Virtual Goes Mainstream

Meeting Planning

The old adage that says neither rain nor sleet nor snow can stop the U.S. Postal Service might be applied to the meetings industry today, as neither volcanoes nor earthquakes nor tsunamis resulted in mass cancellations in the past year. Instead, tight budgets were more likely to be the reason for cutbacks to meetings—especially in the face of rising airfares, shrinking airline amenities and baggage policies ill-suited to modern travelers.

The advent of virtual meetings hasn’t caused the demise of face-to-face meetings as was once feared. Instead, much of that worry has disappeared as hybrid meetings combine virtual and face-to-face elements with surprising success. “There was a rush to experiment with virtual [elements] last year during things like the volcanic eruption, but we don’t see them likely to replace [physical] exhibitions,” says Paul Woodward, managing director of Paris-based UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry. Virtual meetings, he says, are “at the early stage of evolution both technically and commercially.”

That rapidly evolving world helped some meetings continue during the economic turmoil, while at other times stranded would-be attendees joined events via the Internet. Next time, they might join directly from their mobile devices.

“It doesn’t take a disaster to have a virtual event get greater reach than a physical event today,” says Mark Szelenyi, senior director of webcasting for San Francisco-based On24. As the platform matures, Szelenyi predicts organizers will want to use virtual for more situations, for economic and accessibility reasons.

According to Corbin Ball, the widely known Bellingham, Wash.-based speaker and consultant on meetings technology, there’s always talk of more virtual meetings during an economic turndown. What’s different today is that this technology is more accepted as just another part of doing business. Rapidly improving mobile technology is also likely to accelerate that acceptance. “There’s no such thing as a virtual beer, but to replace inefficient meetings, [mobile technology] is great,” Ball says. Today, small groups almost always meet virtually, in part because improved technology allows more people to consider that option.


Virtual meetings have evolved from simple webinars and videoconference calls to truly interactive sessions that include social-networking tools, multitime-zone events and mobile applications. But virtual worlds like the once highly touted Second Life have faded like an old pair of jeans.

“What’s hot is hybrid meetings, using virtual components around physical shows,” says Michael Kushner, vice president of digital media strategy in the New York office of UBM Studios.

The co-location of the Virtual Edge Summit with PCMA in Las Vegas this year demonstrated how virtual elements can enhance a physical event. The goal was to take planners from being fearful of virtual options to being excited about the possibilities. Michael Doyle, executive director of the co-located Virtual Edge Summit, says that’s important because virtual events are becoming must-have technology options for many companies. PCMA President Deborah Sexton pointed to hybrid meetings like MPI’s leaders’ conference in Dallas, which drew a larger audience than previous in-person events, as evidence of virtual technology’s success.

“The buzz [at PCMA] was that hybrid is the new black,” Kushner says. “It clearly debunked the myth that virtual elements would cannibalize the in-person event.”

Nancy Wilson Zavada, founder and principal of MeetGreen (formerly Meeting Strategies Worldwide) in Portland, Ore., says the hybrid model has gained acceptance as a way to save money, travel time and the environment. And, what’s more, you can extend the scope of the meeting by bringing in virtual audiences, Ball adds.

In some cases, virtual meetings that were launched during the economic downturn have regenerated interest in scaled-down live events. Instead of the time-consuming requirements of virtual environments such as Second Life, today’s virtual shows have taken on a decidedly social-media feel and operate like the websites attendees typically visit in their everyday lives. “It has to be intuitive, easy and fun,” Kushner says. “The whole hybrid model is the wave of the future, and I’d be hard-pressed to think of an event that won’t have that kind of component in five years.”

Phelps Hope, vice president of meetings and expositions for Atlanta-based Kellen Meetings, a meetings and association management firm, says they’ve found that remote audience technology combined with a live meeting and webinar components is a good formula.

