The Restart Expo case study | The Planner

The Restart Expo was organised by Specialised Exhibitions, a division of Montgomery Group, and the Johannesburg Expo Centre (JEC) on the behalf of the South African exhibition industry. At the helm was Charlene Hefer, Portfolio Director: Mining & Industrial at Specialised Exhibitions, and Adele Hartdegen, CEO of the JEC. The Planner caught up with them to find out what they learnt from this event about the future of hosting exhibitions in our ‘new normal’.


One of the few live exhibitions to be held in South Africa last year was the Restart Expo, from 25-26 November. It was a ‘proof of concept’ event designed to showcase that the exhibition industry is highly organised and capable of holding trade shows safely and responsibly. Government, members of the media and industry stakeholders were invited to experience this for themselves, with the goal of highlighting that not all gatherings carry an equal risk of Covid-19 transmission and therefore – just as the country has adopted a risk-adjusted strategy for the different stages of the pandemic – the rules governing different types of events should be adjusted according to their risks and how well they can be managed.

“We need to be Covid-19 regulated and not Covid-19 restricted.”

As Craig Newman, Group CEO of GL South Africa, noted at the closing session of the Restart Expo, “We need to be Covid-19 regulated and not Covid-19 restricted.”



‘New normal’ logistics

“The industry is already very regulated and we did not experience significant logistical challenges in arranging and hosting the Restart Expo,” admits Charlene Hefer, Portfolio Director: Mining & Industrial at Specialised Exhibitions. Numerous protocols and legal requirements govern events, and the Covid-19 health and safety requirements in many ways are simply another layer to add to this.

However, there were some differences which required a new way of doing things. One big adjustment was finding a way to manage the venue capacity limit. At the time, a maximum of 250 people were allowed on the exhibition floor. Charlene explains, “We introduced an online registration with the requirement to pre-select a time-slot to visit which, together with a real-time counting system put in place, ensured that this government regulation was met.”

“Since I’m giving away some secrets, I can also reveal that we had two back up plans.”

Getting this right “was quite tricky” she says: “We had to find a happy medium by not filling all slots to capacity and we erred on the side of caution. We worked on a formula that would allow for some people to stay longer, some never to arrive, some to arrive on site without registering etc. The formula also took into account the time and the day.”

She adds, “Since I’m giving away some secrets, I can also reveal that we had two back up plans should more people than expected arrive. We had an outdoor holding area as well as a vehicle holding area in the parking lot if it was needed. Fortunately, our math paid off and we never had more than 230 people in the hall at any given time.”

Removing the capacity limit on events is high on the agenda of the South African live events industry. However, social distancing is likely to be a requirement for some time, and so venues and organisers will need to find a way to manage this.

Removing the capacity limit on events is high on the agenda of the South African live events industry.

We need to get clever with costs

The event also drove home the significant cost implications of hosting exhibitions in a post-Covid world, and the challenge this presents for producing profitable events going forwards. “We need to relook at pricing models and be clever about how we structure them to make events profitable for all stakeholders,” says Adele Hartdegen, CEO of the JEC.



All suppliers at the Restart Expo provided their services pro-bono, so it is hard for the organisers to give an accurate estimate on how much their budget was affected by these new requirements. Instead, they share the following items as ones that need to be considered when preparing an event budget:

  • Additional tenancy floor space or extra days if required;
  • Increased costs and floorspace for social distancing show features like seminar theatres and business lounges;
  • Live streaming of conferences / workshops or seminar theatres (your standard venue WiFi is not likely to be able to handle this);
  • Visitor registration costs;
  • Covid officers;
  • Increased cleaning and sanitising of the venue, stands, features etc.;
  • Hand sanitisers and temperature check stations.
Don’t forget about digital

The adoption of new digital solutions is another likely cost that future events will need to take on, especially as these can enhance both visitor safety (think touchless registrations) and event experience (such as personalised communication).

“Innovation in this space will see a roll-out of hybrid events: a blend of the onsite experience together with digital services and products.”

Charlene says, “To be fair, the industry has been embracing digital for the last ten years or so. The smart phone has already changed our industry and the way we deliver shows by putting digital services, exhibitor catalogues, matchmaking tools and more into the hands of every person on the show floor.

“But now innovation in this space will see a roll-out of hybrid events: a blend of the onsite experience together with digital services and products, created to suit individual events. It will not be ‘one-size-fits-all’. We also know that virtual events will not replace face-to-face events.”


Collaboration will be key

Adele and Charlene also emphasize that another significant outcome of working within the Covid-19 regulations is that the industry will need to work more closely with all stakeholders. Collaboration is key to ensuring everyone is clear on their new responsibilities, and that these are taken on equitably and fairly. It will be an ongoing negotiation, and the industry will likely need time to figure out how this can best work.


Looking to the future

After the event, the organisers released a dossier outlining all measures that had been implemented at the Restart Expo as a roadmap to recovery. You can download it here. The dossier was also submitted to the Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, who was scheduled to attend the event but unfortunately had to pull out on the day and sent a representative instead. Adele reports that the Minister gave positive feedback on what she had heard about the Restart Expo, and that it did prove what it set out to. However, the second wave broke out shortly afterwards, which meant progress on this discussion once again stalled.

Adele adds, “In order to drive the agenda forward, we keep in close contact with the Ministry delegation as well as the delegation from Gauteng Tourism to keep pushing forward until we achieve the desired result of being allowed to operate our venues with at least 50% occupancy without the capacity limit.

“This topic remains a priority in the senior teams of both entities involved in the event to keep lobbying with the powers at be to recognise our industry and allow us to start trading.”

As final remarks, Adele and Charlene stress that the Restart Expo would not have been possible without the presence of all industry organisers, sub-contractors and visitors: “We greatly appreciate each and everyone’s support of this key initiative.”


READ: SA Events Council urges: Trust us to reopen the events industry safely