Reaching the Summit: Why Conferences Matter

The case for gathering in person whenever possible.

in person conference
Gennady Danilkin/stock.adobe.com

In some ways, it's the stuff of parody. The recent COP26 summit sparked headlines that begged the question: Does it make sense for a conference focused on saving the planet to cause 25,000 delegates to descend on the wee city of Glasgow? What is the carbon footprint of that many plane tickets? And what about the COVID risk that many travelers could introduce to an island nation?

But however ironic the COP26 conference may seem, I am thrilled it was held in person. While I care deeply about saving the planet, I also say this as someone who values the exchange of ideas. Throughout my career — first in politics and then in public relations — I have always found tremendous value from being in the room with engaged minds from around the world. Certainly, there is a thrill to attending Davos or Aspen and being high in the mountains in a room full of boldfaced names discussing lofty goals; but what's more important is the fundamental value of coming together — literally and in the flesh.

Certainly, COVID is a very grave threat to the summit as a genre, as is the fairly obvious point about air travel and carbon emissions. But I am compelled to look back at the past 18 months and take stock of what kind of discourse remote work and interminable Zoom meetings have yielded. I doubt I'm in the minority in thinking it's been fairly lackluster in a number of ways. Our present public discourse is shouty, polarized and shoved into every tag and niche known to the internet. We only speak online to those just like us. We refuse to engage whenever someone doesn't tick the right boxes. They are disqualified. They are cancelled.

But we can't behave this way when the person we're talking with is in the same room. Over dinner or at a talk, we take in someone's presence and we hear their point of view. We may not agree with them or even understand them, but we certainly have a better shot of seeing where they are coming from when we meet them in person. This, in turn, facilitates nuanced compromise — the sort of thing we are sorely lacking during polarized times. Such compromise is also what is needed in the delicate talks that are part of conferences like COP26, and is exactly why its organizers were correct to go forward with it in person.

While it's easy to knock the bloviation and the self-serving pageantry of any summit, and it's quite justified to be mindful of a deadly pandemic, I still believe it is crucial to meet in person from time to time. Even if you are not a public relations consultant, Aspen fellow or UN delegate, it's still a good idea to get everyone in one room if you are after consensus. Although the colder months are fast approaching (at least in my neck of the woods), outdoor meetings are preferable to having a team that is slouched behind computers alone, nursing grudges or gripes that may well stem from simple misunderstandings.

Leadership summits are so named for a reason: When we come together, we can find common cause and direction. What comes off as directives at best and micromanagement at worst in an online environment can feel a lot more like genuine leadership when everyone feels heard and literally seen in three dimensions. Of course, this is not always possible and — it cannot be stressed enough — this pandemic is far from over, but I still come down on the side of trying to meet up safely whenever possible.

When Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote"I want to be in the room where it happens," he wasn't talking about a chat room. While virtual meetings have certainly kept the world going during COVID, I look forward to finding such rooms again and watching what happens when we come together, close our laptops and open our minds.

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