The possibilities are endless. Virtual elements allow organizers to have a year-round presence for pre- and post-show connections and often reach people who weren’t likely to show up in person anyway. Organizers can incorporate social media to engage virtual attendees and use video to extend the life of the meeting. They can use interactive tools like polling to engage remote attendees and provide forums for post-meeting commentary.

With bandwidth speed improving at a fast pace, Ball says it won’t be long before people will expect presentations to be streamed via HDTV—and costs will come down as facility charges are revamped. Already, exhibitions are pressuring venues for free Wi-Fi, and Woodward believes that service will eventually be incorporated into the rental fees.

Incorporating social media is also becoming expected. Chris Urena, director of business development for Columbia, Md.-based CommPartners, whose association clients include ASAE, considers it a free way to engage the community on relevant topics. “It’s a convergence of e-learning and networking into social learning,” Urena says.

Hope uses social-media campaigns before events to get the buzz going, but cautions that planners still need a marketing and communications plan that lets potential attendees know what personal ROI they might gain.

The Green Meeting Industry Council not only used social media at its conference, but also gave team leaders iPads with a mobile app that allowed them to track their points and engage in conference sessions. Those platforms also gave sponsors another way to be seen, according to GMIC’s Executive Director Tamara Kennedy.

Other budding trends are an increasing use of mobile technology and “always-on” virtual destinations.
“We see mobile as evolving into an anywhere-anytime communications tool,” says On24’s Szelenyi. The company envisions mobile as something that can be used to both access and make presentations in the future. Client Fiserv, a Brookfield, Wis.-based financial services firm, is developing a 24/7 briefing center for client networking that will be a “single destination for marketing activity,” according to Paul Marc Oliu, director of sales analytics and proposal management. The goal is to have a 24/7 communications platform for marketing campaigns and client documents.

Benefits and Concerns

These days, there are plenty of cheerleaders for virtual meeting components, and organizers continue to find additional benefits in the model.

Joerg Rathenberg, vice president of marketing for Menlo Park, Calif.-based Unisfair, a virtual event solution company, calls virtual elements “good for marketing folks, good for lead generation and good for trainers.” Virtual platforms allow organizers to track everything that each attendee does, conduct audience polling and follow attendees at educational events to see who should be awarded education credits. (Tip: If the moderator sees you’ve spent your seminar time on Twitter, you might not get your CEU credits.)

For one Fortune 500 women’s event that drew 12,000 attendees, even the virtual attendees could ask questions of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Rathenberg says presenters like Clinton are sometimes more open to question and answer sessions conducted in a format where they can visit a special chat room as they wish, or ignore questions they don’t want to answer.

Rathenberg has also seen the way virtual components act as attendance-builders. “My experience is if you have a physical conference and add virtual you practically double your participation,” he says. One such Red Cross meeting drew 12,000 people.

Virtual also helps extend the time frame for an event and enables organizers to engage with anyone, anytime. Attendees can see who has already visited, leave messages for people, create interest groups or use match features to meet others with similar interests.

Reducing travel costs is another benefit of virtual meetings. With uncertainty again surrounding the oil-dependent airline industry, the rising cost of air travel could further hamper in-person attendance at some events. “This will drive another spike in the demand for virtual extensions to events and meetings,” Doyle says.

It was economic conditions that drove Detroit-based Compuware to hold a virtual event last year for its biannual financial meeting that draws worldwide attendance, according to Campaign Marketing Manager Zulayka Martis, who is based in Amsterdam. To prepare, her team watched other events, talked to vendors and planned an extensive e-mail campaign promoting the event, particularly targeted to areas where the virtual format has yet to take hold. The result was 600 attendees who provided far more feedback than the team typically gets, Martis says. This year, the meeting will include a webcast for the Q&A session, and the event will be broadcast to more time zones.

