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What happens to trade shows in a zero carbon world?

The next decade is going to require a rapid decarbonisation of the global economy, so what’s the future of industry networking?

So you may have noticed that climate change has finally popped to the top of the global conversation. After two decades of “Boy, that mole looks really bad, I really need to get it checked”, we have finally gotten it checked and the prognosis is far, far worse than if we’d done something when we first noticed the damned thing.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988 by that radical mob of drug-addled crusties, the United Nations, through the joint efforts of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

In 1994, the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change stated its objective was to stabilise greenhouse gases “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system.” It added that “such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened, and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.” That was 1994.

In the intervening 25 years, global greenhouse gas levels have not stabilised. They have ballooned. In fact, over half of all greenhouses gases released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution have been released since the IPCC was formed in 1988.

Earth is currently one degree Celsius warmer than it was in pre-industrial times. The Paris Agreement of 2015 is an accord among the countries of the world to keep warming under 2°C, with an aim of keeping it to 1.5°C. Some climate scientists actually predict 3 to 4°C degrees warming by 2100. The UN’s next major assessment, due to be published in 2021, uses new models, which are far less optimistic than those used previously, and suggests 5°C of warming by the end of the century.

Most scientists have said we need to drastically cut greenhouse gases before 2030 – with a lot of them saying we actually need to be at net zero emissions by 2030. The IPCC – again, not a radical lefty organisation – says we will also need to have a different kind of global economy. This implies all sorts of things for the media industry, but one is that we really have to stop flying.

Aviation accounts for around 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – other organisations put it closer to 4-5% – but it is hugely expanding. Aviation is also a method for directly depositing CO2 in the upper atmosphere. It’s harder than other areas of the economy to make carbon neutral, too – there are no electric passenger planes and liquid hydrogen is still only a dream. And, sneakily, most countries don’t include international travel in and out of their countries as part of their internal carbon emissions counting. 

See you next year at…

There are a jaw-dropping number of media trade shows around the world. Pick a day at random out of the calendar and there’s going to be some amazing conference or exhibition going on somewhere that will offer great opportunities for networking, making sales and getting ideas. 

The City Of Amsterdam has already set a target of being a zero-emissions city by 2025  

In the US, there’s SIGGRAPH, SXSW, VidCon and Las Vegas’s megashows CES and NAB. In Europe, there’s everything from MIPCOM and Cannes to big tech exhibitions like ANGA COM, Mobile World Congress and the IBC. Asia is now growing its own slate of shows with Broadcast Asia, CABSAT, KOBA and CCBN. Africa and Latin America are starting to develop their own industry trade shows. There is money to be made in hooking up customers and vendors, idea people and the people who need ideas, especially in an era where it’s services rather than hardware where the growth is. 

Hundreds of thousands of people are flying to these shows, sometimes on a regular basis. If you’re in the marketing or sales department of a big tech company, each year you spend weeks of your life inside the convention centres of the world’s great cities.

IBC (International Broadcasting Convention) happens in Amsterdam every September and is probably the world’s top trade show serving the TV technology sector. It boasts around 1700 exhibitors, a conference of about 400 different speakers and about 55,000+ attendees. The show is a big moneymaker, not only for IBC, but for Amsterdam and for a lot of the companies that regularly do business there.

FEED spoke with James Laker, IBC’s head of marketing, about plans for the future and how he sees the show evolving in a changing world. We asked him point-blank what the show’s plans were over the next five years, when non-essential air travel will have to be drastically curbed.

“At IBC we are very much aware of the impact of climate change and our role as an organisation and as individuals in helping to address the situation,” responds Laker. “Those who attended IBC2019 will have seen that we introduced a number of initiatives, including schemes to donate unwanted materials to local charities, reduce the use of single-use plastics and having refillable water points,” says Laker. 

“To enhance the trade show experience, we see technology and, specifically, event technology playing a major role,” he continues. “IBC is going to invest in event technology to enhance the experience for all attendees.

“Through the Lounge Talks programme, we made sure that climate change was a topic on the agenda for discussion. Because IBC attracts so many senior and influential members of the media community, we can use the show as a force for good, helping to educate and raise awareness around sustainability within our industry… Over the next few years, we are likely to see these discussions continue to be increasingly important and form part of the content programmes.”

IBC is an international show – people come from as far away as South America and Australia – but a sizeable number of its attendees come from Europe, a continent with a well-developed rail system. At IBC2019, members of the FEED team took the Eurostar train from London to Amsterdam. It was simpler, more relaxed and more productive than flying, as well as roughly the same price. 

