovation in the long term.
The decision for the 2020 to move the Leather Hall upstairs to Level 3 might well help with this as the three stages upstairs – The Main Stage, Leather Naturally Talks, and APLF Workshops – will be accessible to everyone. The long expedition up the elevators is both time consuming and wearying, yet there is no doubt that there is an interest in all these events by exhibitors and visitors alike. Judging from the attendance at the various talks and discussions I was involved in, including one on Fashion Sustainability held as an APLF Workshop in a hidden corner of Hall 3F are seen as invaluable by a wide range of people, often very senior and influential, travelling to the Fair, and what they learn informs the discussions they go on to have on the stands.
Tanneries need to know their customers
It was noticeable that some buyers and material experts at these talks were not those historically associated with leather shows, and it appears that some important brands are pulled to APLF by the fact that other materials are shown alongside leather. This is controversial with some tanners but is much less prominent in Hong Kong than other Fairs and greater attention is paid to enforcing the proper nomenclature and defining the product areas. On the other hand most brands now mix leather with other materials and want to see both during a single outing. To lose this section would be to lose those buyers, so energy would be better used to ensure the leather innovations are more interesting, and the stand presentations more vibrant and targeted on the chosen segments.
The great thing about Level three is the much larger amount of space available for both stands and in the existing open areas for the talks and lounges, which means delegates can be quickly pulled back to stands quickly if a target visitor arrives. No need to move from one level to another. It also means that the Leather Hall can offer a much better environment. Currently the corridors are narrow and overcrowded. No visitor penetrates to the back few rows in the current Leather Hall without a specific reason so a very small number of stands with good sites at the front gets more regular traffic but a lesser known company at the back may be quiet throughout.
The narrow corridors encourage a ‘bazaar’ type of environment and perhaps this is why many of the tanneries have not upgraded their displays in all the time APLF has existed. Given the disruptive changes the industry is facing hopefully a few more will take advantage of the wider corridors and more open look for 2020 to introduce even a little marketing thinking. The unwelcoming “general store” trade stand is not a good use of precious funds. Tanneries need to know their customers, have worked out their back story and promote their brand.
Those that had done so clearly showed the advantage gained in terms of greater activity on the stand, and over the last few years a number of destination spots within the Leather Hall have been created as a consequence. These exist amongst the chemical companies but also in less expected areas such as the Japanese tanners, where an unconventional approach allows quite a large number of tanners to create a unique community atmosphere very appropriate to the fact that it was in such communities that their industry evolved.
The Leather Naturally lounge never quiet
APLF 2019 was certainly the place where some big issues were addressed, and it was particularly significant for Leather Naturally whose lounge was more centrally placed in the concourse. They watched membership and support jump and the industry come together to back a global activity in education and promotion. It was not so much the amount being targeted but rather the unity starting to show, ending some of the fragmentation that has been so evident in the leather industry for so long. The Leather Naturally lounge was at no time quiet, and often it was hard to find a seat as members held meetings to discuss and plan the future.
The leather world was not put to right at APLF 2019, and indeed we did leave worried that a few still see matters as a poor moment in another cycle rather than a disruption, but important decisions were made and information shared. Most went home knowing they would be able to survive but that it was the industry, not the trade fair, that has to do better.