Virtual Reality

We had a stand at the exhibition centre in Houston, a cavernous building that resembled an aircraft hangar. I have been to many such industry events, where contractors, equipment manufacturers, industrialists, manufacturers and a plethora of ancillary firms gather to show off their wares. This time, I was left wondering whether there was a different, more authentic way to do business.

Behind the scenes

The day before the show opened to the public, I had arrived at the exhibition hall to set up the stand. We got out of our Uber at the back of the venue. The parking lot stretched from the north end of the building to the south, a distance of around 400 meters. Containers littered the tarmac, vying for space with the vans and lorries, huge cotton bales tight with wire and rope, and dozens if not hundreds of the blue-collar staff wearing hard hats and orange-yellow gilets. We wheeled our voluminous suitcases across the tarmac to what appeared to be an entrance.

I was wearing my grey suit and Minoan Sun t-shirt, and my colleague was in shirt-sleeves and shorts. We could have been two tourists heading for the beach. The hangar was heaving with activity. I felt like I had woken up to find myself on a football pitch in the middle of the warm-up. Small and large forklifts dribbled their way through the crates, large cranes and caterpillar vehicles ground forward at a slower pace. People shouted at each other, in a variety of languages, pitches and tones, and with a great range of emotional tenors on display, typically impatience, anger and irritation.

The stands were in various stages of construction, some still wrapped up in tight plastic film, others with their sides assembled towering 30 feet from the ground. Green, blue and white wires dangled from the ceiling, often looped in coils, so they resembled a hangman’s noose. Forklift trucks revved their engines. Not all the drivers were men, but they all looked pretty tough.

The stands consisted of panels and ribs of scaffolding, large crates covered in cellophane, metals struts and tubes that formed the frame. For some reason, they reminded me of the bleached bones we used to see in the gamepark when an animal had died and then rotted in the hot African sun. I also had the image of a whale, its huge bones flenched and stripped of their life.

All Right on the Night?

At this early stage of their construction, it felt like there was an equality between the highest and lowest, the biggest and smallest; but a hierarchy was rapidly evolving as the panels of the bigger stands were erected.

There was a hierarchy among the workers, too. As soon as I entered the hangar, a large lady with a yellow vest that bulged like a back-to-front backpack shouted in my direction. Apparently even this outer sanctum of the hall could be entered only by those wearing a luminous orange or yellow plastic vest. Once this had been obtained from the designated room, it became evident that we also needed a wrist band, and this could only be obtained from a similar designated room on the far other side of the building. But crossing the inner sanctum of the exhibition hall to obtain this was Not Allowed.

We were required to circumnavigate the hall, a journey of approximately half a mile. In the end, we waited for the mayhem to cover our tracks, then walked across the forbidden waters between us and the wrist-band room, our act of silent defiance, a kind of forbidden miracle.

As the work progressed, rather than bare bones, a light gloss began to appear from the carnage and disarray. The make-up went on layer after layer. The large corporate logos were meticulously positioned, towering over the scene, their reds and gold and blues and greens and yellows shouting out the message: We’re here, we’re visible! Bare floors with tyre marks and cuts were covered with spongy, scuff-free carpets, deep linos that yielded to the footfall of passers-by, giving a feeling of plushness and depth.

Wall hangings, corporate wallpaper, huge banners replaced the bare panel walls. Makeshift tables and booths sprung up out of nowhere. Inner meetings rooms with large white uncomfortable cubist armchairs were magicked up out of the skeletal landscape, mirages in a desert of tat. By the end of the day, the workers in their orange and yellow vests, and hard hats, had begun to give way to a different class of stand visitor. Grey-suited executives in pencil skirts and robust looking suits looked over the stands with a critical eye. Some barked anxiously into their mobile phones, angry that certain details had been overlooked, commanding perfection.

The morning that the show opened, we arrived at our stand – A350. Our stand was a modest 9 square meters and at floor level on the edges of the exhibition hall arena (some of the biggest stands at the centre of the hall spanned several hundred square meters and were two or three storeys high).

