Virtual Meetings Will Erase Face to Face

Forget hauling your briefcase on a no-frills airline flight to attend a stuffy convention. Online events are the best, most cost-effective places to exchange information and meet and greet. Pro or con?

Pro: The Same Event for Less

Consider these facts: Cisco Systems canceled its sales training this year. Apple is pulling out of future Macworlds. Among companies I work with: A Global 500 high-tech outfit known for its extravagant physical events is going from holding eight in 2008 to one in 2009. Instead of spending $1 million for sales training as it did in 2008, a billion-dollar company will hold its July training virtually. Last November an event and meeting department for a billion-dollar B2B company went from a staff of five to one.

In these tough economic times, advancing technologies are making virtual events not only a less expensive replacement for physical meetings but also a superior one. Why do we have meetings and events? 1) to exchange information; and 2) to network. Virtual meeting and event technology can facilitate these two objectives easily.

The technology allows the virtual attendees to “enter” a building that can look like any convention center or meeting place. With a click of a button they can enter the conference hall, with a podium and audience, and choose which conference sessions they want to see and participate in. From there they can go to the exhibition floor and enter a booth with reps, signage, collateral demos, and giveaways and prize drawings. There is even a networking lounge where attendees can meet.

This means saving 50% to 80% by wiping out the costs of venue rental, hotel rooms, transportation, and packing and shipping displays. Generating a lead could cost just $20 virtually, while the same lead from a physical event could mean an investment of $200 to $1,000.

The convenience, increased productivity, and cost savings of hosting virtual events make them an inevitable replacement for physical events.

Con: Can’t Replace Face to Face

Asking if virtual meetings will replace live meetings is like asking if singles’ chat rooms will replace real dating. Human face-to-face interaction is, and will continue to be, the most effective form of communication. It’s simple. Live meetings deliver the rich, potent experiences that virtual meetings can’t. They deliver motivation along with messaging, and inspiration with information.

That’s why corporations that want to inspire a salesforce to perform or build confidence with customers are continuing to rely on the punch that live events deliver. My company, InVision Communications, produces 200 live meetings per year, many for clients who say that audiences’ desire for live face time with executives is a major driver of attendance. Corporate event attendees, like concertgoers, like their experiences real, not “pay-per-view.”

Still, while virtual meetings will never entirely replace live ones, the technology has a place within physical events. The shortfalls of the traditional meeting model, with an on-stage presenter talking to a passive audience, have become clear with the rise of interactive and social networking tools. These advances have driven live meetings to incorporate better peer-to-peer and audience-to-presenter interaction. Today almost all live meetings use significant on-site and Web-based technologies. For example, some meetings invite attendees to use their laptops to participate in live blogging and Q&A during presentations. Others give participants proprietary PDA-sized devices to allow them to find peers with similar interests, and get electronic copies of presentations. Even cell phones have become interactive tools for sending text messages to presenters or to the large screen.

These technologies allow attendees to get information without paper, interact real-time with presenters and one another, and build a community based on shared knowledge and interests—all while enjoying actual live contact with other human beings.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

William Milam

I could see how virtual sales training would work if you had a well oiled sales force learning about the third incremental version of your main product. However, if you have a game-changing new product and you want to get mind share with new customers, then a face to face meeting is needed.

random

There's no replacement for face to face meetings. Being able to study someone's body language and emotions and being physically present in his or her office to gauge the situation is invaluable when making a deal, and all of this gets lost when communication takes place virtually.

Likewise, there are only certain things you can train virtually. Pure theory and academics? Sure. Hands-on training with something complex and time intensive? You will lose too much when you make the training virtual.

Another risk of doing everything by phone and the web is alienating employees. If any communication you have is being done in an impersonal manner, you begin to feel like an isolated cog in a machine. I'm reminded of an old Microsoft commercial that shows a new hire in a giant corporation being ignored and given a cold shoulder by almost everyone before he arrives at his empty desk. There, he IMs over the corporate network with someone in Prague. We can safely assume his silent colleagues a few feet away were doing the same thing.

Would you want to work in a place like that?

BIGWEEDS

Folks,
It takes a little away from a night out on the town when you are doing a meeting via the internet. Dull.

Dan Parks

The quality of virtual meetings has taken a huge leap recently in Second Life. Look at http://www.virtualiscenter.com. And this video shows a meeting that was recently held in Virtualis: http://blip.tv/file/1391317/

I think we are just at the tip of the virtual-meeting iceberg.

Norbert Mayer-Wittmann

They already have--I met Shirley Brady twittering about this story.

Likewise, people will meet in "online locations"--whether at http://twitter.com or at http://meeting.ms, web sites will become ever more focused, and the community of interested participants will choose and select the most appropriate forum to meet their own (and also common) goals.
--nmw

eventman

I'm not sure you can frame the question this way. It will never be either/or, but live will never go away. Could Obama have won the Presidency without face to face with voters? Likely no, yet he used the Internet and online to excellent advantage as a complement, and that is the best way to think of virtual, though I would argue that trying to emulate a physical environment to run "events" is the wrong approach and that virtual works best when taking advantage of strengths of online behavior and communication in more innovative ways.

