In other words, we haven’t a clue yet what we’ll be doing, because we are only doing this digital nonsense at all as a last resort. But we can dress it up in waffle about global reach and flexible ways to do business, which of course were we remotely serious about we would have built into the programme from day one.

Last year the London Book Fair elevated stubborn and insensitive to an art form as it took exhibitors’ money and insisted, week after week after week that the show would go on, even as the exhibition hall itself was full of Covid-19 victims, many of whom never left alive.

With just six days to go before the event was due to start, having smugly looked the other way as an exodus of big-name exhibitor took flight…

…it finally admitted there would be no LBF20, and promptly announced trade participants would get back just 60% of their payment, or they could roll it forward into 2021.

The LBF talk at the time was that somehow the pandemic would be all over by late summer and everything would be okay by March 2021.

In their dreams.

As 2021 unfurled it was clear the pandemic was nowhere near ending, and London was re-entering lockdown, but the London Book Fair carried on as if the pandemic had never happened, with a token gesture of moving the event dates until end June, then jumping on (don’t laugh) a politician’s promise that all England’s Covid-19 restrictions would be lifted by late June.

A final decision, LBF’s new director Andy Ventris told the trade, would come at end March.

It didn’t. By end March things were deadly serious. Literally.

Instead Ventris, clinging to blind hope that somehow the event could be in-person this year in a country still in lockdown, said the final decision would come mid-April.

Well, all credit to Ventris. He delivered the final decision on time per the revised schedule.

And Andy Ventris wins first prize for stating the bleeding obvious and making it seem like a carefully thought out plan that took many months of exploring “every scenario … with our exhibitors, stakeholders and Advisory Board.”

In a statement, Ventris solemnly announced:

With the continued uncertainty around international travel and vaccination rollouts, it has become apparent that an in-person fair for 2021 would not be able to offer the full value to participants that we want to deliver.

Okay, so Andy, explain this to me like I’m a lobotomised goldfish with severe learning difficulties, because I’m really struggling here. Exactly what, in mid-April, was different from end March or any other time this year, such that you could not have made this decision much sooner, and got on with the job of preparing a digital LBF properly?

Nothing whatsoever has changed between end march and mid-April that could have brought about a different decision.

Instead LBF has once again treated the trade like a bunch of idiots only worth engaging with because they pay hard cash.

Hard cash that, by the way, exhibitors who had paid early or had rolled their payments over from the aborted farce that was LBF20, won’t be getting refunded. Not even 60%.

Instead LBF will keep the cash until next year, although this is carefully dressed up as giving exhibitors “options”. From the LBF21 statement this week:

All contracted exhibitors for 2021 will have options to choose from regarding their 2021 investment. For maximum trade visibility, exhibitors can put a portion of this year’s investment into participating in The Online Book Fair and rolling over the remainder into 2022, when it can be then topped up as appropriate. Alternatively, exhibitors may decide to roll over their entire investment into the physical 2022 event with a price freeze applied.

So to be clear, exhibitors who paid hard cash in 2020 and then decided that they would roll that money over to 2021 rather than forfeit 40% by accepting LBF20’s pernicious refund policy at the time, will now either pay that money to participate in a last-minute (and therefore second-rate and ill-prepared) digital replacement event, for which the exhibitors have been left totally inadequate time to prepare. Or the exhibitors will have their money rolled over yet again, for the proposed April 2022 LBF that may or may not be able to take place next year, because there are absolutely no guarantees the pandemic will be over by then.

Ventris opines:

We are deeply committed to delivering a digital event in June that offers real value and flexibility, and to broaden the reach of the fair to the widest possible international audience. The Online Book Fair will provide the industry with a dynamic digital programme packed with content and opportunities to make new connections.

The LBF statement adds lamely:

More information on the digital event will be released in coming weeks, including options for exhibitors and visitors, as well as details around the content programme, which will address themes relevant to publishers, booksellers, authors, the rights community and more.

The Online Book Fair will bookend the month of June, with conferences taking place the week of the 7th, and a further series of flagship digital events running at the end of June. The focus will be to shine a spotlight on key areas of the fair, creating the opportunity for a larger global audience than ever before to come together in a flexible way to do business, network, learn, and share ideas.

In other words, we haven’t a clue yet what we’ll be doing, because we are only doing this digital nonsense at all as a last resort, but we can dress it up in waffle about global reach and flexible ways to do business, which of course were we remotely serious about we would have built into the programme from day one.

The statement ends,

The LBF team are working hard to get everything organised for our 2021 offering, and we will share more information over the coming weeks.

It would have been so much more reassuring if Ventris had been able to tell us the digital programme was already in place, and they would use the final weeks to make it extra special, while assuring exhibitors who had handed over cash in good faith but were unable to participate in the digital replacement event that they would get a full and immediate refund.

How can the trade ever trust the London Book Fair and Reed Exhibitions again after the event has descended into farce two years in succession, each time leaving exhibitors out of pocket?