The Frankfurt Book Fair will move ahead this October with Canada as its Guest of Honour country, but what exactly the event will look like in the face of COVID-19 restrictions – and who will attend in person – remains to be seen.
“Don’t think of Frankfurt as it used to be,” advised Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair. He spoke to a group of media at an online press conference on May 28, a day after announcing that the international industry event would still run from Oct. 14–18 with a combination of on-site and digital programming.
The decision to continue with the fair after the cancellation of several other international rights events, including the London Book Fair and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, came after two months of discussions with publishers, agents, and other attendees.
“There’s an urgent need actually to do business again, to talk to each other, to build up some creative attitude as well,” said Boos. “But I think we also need Frankfurt to interest the general audience in books again, and this means worldwide.”
A detailed safety plan – approved and monitored by the German state of Hesse – is in place, but is expected to change as October draws closer based on the status of local health regulations. Some of the safety procedures planned include a limit to the number of visitors (who will be asked to self-assess their health status before entering). Currently, a maximum of 20,000 people are allowed on the fairground at any given time.
Physically, there will be widened hallways and increased square footage for all vendor stands, free of charge. The smallest stand, currently at four metres, will be doubled to eight metres, with other stand sizes expanded on a sliding scale. The agent and scout hall will also move to a larger space and most of the major showcase stages will be presented as digital programs. If the weather accommodates, outdoor areas will also be transitioned into temporary meeting spaces.
Boos acknowledged that there could be a second wave of COVID-19 and is in close touch with Hesse health authorities monitoring the status. If the physical fair is forced to shut down for safety reasons, the virtual activities will continue with exhibitor stand cancellations refunded at 100 per cent.
There is a good chance at this point that the physical fair will be mostly attended by European professionals. Although Germany’s infection numbers have significantly decreased, the current travel ban on non-EU citizens who do not have a long-term right of residence or reason for essential travel has been extended to June 15. Canada, the U.S., and many Asian countries are also currently facing government advisories calling for citizens to avoid non-essential travel outside of their respective countries.
While there haven’t been any major cancellations to date and registration for this year’s events is consistent with 2019, Boos said these numbers are expected to change because of the travel restrictions. Some publishers have already expressed interest in sending reduced staff or just materials to distribute on the floor. Recognizing that many attendees are holding off on booking accommodations, Frankfurt organizers are working with a local hotel alliance to offer special rates and to handle last-minute bookings.
As the Guest of Honour country, Canada had planned for a strong presence on the show floor and leading up to the fair, featuring authors, artists, musicians, and other cultural performers. Boos says that the Frankfurt organizers are working closely with the Department of Canadian Heritage to develop a “very strong virtual presentation.” He also anticipates that some Canadian authors already living abroad in Europe will have opportunities to participate in some form of programming across Germany.
“There are other plans, but … we are still working on that,” says Boos. “It really depends on travel restrictions and a lot of other things. So it’s a bit too early to talk about it, but I hope to announce more details in the next few weeks. But it’s a very good and close cooperation with the government, with the ambassador here, and our friends from publishing.”
Boos acknowledges that this year will be a “very special edition” of the Frankfurt Book Fair and that “exciting and also difficult times are going to lie ahead of us.”