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The Benefits of Videoconferencing

Replacing in-person meetings with videoconferences is rife with complexities.

Everywhere in the meeting industry, one word is being whispered: videoconferencing. The underlying question behind that word is, are we witnessing the death of large, offsite meetings as we’ve always known them? No one in the industry remembers a time this slow, with so many cancellations—not even right after 9/11.

Many meetings-related companies have come to accept that 2009 will be a lost year. But the silver lining, if there is one, is that this sea change has spawned a new, close-up look at emerging technologies that just may let groups get together at essentially no cost, without leaving their offices.

This is already happening, at least at pioneering facilities. Kevin Rupp, a technology expert with Woodlands, Tex.–based Benchmark Hospitality, one of the nation’s leading conference-center operators, shares this story: Just the other day, a client came in to use a state-of-the-art videoconference room in Wisconsin, which in turn was connected to comparable facilities in Brazil and India. “Nobody had to get on a plane, nobody had travel time, but they all saw everyone else,” Rupp explains.

But don’t jump to bury all meetings yet, insists Jody Wallace, CEO of EMC Venues, a New Jersey–based company that helps meeting planners book spaces at the best prices. Wallace flatly agrees that “5 to 10 percent of meetings will migrate to videoconferences and won’t return to in-person meetings.” Other meetings may not happen in any form in 2009, as companies scramble to control costs. Nonetheless, predicts Wallace, when the economy perks up, the vast majority of events will indeed return to face-to-face formats, precisely because meeting in person delivers important values that cannot be achieved virtually.

Mike Mason, the senior vice president of sales for Gaylord Hotels—an operator of large meetings-focused facilities—digs even deeper, observing that it takes a meeting to build relationships.

Technology is superb at transmitting information, Mason acknowledges, but what companies want from offsite meetings usually goes far beyond simply updating employees on the new features of a product. Greater motivation, broader commitment and development of personal ties is what most companies want from their meetings and, says Mason, it takes face-to-face interactions to get there. “Technologies are changing how we meet, but they won’t put an end to meetings.”

Take a step back and consider that today’s technologies—PowerPoint presentations, webinars and the like—give people fast data dumps and, importantly, may well work better to deliver this information on a one-on-one basis to employees at their desks. That’s because different people absorb information differently. Some breeze through a PowerPoint as fast as they can click. Others need to take it more slowly, consult online dictionaries and ponder every slide—but in the end, given enough time, they still reach an understanding.

This makes it apparent that, in most cases, virtual distribution of information is probably superior to seating 500 employees in an auditorium, dimming the lights and running a PowerPoint. Plus, using virtual distribution is not only more effective, but it’s also much cheaper. That reality is bound to catch the attention of any manager in 2009.

This kind of recognition is triggering the increasing popularity of new, so-called hybrid meetings, says Phil Collyer, a senior vice president at Norwood, Mass.–based events company Cramer. Virtual meetings reduce the need for in-person presence by distributing substantial content digitally before (and sometimes after) a meeting. Instead of sitting in a crowded room watching a PowerPoint, attendees can take the presentation to watch at home or on the flight to the meeting. In other cases, some key presenters may be beamed in via videoconference tools, rather than taking the time to travel to the meeting location. The goal of all these steps is to create a leaner, more cost-effective in-person meeting, says Collyer, who estimates that when hybrid techniques are aggressively deployed, an organization can cut the cost of an in-person meeting by 30 to 40 percent.

“Organizations definitely are using technologies to shorten meetings,” agrees Fay Beauchine, the president of engagement and events at Carlson Marketing in Minneapolis, Minn. “More clients are asking us to download content to attendees for a range of devices: PDAs, iPods, laptops. That lets them watch at their leisure.”

In other cases, companies are letting technology prune their attendee lists. The key people are still invited to meet in person, while others are asked to tune into the content online. Bruno Lunghi, the vice president of event management at Marriott International, says that scrimping on a meeting just isn’t the way to go today. That’s because, he elaborates, companies that are meeting less often are putting more into their events. “We are seeing much higher production values: better sets, high-quality lights and sound. When companies do meet, they want to make sure the event is effective. They are putting more into their events and they want more out of them.”

Adds Lunghi, “That means using techniques that excite the senses, that make people happy to be at this meeting. So, really, what we are seeing in many instances are much better meetings.”

The net of all these expert opinions? Don’t go sounding the death knell for meetings quite yet. Our failing economy may allow for fewer in-person gatherings, but their critical role in conducting business effectively has not been downsized.

ROBERT MCGARVEY, a freelance writer, has covered videoconferencing for more than 10 years.


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