“Excluding the UK, which is arguably within driving distance of Amsterdam, nearly 40% of IBC’s attendees in Europe can drive to the show instead of fly,” says Laker. “The RAI [Amsterdam’s convention centre] is very well connected to European motorways and the city of Amsterdam has already set a target of being a zero-emissions city by 2025.

“For those from the UK, which makes up a further 15% of attendees, the direct Eurostar service provides an excellent offering from central London directly into Amsterdam Central Station in four hours. IBC also strongly encourages IBC staff to use this service where practical. For other attendees, IBC is looking at providing a carbon offsetting service for their flights.”

But if even if those nearby European attendees could nullify their carbon footprint, that still leaves about 45%
of attendees who are flying – or, depending on which laws pop up in the next decade, may be excluded from attending altogether. 

Technology will/won’t fix it

Technology can’t fix a problem that’s an issue of government and human behaviour. But it can provide us with the opportunity to try out new work structures and business models. 

IBC is planning on exploring some new networking technologies in future shows. These are becoming more and more popular – and when used appropriately can accelerate networking and doing business outside an event. 

But are there technologies on the horizon that will allow you to get the full benefit of an event without having to attend the event in person? Certainly, Skype, Zoom and Google Hangouts have facilitated this enormously. But what about the next step afterwards?

Will VR, AR and holography be the next evolution in virtual business hook-ups? Will IBC conference ticket holders be able to watch the entire conference programme remotely? Maybe from specially designed IBC microconferences around the world? 

I would bet on a massive boom in these remote communications technologies over the next decade. There will be a first wave of users who want to do all they can to get to zero emissions as soon as they can, and there will been a second wave who will be forced to by legislation. FEED will look more deeply into these technologies in our corporate communications issue in January 2020. Most of us are still stuck at the stage of yelling into a speakerphone a conference room, but this may all change very soon.

IBC’s Laker points out the importance of getting people together physically in a room, and this seems doubly important in a world where technology isolates us as much as it brings us together. Business happens when people can see each other and shake each other’s hands.

“By acting as a focal point for the industry and gathering together key influencers and decision makers, we feel that IBC can actually help to reduce the need for travel. Attendees are able to cram tens and even hundreds of meetings into a relatively short space of time. The carbon footprint of conducting these meetings individually would be considerably higher than that of attending IBC,” says Laker.

IBC is looking at providing a carbon offsetting service  

This conundrum of how and when to get people face to face is going to be a defining feature of business in the 2020s.

Old world, new world

As the landscape changes, it’s possible that smaller, more focused and local gatherings will begin to supplant some of the larger shows. Rather than fly to a one-size-fits-all mega trade show, small specialty events with nearby peers might begin to become more important in the calendar.

Last year, FEED spoke to Mark Harrison, managing director of the DPP, about the future of industry meet-ups, which already seem to be undergoing a transformation. He said: “The ways of communicating via the web have only supplemented the value of human encounters. Social media provides all sorts of tools and opportunities to chat in general, but people still do want to come together and chat physically – possibly more than ever. In our busy lives, as we get so fragmented, we need those touchstone moments.”

He continued: “I think we’ll start to see a lot of facilitated industry events become more focused and more aware of the take-aways that attendees are going to get… I think we’ll start to see growth of smaller, more boutique, more specialist events. As with advertising, targeting a smaller, but highly targeted and highly relevant audience can be better value than advertising to a big general one. That may start to apply around some of our professional events, too.”

If we are to survive as an industry – and by that I actually mean, survive as a species – we have to face up the fact that we need to massively and rapidly change the way we do just about everything. When you first hear that it sounds kind of depressing – or at the very least, annoying. But changing how we do things means the opportunity to improve how we do things. It’s carte blanche to experiment. 

The overhaul that’s needed to save ourselves is an opportunity to overhaul everything about how we live and work. It’s an unprecedented chance to leapfrog ahead in terms of technology, business practices, creativity
and wellbeing. 

While we may fear the end of the world, this could actually mean the end of a way of living and working that wasn’t that good for us anyway, and the beginning of one that will incorporate our best hopes and dreams… And one where 100,000 people can tour every stand at IBC in VR without getting sore feet. 

At FEED, we hope to be a means for the industry to exchange ideas that will enable it to rise to the next level. Let us know how we can help.

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of FEED magazine