For all its prestige, Davos has its downsides. You trek up to the World Economic Forum meeting, queue in the snow for airport-style security checks, sit through panels featuring the self-appointed great and not-so-good, and return, exhausted, to be lambasted as an elitist or enabler of the same. Jaded regulars may not mind skipping the Alpine circus.
Instead of staging a summit next week, the Forum has invited a similar cast to attend a virtual “Davos Agenda”. G20 leaders, chief executives and others will discuss global challenges. The WEF ran 300 online meetings last year, with a focus on action rather than talk. Online debate may even turn out to be more productive than the in-person annual meeting, which the WEF has rescheduled to May and relocated to Singapore.
One meta-challenge that will hang over both meetings is how elite conferences and trade fairs, their more down-to-earth cousins, will evolve and survive after the pandemic. Everyone on the Davos guest list, and beyond, has at least an indirect stake in the future of networking events, because face-to-face encounters are an important lubricant for deals, innovation, and policymaking. (The Financial Times, which regularly sends an editorial delegation to Davos and stages its own conferences has a direct interest.)
Chief executives always claimed one advantage of going to Davos was that they could hole up in a spa hotel and meet customers, suppliers and shareholders from around the world in a couple of intensive days. The same executives have learnt such meetings can now take place as videocalls, with Zoom fatigue the only real downside.
The resulting toll on business travel, and on exhibition and event organisers has been heavy. In an October trading update, Relx, which owns Reed Exhibitions, reported a 70 per cent drop in revenues for that division in the year to date. Earlier this month, Informa, another events organiser, forecast a 70 per cent fall in adjusted operating profits for 2020. Online events have lower overheads, but also lower barriers to entry for upstart competitors.
Trade shows have suffered, too. This week, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which usually brings some 180,000 visitors to Las Vegas to sample the latest tech wizardry, went virtual. It is hard to assess from a distance the potential of a rollable-screen phone, let alone a vertical take-off drone. Forging new relationships is even harder when what happens in Vegas does not happen in Vegas. The city itself has had to renounce some $300m in positive economic impact, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
For these reasons, a careful return to in-person events and exhibitions should be welcomed when the time is right, alongside the emergence of new models of virtual and hybrid conferencing.
There are obstacles. Cash-conscious companies are bound to reassess the utility, cost, and safety of sending staff to press potentially viral flesh abroad. But Informa, like its competitors, has been running large events in China since last summer and expects nine-tenths of its non-Chinese physical events to run from June.
Against the drawbacks should be set the human desire to exchange views face to face, and the evidence that people yearn to spring back after disaster — sometimes to excess. Writing 100 years ago, historian James Westfall Thompson compared the aftermath of the 14th century Black Death and the Great War. Both unleashed “frenetic gaiety, wild expenditure, luxury, [and] debauchery”. On that basis alone, next year’s gatherings in Davos and Las Vegas should be worth the entry price.