“We found that companies could let more people attend because it was lower-cost [than to travel],” Martis says. “We still plan to do live events and probably will do hybrid events,” she says.
Virtual meetings also have the potential to help the environment. Oracle already holds monthly virtual meetings for its green team—sometimes by phone and sometimes via GoToMeeting. The Green Meeting Industry Council’s conference included virtual technology for a keynote session, and the conference used blogs, Twitter and Skype. According to MeetGreen’s Zavada, “They found that virtual components [increased meeting attendance].” GMIC holds monthly webinars for chapter leaders, and the annual education conference includes a virtual option for international delegates.

Perception may not be everything today, but companies still consider it when planning their events. The pharmaceutical industry in particular must pay close attention to new regulations that dictate pretty much everything attendees can do at a conference except what they wear. That has resulted in more virtual meetings, Doyle says.

Public companies also find themselves under the microscope more frequently in a down economy, and virtual meetings can help them save time and money. One technology company includes live video feeds via webcams to its global sales groups. Annual shareholder meetings can be webcast and supplemented by a conference center where a company can offer invite-only chats with the CEO, CFO or product managers for preferred investors. Those investors can be wooed by virtual means, too. Last year, PR Newswire launched a retailer small cap and mid-cap investor conference that drew about 150,000 people to the virtual presentations, and which featured a booth for follow-up questions.
Occasionally, a live event does have to be cancelled. That’s what happened to financial services firm Fiserv in 2009. So the company substituted a virtual meeting with 21 webcasts, five videos and chat features. They invited 700 people; more than 400 attended.

“We had a high rate of response, a high number of attendance hours spent viewing webcasts and a 14% higher communication rating for the year,” says Fiserv’s Oliu.

He said the company also learned that by providing some content virtually, the company can be more flexible with the agenda for its in-person client conference. “Our approach is that in-person is best and virtual is a great replacement, but it’s not an either/or thing,” he says.

Best Practices

Providers and planners interviewed for this story came armed with how-to advice that they’ve learned through their own ventures into the virtual world. They provide valuable reminders and insights applicable to virtual meetings that may not be needed for in-person events.


• Determine why you want to use virtual components. Ask whether it will expand your audience and how you’ll get buy-in from attendees.
• Add a celebrity as a presenter to draw more people to the event.
• Have a specific plan for how virtual attendees will have their needs met and how that will integrate with the presentation to the in-person group.
• Consider different generations: For Gen Y, do a pre-event blog and provide the input to the speakers so they can tailor their presentations accordingly.
• Drive registration by starting early, using the right messaging about take-aways and using all channels to promote the event, including social media.
• Time-zone challenges must be considered, especially for large international companies. UFI’s Woodward says that means taking a close look at the optimum time for keynote addresses—which may not be noon in New York or 8 a.m. in London.

During the Event

• Use simple graphics for a webcast page. “A URL with a virtual business card is enough,” says Unisfair’s Rathenberg. “If it’s any harder than that, you lose people.”
• Have someone in charge of the virtual program whose job is to develop a way to engage virtual attendees in the experience.
• Include two-way communication with a remote audience, and let them see each other if possible. “You spend a lot of effort to get those people, and it’s not a big deal to stream it live these days,” Ball says.
• Have a backup plan ready in case streaming doesn’t work.
• Use Skype instead of telepresence to save money.
• Build in a Twitter widget for sessions to create a buzz. Then show tweets on-screen as the presentation continues.
• Don’t forget the organizers—especially for those doing multiple presentations to different time zones. Provide a good team environment that includes food, breaks and possibly a hotel room for them.

Post Event

• To generate better ROI, keep clients engaged all year.
• If there’s a green component that eliminated printed material, try to find a way to measure the environmental impact of those efforts and share that with attendees.
Virtual meetings appear to have found their place—yet haven’t eliminated the human touch. Says Corbin Ball: “Pundits have predicted the demise of meetings for a long time, and I think they’re wrong. Virtual meetings will replace real meetings when virtual honeymoons replace real honeymoons.”