Manage Your Virtual Meetings

To save a buck in this new economy, a lot of companies are stepping up use of web- and video-conferencing for certain types of meetings. I took part in a recent survey by the Grassroots Research group that found respondents expected an average 22% drop in meetings attendees this year. One travel manager from France that was polled cut corporate travel spend by 30%, due in part to increased use of videoconferencing. Wow!
And then there's the growing popularity of the "hybrid" event, in which a company brings together separate groups of attendees -- let's say, one meeting in San Francisco and another at a New York event -- remotely via "telepresence" technology centers deployed at the hotels.  The high-end, high-resolution video conferencing systems with multiple, giant TV screens show life-size images and deliver quality audio. And so it seems a no-brainer for companies who want to save on travel but still connect employees and clients.  In fact, a recent USA Today article said Cisco, which uses its own equipment, "cut annualized travel expenses by two-thirds in its most recent quarter, from $750 million to $250 million." An even bigger wow!  

I think all of this is wonderful -- where it makes sense. Lest we get swept away by the promise of digital meetings, let's consider: web, videoconferencing or telepresence events may be great for bringing together employees for seminars or sales meetings. But there's no substitute for face-to-face networking and educational opportunities, especially for larger gatherings such as conferences, as well as for getting together with your best customers. And if we're talking incentive events, I can't imagine that your top salespeople would want to pass up a chance to participate in a dream incentive trip to mutually celebrate and honor everyone’s success in favor of a "Congratulations, you did great," from your CEO via a telepresence screen.  In short, virtual technology can cut costs, but nothing builds teamwork and relationships like face-to-face meetings and events.

More importantly, virtual meetings, when and where they make sense, need to be managed as part of your overall strategic meetings management program (SMMP). Let's take sourcing, as an example. As more and more hotels adopt telepresence technology, it’s important to shop around for the best pricing and support services, just as it is to competitively source for room rates and food and beverage, via a centralized RFP process. How else to compare what's out there and make the right buying decision?

Consider, too, whether you're properly measuring the ROI of virtual meetings, as you would other types of events in your SMMP.

Virtual meetings are a growing phenomenon. According to a Wall Street Journal article comparing HP’s Halo Room and Cisco’s TelePresence sales, it is the only real growth technology during these tough economic times, as companies look to reduce travel costs using this expensive but effective technology. Virtual technology usage is helping many meeting managers meet strict budget cut mandates, and when the recession lifts, I get the sense that companies will still rely on them for certain types of events. But it's critical to manage them strategically -- alongside all your other events.

Kevin Iwamoto is vice president of enterprise strategy at StarCite. This post is syndicated from his blog, Strategic Meetings Management.