THE CONSULTING FIRM McKinsey & Company introduced WebEx online conferencing for distance learning three years ago. “We went through a pilot stage, and then it really took off,” says Tony Pastor, manager of conferences in Stamford, Conn. Today, he's using distance learning to create “hubs of learning around the world,” including one program where a group meets online every Friday for six weeks, instead of jumping on planes. It's all part of what he calls “a never-ending search to do things better.”

Corporate meeting planning today is all about doing it smarter, cheaper, and faster — every time. “In the old days, you had a budget to spend as you please. Now, even if you have signing authorization up to $1 million, the head of your business, even the CEO, is involved in the approval process,” notes Steve Goodman, vice president and managing director, Conferon Inc., Twinsburg, Ohio. “This is making the people who want to do big events think twice.”

As a result, many companies are re-thinking their largest (and most expensive) national meetings, considering smaller regional formats, or piggybacking meetings with existing trade shows. Many are turning to less costly e-conferencing or, like McKinsey, online training. For meeting executives, this means a change in the way things are done and, often, in their responsibilities.When companies take meetings online, there's a different kind of learning curve altogether.

A New Skill Set

At McKinsey, the use of WebEx meetings has meant a shift in the roles of people within Pastor's department. “Planners have had to ramp up on content, not only what the offerings are but who the best presenters are,” he says. The focus is no longer on travel and accommodations, but on acting as liaisons with the moderators to make sure that they have the equipment they need, and with getting attendees their pre-reading and preparation information. The meeting department staff also has been trained to act as technical advisers to both the moderators and participants when there is a technology problem. “It's not rocket science,” Pastor says, “but we have had to come up to speed on the basic tricks.”

They also have learned to deal with the challenges of planning global online meetings. As he puts it: “There's no time everywhere in the world that's suitable for everyone.” McKinsey solves this by scheduling the same program for different halves of the world.

Meeting planner roles also have changed dramatically at Minneapolis-based Medtronic, where Terri Seppala, vice president of CRM education services, is spearheading a move to replace 20 percent of face-to-face meetings (primarily product launches and training meetings) with electronic ones, using PlaceWare and Interwise webconferencing. Coming to Medtronic from Oracle Corp. and Computer Associates, where the use of technology for remote meetings was “hugely popular,” Seppala is a true believer.

“Certain content lends itself to interaction online,” she says. “You can't get people together as easily anymore, and people need to learn more in less time.”

For its pacemaker business, Medtronic holds small meetings of about 50 for 36,000 customers in the United States alone. “So many of these meetings have to do with knowledge transfer and building consensus, and webconferencing is a wonderful tool,” says Seppala.

The only thing missing, she says, is that participants can't see the instructor or speaker. “But studies have shown this isn't what's important to attendees. It's the interactivity that matters.”

The change in her department of 35 people, all of whom are used to planning live meetings and working with facilities, has been huge. “People are having to learn new skills, like how to motivate attendees to enroll and to stay online and participate actively,” she says. Interwise is helping to train the staff; she also has brought in other companies who have used the technology to help with training.

“It has been tough,” she admits, for the planners are to adjust. “People don't like change. It has been a real lesson for me in organizational development.”

Learning Curve

Laura Vickers, event manager at NCCI Holdings Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla., also has been on a huge learning curve since she moved various company meetings — both customer and in-house — to electronic formats. When NCCI introduced webconferencing for its annual meeting, she quickly had to get up to speed on a technology she had never used before. Her first lesson: Always do a dry run. “We flew out to the location and checked out the room to make sure the lines were in place and the hotel could support this,” she says. “If you're going to the trouble and expense of doing a webconference, test it first.”

Vickers has become the staff expert on videoconferencing, which NCCI began using three years ago in place of many staff and training meetings. “We now have meetings with our satellite offices in New Jersey and California using PictureTel. We do document-sharing and link all the offices together. I'm in charge of everything, including when something goes wrong.” She trains other people in her company to use the equipment, and is the liaison with the company's external AV vendor. “If I have one piece of advice for planners, it's to become best friends with your AV vendor,” she says. “Not only does he help with problems, but I ask him for recommendations about whether our equipment is up to date.”

Other times, the move to electronic meetings has meant that she's had little or no involvement. When the company decided to cancel a two-day regional affiliate meeting that had been planned for three cities, and tape the presentations and put them on the Web site, “That meeting just went away for me,” she says. “I just handed it over to the Web development team, and they took it from there.”

