In the light of concern over Covid-19, ITB Berlin has been cancelled, and closer to home, SEAHIS in Bangkok has been postponed until September. In the sphere of employment, I take the view that anything increasing the distance between me and my direct supervisors is a good thing, so the loss of any conference is a source of disappointment. However, there remains a sneaking suspicion that we might cope perfectly well if we don’t all attend these regular gatherings – and it looks like we’re about to find out.
It is of course the German authorities rather than the conference organizers who have taken the decision to call off ITB. The differing interests of those two responsible parties may have made the outcome inevitable. The consequences of an outbreak resulting from ITB must far outweigh other considerations for the German Ministry of Health, although one can easily imagine the reluctance of the hospitality sector to cancel at a time when many will be desperate to persuade the travelling public that travel need not be restricted everywhere.
The question now is whether ITB, and similar events, are truly necessary, and I see in this issue certain parallels with the education sector, which is where my own expertise lies. It can be argued that everything achieved by a conference can today be accomplished online. The presentations can be delivered by video – a live stream with interactive Q&A if preferred – and where the real conference has multiple sessions in a single time slot, the online version means we wouldn’t miss a thing. It should not be beyond the wit of the virtual organizers to arrange a platform through which people could introduce themselves to others, and establish online contact with any other ember who signed up. It may even prove much more efficient than attending in person, with the virtual conference enabling participants to quickly cut through much of the irrelevance and find the contacts and content that will actually make a difference to them, personally. And with online food delivery services, we won’t even have to miss out on the lunches.
Universities have made much the same argument in the context of online learning. Chat with a tutor online at your convenience. Study at your own pace. Watch lectures on your own device from anywhere, at any time. Gain access to a whole world of learning resources, and take control of your own learning instead of relying on the teachers. However, the reason why traditional educational methods have not yet been replaced despite the magic of this wonderful new approach is that students are human, and studying turns out to be a communal activity to varying degrees.
Having completed postgraduate studies online, I have no argument against any of the listed advantages, but will add that the support one receives from discussing the subject matter with other students is vital, both in developing understanding and in sustaining motivation. Self-discipline is also brought to the fore. It turns out that if you prefer watching hockey to getting your work done, you won’t do very well, and there’s nobody to blame but yourself.
Studying, or working, with others is simply more fun than slaving away diligently in isolation, and the social aspect of schools, universities, and of course businesses, is why the efficiencies of the online world are unlikely to replace the real world just yet.
The second drawback to anything done online is that ‘online’ doesn’t actually mean ‘using a computer and the internet’. In reality it means ‘on the side in addition to your full-time job and full-time life’. So when you tell your boss that you won’t be attending the latest conference in person, but will instead be participating online for the next three days, you can imagine what your workload will look like during that period.
Attending conferences in person is probably still the best way to engage with the content available and the people involved, for the simple reason that people – even the introverts – are a social species and benefit from interaction. The value of talking things over with people who can share similar experiences cannot be overestimated, and the missed opportunities when your competitors attend but you choose not to will also be significant. Meanwhile, I am not alone in expressing the desire to flee the attentions of my boss. At a conference, one has the chance to get away from regular duties, making time to take in new information in a different setting. If the future holds conferences, you should definitely be in attendance.
But what of the real elephant in the room? While conferences might be the most effective and enjoyable way to form connections and provide access to new information, are they truly necessary? We can be confident that Greta Thunberg would argue they are not, and that the environmental cost cannot be offset by the benefits they provide. It is difficult to imagine, however, that the hospitality and travel sector would ever be in favor of replacing MICE with an alternative approach that cuts out the travel and hospitality components. All that is left, therefore, is to wonder to what extent conference organizers will be able to use the funds obtained from fees and sponsorships to invest in projects which minimize or repair some of the damage they cause. This, surely, is one area where this industry above all others should be leading the way.