The Covid-19 outbreak had already established a deadly foothold in France before the World Health Organisation declared it a pandemic on 11 March. When on 17 March Prime Minister Édouard Philippe banned public gatherings of 100 people or more, the writing was on the wall for Eurosatory.

Cancellations of the 2020 Farnborough Air Show and the Royal International Air Tattoo in the UK were announced on 20 March, despite there still being some speculation that it would all blow over by summer. Due to open its doors to defence industry experts from 8 to 12 June, Eurosatory was the last to blink, finally confirming cancellation on 28 March.

Organiser GICAT (the French Land and Airland Defence and Security Association) and its defence events subsidiary COGES said on the Eurosatory website: “The conditions for preparing and running the exhibition, which would protect the health and safety of the 100,000 expected participants, visitors, exhibitors and organisers, cannot be met.

“Many international and French exhibitors registered for the Eurosatory trade fair scheduled from June 8 to 12, 2020 are no longer able to prepare their participation and configure or transport the necessary equipment. It also appears that the very large number of foreign visitors expected to participate in the fair can no longer plan their trip to France.”

Running since 1967, the biennial event usually takes place in Paris’s vast Parc des expositions de Paris-Nord Villepinte and alternates with London’s DSEI. In 2018 it attracted 1,802 exhibitors from 63 countries and over 98,700 attendees from 153 countries.

The knock-on effect of defence event cancellations

The coronavirus pandemic has already caused factory closures, military exercise cancellations and a dip in orders, which, combined with the decimation of the 2020 events season, will likely impact the entire supply chain. Defence primes are taking a big hit, but are still fulfilling multi-million-dollar contracts and remain largely optimistic.

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A Lockheed Martin spokesperson said: “Eurosatory is a great event that brings together some of the most compelling thought leaders in defence and security. We look forward to participating in a future conference.”

“Most events don’t cancel until as late in the day as possible; the chance of getting funds back quickly or at all are very slim.”

However, small and medium-sized businesses in the supply chain will be hit much harder.

A spokesperson for one told us anonymously: “It’s all a bit ‘brave new world’ at the moment, and we’re trying to find our feet. The trouble is, most events don’t cancel until as late in the day as possible; the chance of getting funds back quickly or at all are very slim. There is no additional budget for advertising which means no additional channels to promote outside of the agreed plan. It’s a catch-22.”

Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), the UK Ministry of Defence’s trading entity, is a regular presence at Eurosatory and other defence trade fairs, as part of its role to provide equipment and services for the British Armed Forces.

A spokesperson for DE&S said: “DE&S understands the decisions to cancel upcoming external events due to the Covid-19 pandemic and will monitor the ongoing situation alongside Her Majesty’s Government guidance. The organisation continues to engage with our international and national industry partners and armed forces customers going forward.”

DSEI 2021

Organiser Clarion is optimistic about DSEI going ahead in 2021 and is planning virtual conferences in the meantime.

Cautious optimism for DSEI and other 2021 events

While it is too early to speculate about the fate of events scheduled for later in 2020, event participants are cautiously optimistic about a return to a degree of normality next year.

Clarion Defence and Security organises Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEI), which takes place at the ExCel Centre in London’s docklands – currently converted into an NHS Nightingale hospital for treating coronavirus patients – on alternate years to Eurosatory.

Clarion group managing director Tim Porter says: “The decision to postpone or cancel a major event is never taken lightly, but in this unprecedented situation when there is sometimes no alternative option, the immediate focus is on communicating with and supporting our customers and attendees as best we can.

“No tradeshow exists in isolation, and one of the strengths of the defence industry is its breadth and depth, which all of the main global shows have a role in supporting. It is important for the overall health of this industry that all the events in the two-year cycle are successful for their exhibitors and visitors, and therefore we are doing everything we can in supporting industry through this difficult time so that we can all get back to ‘business as usual’ as soon as possible.”

“No tradeshow exists in isolation, and one of the strengths of the defence industry is its breadth and depth, which all of the main global shows have a role in supporting.”

Porter says that Clarion has already rescheduled several of its defence events to take place later in the year, including Counter Terror Expo, IT²EC, UDT and Electronic Warfare Europe, and it is preparing for the EDEX biennial tri-service event in Egypt in December.

“This work is always undertaken with the support of both government and industry stakeholders, as well as the speaker community, but as always the health and safety of our participants remains our top priority in all of our forward planning,” he says.

Porter explains that supporting exhibitors is an important part of developing trust with the defence community and is part of the obligation of organisers. “Events are created in partnership with exhibitors, so when something unplanned occurs, the most important thing is that we communicate in a clear and transparent way,” he says. “We are conscious that all of our customers are operating in an exceptionally challenging environment, and are juggling multiple commitments so the sooner we can present a clear plan of action for everyone involved in our events, the easier this is for everyone.”

Promoting business: alternatives to events

Tradeshows are a vital medium for brand marketing and driving business development, but Porter says that while that option isn’t available there are alternative ways to promote company messaging.

“We would encourage our exhibitor community to stay engaged with the industry as much as possible,” he says. “We are also exploring options for a series of virtual conference events over the summer to maintain engagement and help our audience plan ahead for those events that have been rescheduled.

“The current circumstances have highlighted how important events are to the global drumbeat of the industry and how keenly their temporary absence has been felt. That same sentiment will, in turn, drive renewed enthusiasm for the next show cycle. While significant advancements have been made in virtual technology, there is no replacement for seeing equipment first-hand and engaging with partners, customers and suppliers in person.”

“We are also exploring options for a series of virtual conference events over the summer to maintain engagement.”

The defence industry and global militaries may have been back-footed by the coronavirus pandemic but they have been among the first to step forward to contribute to the fight against it.

“Stepping outside of the tradeshow world for a moment, the unfolding situation has also demonstrated to us all the vital and varied role that armed forces play in protecting and supporting civilian populations in times of crisis,” says Porter.

“It has also shown the innovative capability of a great number of high-tech manufacturing and aerospace companies, many of them DSEI exhibitors, that have collectively worked at a remarkable pace to build up engineering capacity and support national healthcare efforts.”