Alan Segal

I agree with Spencer. There's a limit to how much technology we living, breathing human beings will adopt--let alone choose--given our need for social interaction and contact. Virtual meetings can and will serve many purposes, not the least of which are saving time and money. But as long as we have eyes and ears, legs and hands, we'll meet, greet, shake hands, and shmooze--happily--in the context of "conventions" and such. You know, convene. Same root as convenience. It's all a balancing act.

mike mcallen

My company Grass Shack Events & Media (www.GrassShackRoad.com) does the same thing as Invision Communications, but we also have produced meetings and events in Second Life. The recent AIG troubles, the economy outlook--and of course, what can be more green than a virtual meeting?--make them the future. All these things will make companies take a second look at virtual worlds for meetings. The learning curve is the only thing that really is a hindrance at this point. As Spencer says, we need face to face interaction. I just think there won't be as many face to face interactions. As my 2-year-old grand son grabs my iphone, turns it on, and picks his favorite application, it makes me wonder what the future holds for us in technology. I have a feeling each company will have its own virtual world to have meetings in. For production companies like ours, this is not a great thing to have on the horizon for the bottom line. Dan Parks, Virtulis in Second Life is worth a long look because it is our future.

Carlton Powell

Frankly I find face to face meetings to be very helpful. Virtual events are fine for some things, but nothing will or should replace human beings meeting face to face with human beings. Technology is a tool not a replacement.

marketer

Just as online bill paying and shopping are affecting the amount of business done through the mail and in the mall, virtual meetings will become more prevalent for money- and time-saving reasons (not to mention that there are environmental benefits like reduced use of fossil fuels for travel). But live events and face-to-face meetings still have benefits that the virtual environment cannot replicate or replace. We are fortunate to have the tools to continue doing business when travel is not possible or practical, but in some situations, there's no substitute for being there.

Michael Doyle

I talk with attendees, speakers, exhibitors, physical event producers, and virtual event producers every day--and also many would-be virtual event producers. I run an organization that educates people on planning and producing virtual events and meetings as well as building virtual community. The headline "Virtual Meetings Will Erase Face to Face," thought it gets your attention, is in my opinion, false. Most of the reasons have already been mentioned above.

Right now, from the companies and organizations we talk with, some physical events and meetings will go virtual, some will stay physical, and some will be both. It’s not a debate about one or the other; it is about the best means of achieving the event's objectives.

I think we are at the early stages of virtual event, meeting and community technology development, best practices for strategic planning, and event production, not to mention studying and measuring the overall effectiveness and satisfaction with virtual events.

Having said that, what you can do today virtually is really quite good, and I’m often amazed at how excited producers of physical events are when we show what you can do today in the virtual world. We have a physical event covering the topic in May.
www.VirtualEdge.org.

Esayas

Virtual meetings will be improved in the near future to include most of the qualities face to face meetings have. They are also used for distributed product design.

Nik Frengle

I manage videoconferencing and webinar facilities for the world's largest mobile phone company. So, clearly, I should say "virtual conferencing should replace physical conferencing." However, in reality such absolutes, while useful for creating a debate, are certainly not reasonable.

The richness of live, physical attendance at a conference cannot be reproduced virtually. Period. Humans have five senses, and really only two are used in today's technology, sound and sight. Smell, touch, and taste are not used at all. That's okay for getting the meaning that makes conferences important to doing your job, but ignores the human need to talk to other humans, to shake their hand, in Europe to kiss a woman on the cheek, smelling her fragrance as you do so. To share a beer with a new contact after meeting at a conference, or to share dinner.

In today's rather austere business climate, perhaps those three senses are "nice-to-haves" rather than "must-haves," but as humans we crave those experiences that engage all senses.

And communication, whether virtual or electronic, is really aided by first having a relationship with someone. That relationship is much more effectively created at a physical conference.

So, virtual conferencing is an important tool for conducting business as usual (BAU) meetings, but is no substitute for creating business relationships.

Adam

I agree with the statement that the technology is a "tool" not a replacement. At my company, www.visiontree.com, we have a paperless meetings solution and next generation audience response that works on any smartphone or laptop. We take the benefits of virtual meetings (paperless, cost, documentation) and bring them to live meetings and events. With 250,000 users, we are growing very quickly.

Live events have decreased, but will never be replaced.

Boston 1

Apple pulled out of MacWorld, because they felt advertising to current buyers was redundant. Coke spent millions on Second Life and got no visitors. Second Life is a bandwidth hog and not allowed on most corporate apps. The new model is a hybrid model with information being broadcast in, and content being captured for, future broadcast.

The question being asked is about 5 years late. Anyone who works on either side is looking to combine and hence take advantage of the two methods. Poorly chosen and poorly written question.

