Conferences Are Back, But With a Twist

The urge to do business again is being amplified by a desire to do so offsite and is bringing innovation to the conference genre.

(Bloomberg) — Forget for a moment the ongoing debates about hybrid working and haggling over how many days need to be spent back in the office.

Yes, anchor days (when a whole team is mandated to be onsite) are useful and of course salaries approaching $1 million make five days a week back in the office more appealing (call it a presenteeism premium). These office hours arguments are predicated on the working assumption that wherever you work you need to be indoors for a prolonged period of time, say eight hours.

An interesting workaround is being quietly adopted, which still looks like presenteeism, but it’s in fact about being out of the office — just with your boss’ approval. The conference — that tried and tested way to sell, network, learn and be away from your desk — is making a comeback.

The market in trade fairs and conferences is returning post pandemic. Deloitte reports the biggest drivers of the expected increase in corporate travel are the growth of live events and easing of restrictions. Meanwhile, Informa, the B2B trade show company, which just spent $940 million to acquire events business Tarsus, cites “growth and momentum in Live and On-Demand B2B events.”

It’s definitely the case that there’s a point to conferences in their own right. They are more than tactics to evade office tedium or an extension of what British journalist Richard Littlejohn, one critic of hybrid working, calls “shirking from home.” In many cases, they provide the only opportunity to seal the deal, directly sell and also develop networks and relationships. When I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, the conference hall was often half empty, but the bars and parties were packed. This is partly because everyone can watch or catch up online, including delegates, and partly because the parties are often where the interesting information is exchanged. Conferences are about building trust and exchanging information: As Joseph Nye memorably said: “smart power is neither hard nor soft. It is both.”

Conferences are a good way to get out of what’s a clear drawback of unbroken office life: the monotony and the politics. The film industry has been entertaining us for years with depictions of offices you just want to get out of. Particular favorites of mine range from Billy Wilder’s 1960 Oscar-winner The Apartment to the 1992 adaption of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Glengarry Glen Ross about the brutal business of real estate sales.

Of course, not all conferences involve directly sealing a deal as per book rights fests like the London Book Fair. They are being transformed by technology and the use of network apps in a market set to be worth over $2.5 billion by 2028, according to research group The Insight Partners. The smaller end of the conference market, that isn’t the transactional trade shows but those focused on team-building, or knowledge sharing, such as senior leadership gatherings or independent investor gatherings, are the ones undergoing the most change. These are increasingly shaped by a desire to swap a cavernous conference center to get out into nature. Take Voyagers, the “community of impact-driven people,” which uses hiking and outdoor retreats to generate ideas and do business.

The trend toward congregating outdoors for business and pleasure took off during the pandemic and has continued beyond it. This is the backdrop for two other trends. The first is general getting-away-from-it-all-while-you-work services. Over fifty “digital nomad” visas are being offered around the world and new co-working startups set in nature sprouting up. Ashore, a platform for finding remote work properties, has launched with the slogan “Escape your office. Explore the UK.”

In her book Enchanted: Reawakening Wonder in an Exhausted Age, Katherine May describes the way being outside in nature is a good corrective to the fog engulfing so many technology-bound stressed workers, replacing it with “something to set free in all this billowing air.”

For all of these, the second isn’t so much a backdrop as a backpack, which has become a corporate status symbol. A recent Kickstarter campaign for a backpack branded W.F.A (Work from Anywhere) was 100% funded in fifteen minutes and oversubscribed to 1,000% in five days, according the company that makes it. Its promotional video says: “Work has always been a thing to do, not a place to go.”

That said, working generally still requires a room. And conferences are a way to combine our desire to preserve the time outdoors many came to appreciate during the pandemic and the practical needs of getting work done and spending time together. As Stephen Carter, CEO of Informa put it to me: “as the world’s supply chains need refilling, you can’t do Industrial Business Development or Market Access remotely.” That’s a rather technical way of putting it. I think we know, though, what he means: You need to be face-to-face and get out and about, but now you have considerably more choice about how to go about it.

Julia Hobsbawm is a columnist for Bloomberg Work Shift and founder of The Nowhere Office. Her Nowhere Office podcast series is here.

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