28th January, 2018

Spend the week at Davos? I can’t imagine a more gruesome time

Are conferences a waste of time? It often feels that way to me. I could spend much of my working life attending them — private equity bashes, tourism events, food and drink talk-fests, amusement industry conventions and so on.

Whatever you call it — a summit, a seminar, a congress or symposium — they are essentially the same. Lengthy flights and train journeys to the venues, bland corporate hotels, queuing to register and obtain your name badge — and then you’re buttonholed by someone trying to sell you cleaning materials.

Conferences are a lucrative business, so there are plenty of vested interests trying to promote their importance. Their growth, like that of award ceremonies, suggests that even in the digital age, they matter to armies of managers. The pending £3.8bn takeover of UBM by Informa is all about live meetings, which is why Informa is prepared to pay 18 times earnings. I accept that trade shows are different to conferences, but both are business-to-business live events, and suffer from many of the same shortcomings.

Generally, conferences consist of someone on stage giving a speech or a PowerPoint presentation, or perhaps a panel of so-called experts discussing issues of grave importance. Sadly, good speech givers are rare. Moreover, conference organisers typically ask their presenters to talk for too long. Sessions quite often last an hour. Even with question time at the end, that probably means a 40-minute monologue. That’s sufficient to send me to sleep or to look at my smartphone and deal with emails, both of which I can do at home.

Have we lost the ability to concentrate for sustained periods and hear what someone has to say? Perhaps, but to sit in a darkened auditorium and spend a whole morning listening to second-rate speakers plugging their companies doesn’t feel like productive use of one’s time. And, unfortunately, this is the reality of all too many trade and professional events.

Ted talks are 18 minutes or less, are better rehearsed than most conference sessions, and delivered by more talented public speakers. Conference organisers could learn from the success of this format. It would entail more work, because short sessions mean more speakers — who are obliged to rehearse more. And the economics of most conferences means that they generally don’t pay speakers.

Panels are a less painful arrangement than traditional lectures. There is a variety of voices, the conversation is free-flowing, the remarks are not pre-prepared in the way speeches are. It is generally easier to enrol panellists because they don’t have to write a speech beforehand and there is much less individual pressure because there are several contributors to the session.

Of course, for many executives, conferences are a junket, a sort of work holiday — escaping the office, swigging free wine, staying in faraway places and perhaps chatting up delegates of the opposite sex. They might even find a new job. Americans tend to have few holidays, so conventions, which are part of their business culture, seem to be a form of compensation for them.

Unless you are invited to present at a conference, the sole purpose of showing up is to network. If you go for the information delivered from the podium, there are easier ways to obtain it.

If you do make the right connections, it may be worth the time, registration fees and travel costs, but having attended dozens, possibly hundreds, of conferences and exhibitions, I know it doesn’t happen that often. Perhaps I am not assiduous enough about working the room. I have occasionally found potential recruits at such meetings.

Academics, especially scientists, argue that symposiums are essential for their work. I suspect such occasions are more about showing off, obtaining new appointments and being hosted by generous sponsors, such as drug companies in the case of doctors.

Last week, of course, was the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos — the most celebrated jamboree of all. I’ve never been, but it strikes me as hell; held in a grotesquely overpriced Swiss resort and full of bogus PC waffle from corporate bigwigs. The tycoons all try to be profound and not interested in money while zooming to and from the event in their private jets. I can’t imagine a more gruesome experience. Perhaps I’m not ambitious enough, and lack the imagination to see the true meaning behind Davos.