Chris Ferone

I believe virtual meetings are an interesting concept, but are not as effective to deliver the networking opportunities that most attendees need. I work with National CineMedia, and rather than using a virtual meeting format, which is less interactive, we combine the use of a satellite network in 1,700 movie theatres nationally. The satellite network allows for live and pre-recorded events and increases retention and interaction, because larger audiences are seeing content on a big screen rather than solo at a computer. We can provide the best of virtual and face to face. www.cinemeetings.com.

Scott

It's also generational. People with Twitter, Facebook, and Linked-In accounts are more likely to have some comfort with virtual meetings.

I'm very comfortable, and my firm has excellent video conferencing capabilities that we use heavily internally. I don't see much use of it externally, but it isn't far off.

Stuart

Time zone differences for people meeting from different longitudes cannot be addressed by virtual or video conferencing.

The physical isolation from "every day" responsibilities by going to a meeting is also a win in some situations.

The different approaches have their place (virtual/video is useful, especially with overlapping time zones, and for meetings of less than one day duration).

daniel

We are social creatures, people. There is something about meeting face to face. Plus, as social networking sites prove, who we really are and who we put ourselves out to be can be very different. At least with face to face, we have a means of comparison. Plus, as the social sites have shown, the technology is being leveraged to reach out, but only to the extent that we cannot physically be close or near to each other.

Christopher Justice

People need to see people. Shake hands. Touch. Talk. Virtual meetings were big, and they do have a following but depending on the audience, they simply can't replace human contact to build trust.

Conferences should also have live webcast streams and chat for those than can't make it in person.

Cece Salomon-Lee

I think that the economics are dictating that many companies consider virtual events for cost savings. As this initial reaction to save money lessens, I think we will see a combination of both virtual and physical events emerging.

In the end, this is about an "events strategy"--what are you seeking to do and what is the best way to achieve this? Virtual or in-person is just how one would implement the final strategy, yes?

Another John

Ten workers in a department are needed to attend a virtual meeting that is being held in Atlantic City. The location was chosen because workers from other corporate locations will also attend. The virtual meeting participants are USA, China, Netherlands and Great Britain. How many of the ten workers will turn down the opportunity to participate? The fact that the meeting space is partly virtual really has no bearing on the success of the meeting. It is the attitude of the workers toward the purpose of the meeting that will determine its success (of course holding the meeting in an awesome vacation spot is primer for an overall great attitude.)

James Parker

As much as I would agree that live events will never go away, there is no doubt that virtual meetings, conferences, product showrooms, boardrooms, and training sessions are going to be a very viable option. My company presently meets in the virtual space daily and our employees are spread across the world, and the 3-D environments that we have designed for meetings are simple and effective alternatives. If we focus on the aspects of virtual meetings that work best, such as presentations to 5 to 500 people, exhibit halls, job fairs, training, and conferences, and realize that at the end of the day you were exposed to the same content that you would have been if you attended the live meeting, the value of virtual meetings is going to be exponentially greater than having to travel across the globe to attend a conference. I have been in the conference business for over 20 years, and I can tell you that even though most attendees claim that networking is a big reason for attending conferences, most attendees attend a conference and meet very few people. In fact, they wander around the convention center, attend a few sessions, walk the exhibit hall, and go home after 3 to 4 days. And 90% of that experience could have been achieved virtually.

Marisa Peters

Following on Bigweeds comment: Virtual conferencing for the most part is dull and lacks the excitement created through face-to-face events such as travelling to a new location, actual meeting new people, networking, etc. With the economic climate, virtual conferencing is an alternative here to stay. The question is--how do you bring the "excitement factor" into virtual events? Not everyone embraces technology the same. Having to attend a conference in Second Life is not exciting for everyone. Therefore, how do you entice your audience to attend, and how do you ensure they do not log out during the conference?

Jay Smethurst

Many companies are discovering how productive they can be using virtual meetings, especially to replace the mundane kinds of face-to-face meetings. Why have people travel across the country for a F2F when the same results can be accomplished virtually?

This puts much more pressure on the F2F meetings that remain. What can we only accomplish in person? And then let's design our meetings to make the most out of those kinds of results. There is absolutely a role for F2F meetings, a critical one. But we need to make those meetings much more dynamic, interactive and productive. The broadcast-style meetings of yesteryear will be very difficult to justify going forward.

David miller

Change is inevitable. Virtual meetings are simply another communication tool.

Carrier pigeons did not replace face-to-face meetings, nor did the telegraph, phone, fax, etc.

We will see more of it? Of course. Does it mean a death to "real" meetings, I doubt it.

And other alternatives to Second Life are being created. ReactionGrid.com is one such example. It uses the same viewer as Second Life so your SL skills are 100% transferable. It is less expensive than Second Life and geared toward business and education.

Before anyone thinks I am downplaying Second Life, I own 12 sims in it.

But ReactionGrid is far more responsive to those of us who, unlike IBM, don't invest 10 million dollars into it.

So look for viable options, including having OpenSim installed on your own servers behind your own firewalls.

My two cents.

Roger Wilson

There will always be a place for face-to-face! http://bit.ly/5zX99t

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