For years I joined the trek to Mobile World Congress and fought my way through the surging throngs in both the old and new Firas in Barcelona. It was both a genuinely global event and an ideal environment for contageous diseases to spread, with crushes of tired delegates pushing against each other to get from place to place. Travel, fatigue and expense-account fueled excesses of alcohol all leading to weakened immunity systems. Cancellation was an obvious step, even if one that was mightily difficult to take.
Carbon footprint is another negative factor of events. Bringing together tens of thousands of people, mostly traveling by air, generates a massive amount of emissions. The whole tradeshow process is inherently wasteful. Just watch the workers laying the aisle carpets then tearing it up and trashing it a few days later. New cables are installed and at best recycled at the end. All that merchandise and those leaflets? More than half get dumped in hotel room bins or in the bins outside the venue. The waste is shocking.
Trade show and conference waste is shockingly bad.
What’s the alternative?
I’m sure the VR vendors will be rushing to suggest building virtual worlds which we can walk through and gawk at all the cool stuff on display. One of the things that I really loved about MWC was finding people selling coax besides portable generators beside phone cases. Away from the big stands it was as joyously uncurated as a flea market.
Nope, that’s not the solution. First of all, have you ever spent any serious time wearing a VR headset or trying to navigate a virtual world on screen? It’s horrible, being both physically and mentally exhausting. I know that getting from one end of the Barcelona Fira to the other was also exhausting, but at least you were pushing up your step count and burning off all the amazing food that a client or vendor paid for the night before.
Trade shows are important because they bring all the relevant parties together in one place, making it easy to meet.
Secondly, and much more importantly, gawping at stands isn’t the real reason we go to trade shows or conferences. The reason that virtual events haven’t worked yet is because they miss the point. Trade shows are important because they bring all the relevant parties together in one place, making it easy to meet. It’s not about the goods on display, it’s about convenience. We all converge on a single location rather than having a combinatorial explosion of travel to complete the same number of face-to-face meetings.
The solution would therefore appear to lie in removing the need for face-to-face meetings. More and better video conferencing coupled with a good brokerage mechanism for meetings would do that. Most conferences and trade shows are aiming to provide year-round interaction as part of their marketing, so this would seem to be a logical extension. Provide the directory, facilitate the connections, and act as the trusted intermediary. Add a 3D virtual product show case too if you want continue harvesting the marketing budgets, but principally package up those connections and make the meetings easy to schedule and just one click to connect.