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LEIPZIG, Germany: It is hard to overstate the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on dental trade fairs in 2020. From March onwards, essentially all dental events were shifted online, postponed or outright cancelled, effectively devastating an important and profitable sector of the industry. Though the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to climb by hundreds of thousands with each passing day, there are a number of bright spots on the horizon, leading us to ask what dental events will look like in 2021 and beyond.
The current state of affairs
The majority of dental events held in 2020 were hosted in a virtual setting. The 11th International Dental Exhibition and Meeting (IDEM 2020), for example, ran on a digital platform from 19 June to 19 August, featuring a roster of 28 local and international speakers and managing to attract more than 3,600 attendees from 54 countries. DS World 2020—the flagship event held annually by Dentsply Sirona—was shifted from its customary Las Vegas base to an online environment, streaming a programme from 13 to 20 November that included more than 70 courses, many continuing education opportunities and live surgery each day.
Though other significant events on the dental calendar, such as the FDI World Congress and the Congrès de l’ADF, the annual conference and exhibition of the Association dentaire française (French dental association) (ADF), were forced to cancel owing to the pandemic, those that went online were largely able to enjoy some level of success. The flexibility of being able to watch sessions on demand at a convenient time and place was an obvious benefit for digital attendees, and the fact that many of these events were free did not go unnoticed.
As a dental media company with a large print portfolio chiefly distributed at physical events, Dental Tribune International (DTI) itself has also suffered as a result of cancelled events. However, as the pandemic continued, leading dental companies increasingly turned to the digital sphere in order to establish e-learning forums and to host online congresses—often achieving great registration numbers.
CURADEN, Straumann, Ivoclar Vivadent and FDI World Dental Federation, to name but a few companies and organisations, all partnered with DTI to meet the growing demand for online educational options, utilising DTI’s digital infrastructure and extensive network to reach all parts of the global dental community and help make these initiatives a success.
Nevertheless, there still remained a high level of demand for in-person events, and certain countries that had managed to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2—China and South Korea, for example—were able to host physical dental events, though they had significantly reduced attendance numbers. As Mathias Kuepper, managing director of Koelnmesse Singapore—one of the organisers of IDEM 2020—told DTI, “Wherever markets are reopening, we are seeing them bounce back with a great demand for in-person attendance.”
“As such, we are convinced that physical dental events will return as soon as possible,” Kuepper added. “In many ways, COVID-19 has really highlighted the need for face-to-face interaction, training, and education, especially when it comes to highly advanced dental products.”
This face-to-face interaction between dental industry stakeholders might be relatively safe in countries that have successfully arrested the increase of COVID-19 cases. Whether they can be conducted with confidence in Europe, however, is a matter that will be put to the test next March.
The IDS question
“[W]e do not believe that large trade fairs will be possible in the near future.”
This was the somewhat blunt assessment of Dr Wolfgang Reim, CEO of Amann Girrbach, when he and Patrick Amann, the company’s head of marketing, spoke with DTI last month. Reim went on to explain that, owing to factors such as social distancing restrictions and limitations on international travel, the pioneering CAD/CAM technology company would not be physically participating in the 2021 International Dental Show (IDS), set to be held in Cologne in Germany from 9 to 13 March.
The question of what, exactly, the 2021 iteration of the world’s largest dental trade fair will look like is on the minds of many industry stakeholders, particularly since AEEDC Dubai, which usually precedes IDS by a few weeks, has postponed its 2021 instalment to summer 2021. Throughout the pandemic, representatives from the IDS’s organisers, the Association of the German Dental Industry (VDDI) and Koelnmesse, have reassured dental companies and professionals alike that the event will take place as planned, albeit augmented by several digital elements in order to allow access for international visitors who will be unable to attend in-person.
“In many ways, COVID-19 has really highlighted the need for face-to-face interaction, training, and education, especially when it comes to highly advanced dental products”―Mathias Kuepper, Koelnmesse Singapore
In an interview this past August, Mark Stephen Pace, VDDI chairman of the board, told DTI that the organisers had developed a series of infection control measures and hygiene protocols to make IDS attendance safe for exhibitors and visitors. A detailed prototype was officially demonstrated for the press and other stakeholders in October and included a paperless ticketing system, a newly developed eGuard mobile application for managing visitor flow and a wide variety of stand construction concepts that take physical distancing rules into account.
These measures, according to Pace, were developed for IDS 2021 “in close collaboration with the authorities in Cologne […] to ensure professional safety at the highest level and to create an environment in which industries and businesses can grow again”.
