Wrapping up the cultural bazaar that is World Travel Market

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LONDON -- It was the World Travel Markets biggest show yet, with 5,194 exhibitors and almost 50,000 participants conducting an estimated, head-spinning, $57 billion worth of business.

But to be present at the World Travel Market Nov. 14 to 17 at ExCel London is to see those numbers play out as frenetic energy that for four days transformed the colossal exhibition hall into a wild travel industry amusement park.

WTM is a microcosm of the global travel industry, an intense half-week of energetic networking. Nearly every destination and industry sector is represented, with each exhibitor transforming a precious plot of real estate on the trade show floor into a distinct cultural reality packaged to sell.

Among exhibitors, competition for attention is stiff. Over 25 years, the show has become increasingly sophisticated.

Along the endless labyrinth of corridors, each exhibition assaults your senses. The exhibitors use every imaginable lure: brilliantly colored constructions of furniture, plants, posters, video screens, recorded music, hors doeuvres, wine, beer, exotic mixed drinks, musicians and dancers.

Following up on a report that Star Cruises was planning to put a ship in Malta, I found my way to the Malta section of the Western Europe and Mediterranean region of the floor. But there I was told Star Cruises booth was in the Singapore domain.

En route to the Asia/Pacific section, I became so distracted by things that caught my eye or ear, or left my mouth watering, that I barely made it to my destination.

The Kenyans attracted a crowd with their traditional Dawa drink, (Swahili for medicine), consisting of vodka, ice, a lime slice and honey. If the medicine didnt cure your ills, you walked away having tasted a piece of East African culture.

At the Seychelles exhibit, wine and hors doeuvres were served while a trio -- red tortoise-shell accordion, tall wooden conga and nylon-string guitar -- performed songs suggestive of country, calypso and zydeco.

A crowd gathered in rapt attention around an elaborate two-story Trinidad and Tobago exhibit where colorfully plumed, scantily clad dancers kicked their legs in lively Carnival celebrations.

The China booth was an extravagantly colorful construction of elaborate architecture, while the Japanese area, also brightly colored, embodied a clean, modern and minimalist design.

Though the WTM is still not as big as the ITB in Berlin, it is beyond the capacities of an individual to assimilate except on the most superficial level. Given the number of exhibits, one would have to see 1,250 exhibits per day to get a feel for the whole.

Even so, said Bob Whitley, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, The amount of business conducted here is phenomenal. You can walk around and make contacts and negotiations with all the companies you do business with and save a lot of time and money traveling. Its a total business environment, in addition to the beauty of the exhibits.

Suppliers set up smaller meeting booths within the destination sections where their products were most relevant.

I finally found the Star booth in the Singapore section and was fortunate enough to slip in between scheduled appointments. And just as Whitley had said, it was very efficient. I could meet with three company representatives in 20 minutes and conduct a triple interview that would have been much harder under other circumstances.

In the end, I was left wondering why we cant have a World Travel Market all year.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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