Other stands were already unpacking their hampers with the eager zeal of those who have been visited by Santa Claus.  Heaps of glossy leaflets, thick corporate books, stress foam objects from the state of Texas to the human brain, objects of every variety of plastic were conjured out of nothing and festooned the stall furniture. It was like the climax of a Symphonie Fantastique, a wave of fake opulence in a petrified forest of kitsch.

Every stand was identified by a number, and the furnishings of each stand had been delivered based on this. A350 had performed its own little miracle, the table had been spread with a covering with corporate logo and tagline, the magazines and newsletters were assembled in pretty fans and sheaves of analytical insight, and the maps we had created were piled high but already going like hot cakes.

The one thing it lacked, however, was a television screen. This was a sad omission by our corporate affairs department (Nina). The TV is important because it creates a sense of movement. Increasing footfall, the number of visitors who visit your stand, is the dream of all those who exhibit their wares at the stand. Neuroscience suggests that the human brain and perception is highly geared to noticing movement – apparently, when we were hunter gatherers, our brains became attuned to quickly zooming in on the moving object to spear it efficiently.

An Indian stand had two dancers performing a traditional dance, something which my colleague and I felt was beyond our abilities to deliver. Footfall, but not at all costs.

Out of the Desert

Looking round the stands of our customers and sometimes competitors, I was reminded that Houston itself had sprung up from the desert like a forest of glass flowers.

The words of the poem Ozymandias by Percy Shelley popped into my head:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

The lofty structures had emerged from the desert floor like mirages, and I knew that after a few days the desert would reclaim them, and the stands would be boxed up and transferred to warehouses or for disposal.

Now, people were milling around swapping business cards, the seniority of staff increasing as you moved from the outer perimeter of the stands to their centre, often a set of meeting rooms that constituted the inner sanctums of the inner sanctum of the exhibition hall. These other stands had achieved the goal of attracting footfall through lavish dinners, free beer and wine, visibly attractive staff, refrigerated drinks that foamed steam, a golf driving range, and virtual reality tours around industrial plants, cities and islands.

Being in this strange, dream-like world soon became my “new normal” — for the next few days. I would have conversations with people who were all, essentially, touting for business at the event. Over the years, I have become pretty good at shaking the hands of complete strangers and striking up a brief rapport with them. Only a very few of these “contacts” have resulted in lasting relationships.

Rather like the stands themselves, it was the hierarchies that fascinated me.  Company personnel prop up the stands wearing smart suits and armed with sheaves of brochures and business cards. Usually the female staff are clerical, although less so recently, wearing bland outfits of cream or grey, sometimes offset by company-issue high heels. Inside, as if in the inner sanctum of a church, the company executives gather to meet clients, shake hands, slap backs, and do business.

It is always familiar, in a slightly depressing way. The meetings are predictable and terribly functional. Huge amounts of money are spent on building ever bigger temples to demonstrate that you, as a business, mean business. Time is strictly allocated, with food and drink events punctuating the day like precise, military drills where the usual reserve is briefly abandoned and replaced by wide smiles and open palms.

The core of this world is entirely illusory. The bonhomie would last only for the minutes of exchange, the generous helpings of corporate largesse were carefully calculated, polite discussion on the stand was always discontinued as soon as it threatened to result in anything substantive.

It was like being in a giant Duty Free lounge. Statistics abound about the number of people who have affairs at such events, and to be honest I am not surprised. There is an attractive anonymity about the experience, and a kind of liberating lack of authenticity. The driving range was not a golf course, the cosmopolitan food was not local but had all been plastic-packed, the modernist castles or spaceships that towered around me had all been flat-packed and were made out of plywood rather than the advanced materials of Star Trek. The stomach lurch from a VR walk off the side of a skyscraper was just a knee-jerk reaction created by the optic nerve.

Virtual reality is the metaphor for such events. All the World’s a Stage. But after three days, I was yearning to see my family and children. Everything had begun to feel like a play, nothing felt solid or real. How could business be built on this foundation? It felt like a house built on sand.