“I am confident that IDS 2021 will become the decisive kick-off for a new start after the SARS-CoV-2 crisis,” he added.
Pace’s buoyancy was not shared by Patrick Amann, however, who told DTI: “From our point of view, under the current circumstances, it is not possible to ensure safe and meaningful participation in IDS for the exhibitor, nor would our participation be responsible with respect to our customers and employees, as the risk of an infection with SARS-CoV-2 is too high.”
Though Pace told DTI that more than 1,300 companies had already registered by August for IDS 2021, a number of the event’s stalwarts, including Henry Schein, KaVo Kerr and Nobel Biocare, were not included on the preliminary list of exhibitors.
Other major players have further confirmed that they will not be physically exhibiting in Cologne. The most notable among these are Ivoclar Vivadent, which will be hosting its own event in March, as well as Dentsply Sirona, which decided in late July that, along with its brands VDW, MIS Implants Technologies and Zhermack, it would not be in attendance owing to numerous COVID-19-related factors.
Despite these high-profile withdrawals, VDDI and Koelnmesse remain optimistic that IDS 2021 will prove to be a success. Whether or not the event will become the kick-off that Pace envisions, however, could well depend on the progression of one single factor: a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.
What effect will a vaccine have?
Just this past Wednesday, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency authorised the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech for emergency use. The vaccine will be rolled out this week, and though elderly people and NHS healthcare workers are set to be prioritised, it remains unclear where dental professionals and other stakeholders in the dental industry fit into this plan.
Dr Gary Severance, executive director of professional relations at Henry Schein, emphasised the need for both widespread implementation and public acceptance in order for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine to work successfully.
“Until there is a vaccine that is effective, readily available and broadly accepted, we anticipate a continued shift from the traditional in-person experience to online, virtual events,” he remarked to DTI.
At the time of writing, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was still to be approved by regulatory bodies such as the European Medicines Agency—the European Union’s drug regulator—and the US Food and Drug Administration. Both bodies are expected to reach a decision later this month, according to the Washington Post. Even if this, or any other, SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is authorised for extensive use, experts have warned that it will only be available in low quantities initially and that SARS-CoV-2-related restrictions will need to remain in place for the time being.
A path forward
As far as Dentsply Sirona is concerned, its non-attendance at events like IDS 2021 is a decidedly temporary measure.
“We miss the magic buzz of events like IDS, and as soon as the COVID-19-related circumstances improve in the long term, we will be back at IDS and other congresses to engage with the dental community and our customers,” said Walter Petersohn, chief commercial officer at Dentsply Sirona.
In this respect, the company appears to believe that in-person dental events will be feasible before the end of 2021. At DS World 2020, Dentsply CEO Don Casey announced that next year’s event would be hosted at Caesars Forum in Las Vegas from 23 to 25 September.
Regardless, there seems to be a general sense of agreement among dental event organisers that, even when in-person congresses return en masse, they will very likely be supplemented by a digital platform in order to facilitate further virtual participation.
In the view of Kuepper, the likely emergence of green corridors and travel bubbles will lead to “hybrid events, which combine the convenience and functionality of online events with the immersive aspect of physical events, becoming more commonplace”.
“Local participants and those from abroad who can travel will attend in person and, at the same time, organisers will ensure that content is made available digitally,” Kuepper noted.
In Casey’s opinion, “if the pandemic’s taught us anything, it’s that digital connectivity is changing how we work”. Though he found it “a bit strange not being able to see everyone in-person” at DS World 2020, he is still of the view that “dental events and meetings can certainly benefit from having virtual components where those who can’t attend in-person can still experience such things as product demonstrations”.
“If the pandemic’s taught us anything, it’s that digital connectivity is changing how we work”―Don Casey, CEO of Dentsply Sirona
When asked what 2021 holds in store for dental fairs, Severance told DTI: “We anticipate that more events will once again be offered in-person and feature digital elements that have been embraced by exhibitors and show organisers during the pandemic to help provide a more virtual experience.”
“Of course, taking into account the incredible advances in technology and the comfort many have found in distance learning and virtual meetings, digital experiences—either remote or on-site—will continue to have a great impact when we do get back to the possibility of in-person events,” he added.
Though he recognises the utility of these virtual platforms, Severance is ultimately greatly looking forward to reclaiming the social aspects that can sometimes get lost when an event transitions from the physical to the digital realm.
“Humans are social animals and need the continued interaction with others to share ideas, experiences and knowledge,” he said. “Because of this, we value the opportunity to learn and engage in person.”