Virtual platform provider ON24 combined fact with fiction early this year when it critiqued the green performance of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.

“The only real green alternative is a virtual event on your computer, not a traditional in-person event in a convention center,” trumpeted an early-January e-release coinciding with the mammoth CES in Las Vegas. Anything else is “the epitome of spin,” said Paul Ritter, an industry analyst cited in the release.

The release said ON24 was “setting the record straight” after CES organizers characterized their show as an “eco-friendly blockbuster” that minimized participants’ annual travel: “By having so many meetings at CES, our attendees collectively avoid more than 960 million miles in business trips that they otherwise would have to take.”

ON24 countered that by meeting on a virtual platform, rather than gathering in person, the 125,000 CES participants could have eliminated 179,000 tons of carbon emissions, 1.4 million pounds of waste, and two million printed pages.

When I caught up with ON24 spokesperson Tricia Heinrich in late January, the company seemed to be trying hard to dial back the story. But by then, the release had generated stacks of coverage and fueled the growing debate on the balance between live and virtual events.

Missing from ON24’s analysis was any acknowledgement of the value of live meetings, explained by sources like Meeting Professionals International’s Meetings Deliver research: When participants need to build trust and community, communicate across cultures, or seal a deal, there’s no replacement for face-to-face meetings. (Disclosure: Our firm produced the Meetings Deliver white paper and support materials.)

ON24’s Web site tracked coverage of the release in Information Week, greenbiz.com, ZDNet, and International Business Times, among other news outlets. One report led with a startling and provocative question: “Is CES causing global warming?” But Heinrich characterized the release as a “one-to-one e-mail communication” from its PR agency.

“We do think the CES is a very cool show,” she said. “We were just trying to leverage its positioning to make a larger point: That virtual events are inherently green, but also that traditional physical events can be greener and extend their reach if they incorporate virtual components.”

Heinrich said ON24 extrapolated its figures from a typical virtual meeting for 2,000 to 3,000 participants. “CES is obviously a huge event, and frankly could never be 100 percent virtual. Just for fun, we took its projected attendance, applied the same equation to those numbers, and came up with some pretty astounding totals.” But “we don’t see virtual events ever completely replacing physical events.”

Setting aside the hyperbole in ON24’s release, Heinrich has a legitimate point to make. Hybrid meetings are taking the industry by storm, and conferences rooted to physical facilities will have to be ready for virtual participants who want to cut carbon, save money, and avoid travel delays, security lines, and pat-downs. This is one area where our industry needs all the input it can get, but the value of face-to-face events still has to be a part of the equation.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to mitchell@theconferencepublishers.com.