Another area in which planners often face a learning curve is in preparing presenters. When Judith Ann Robinson, director of training and education at Medtronic, moved a two-day sales training meeting for reps from a San Diego hotel to RepLINKtv (which produces programs in a studio, then beams them out to a network of classroom suites across the country), her main worry was not about the technology, but about her presenters. Although they were seasoned speakers, they had never used the broadcast medium, and they had only a short time to prepare. Robinson conducted dry runs, inviting RepLINKtv's production team to attend.

“They did a great job, continuously assuring them [the presenters] that though it might feel awkward, the finished product would look and feel professional. It really helped.” Robinson adds that the presenters “stepped up to the plate and did a great job.”

Not Always the Same

Some large meetings simply don't transfer easily to an electronic format. InSystems, a Markham, Ontario-based software firm, found that out when they decided to compress and move a three-day user conference — with more than 300 people at 50 locations — online. “You have to think about online meetings as you would a radio or TV program, and think about content and flow,” says Andrew Jackson, senior vice president of marketing. “Some things won't translate. We knew, for example, that people wouldn't sit around for eight hours in front of their computers and wait for speakers.”

One of the biggest challenges was that the original live events were designed to have multiple, concurrent tracks for attendees, including management and technical users. Bringing everybody together online, InSystems instead combined elements of all the tracks. Jackson figured that one person might be interested for 15 minutes, another for the full two hours. Those who weren't interested could drop off without a sound.

But that's not what happened. “People stayed on a lot longer than we expected,” Jackson says. “We found that our drop-off was less than 5 percent during the course of the two hours.”

Maxine Golding has written about the meeting industry for more than 20 years.

From National to Regional

Are major national meetings becoming a thing of the past? Christine Duffy, president and COO, Maritz McGettigan in Philadelphia, has seen more regional meetings replacing national meetings, which she traces back to 9/11. “Many of the really big companies that would have a national sales meeting every year have moved toward a lot more smaller meetings.”

NCCI Holdings Inc., Boca Raton, Fla., is one. “Going to their back yard works very well for us,” says Laura Vickers, event manager. Some regional meetings have been canceled, she adds, but these were phased out because “they were not working best for us.”

In a variation on the regional trend, some smaller companies are selecting venues in regions in which their business is strong, and drawing more drive-in attendance, observes Fred Shea, vice president, sales, Hyatt Hotels. In fact, most of his corporate business is in 100-room meetings. Carol Lynch, vice president, global sales, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, also points to some sales and training meetings that moved from national to regional (one event, for example, breaking into nine different city meetings), particularly in the northeastern United States and the pharmaceutical market. “This enables people to drive and regional staffs to attend,” she says. “Behind it all is cost.”

Steve Goodman, vice president and managing director of Conferon Inc., Twinsburg, Ohio, reports that many of his larger clients are piggybacking programs around an event. “It's amazing the number of pop-up meetings we're seeing pre- or post-event, totally unrelated to the planned event,” he says.

Exxon/Mobil Chemical's film division in Macedon, N.Y., for one, is combining meeting costs, especially on the front end of trade shows. As one example, a freestanding awards banquet, which recognizes customers for their innovative uses of the company's films, is now scheduled in conjunction with an industry trade show. “It's also done for timing purposes, since everyone is in town for the show,” explains Brenda Donnelly, marketing communications specialist.

The company also just decided to combine two national events — a sales meeting and a sales training program — that were previously conducted at different times. “The sales meeting typically runs four days, and the training two days, so we're creating a single meeting five days long,” says Donnelly. While it's too early to speak to the meeting's success or cost savings, “the plan is to be more efficient with everyone there.”

Meeting Expenses Under Scrutiny

Higher demand will spur convention and meeting attendance in 2004, as the National Business Travel Association projects companies will increase by 5 percent their meeting budgets (which were severely cut the past two years). In mid-December, hotel chains and planners also reported considerable pent-up corporate demand. Companies that deferred meetings until the economy turned are beginning to feed their appetite for the kinds of presentations they have not held in some time.

But if you think this means that the scrutiny of meeting costs will lessen, think again. “T&E has been identified as the third-largest controllable expense in corporations,” said Christine Duffy, president and COO of Maritz McGettigan in Philadelphia, during a December Meeting Professionals International audioconference. “Meeting spending has been identified as $50 billion annually. Tightening the reins on meeting costs is not something that's going to go away as the economy improves.”

The key for corporations will be to drive as much cost as possible out of the system and to drive value with suppliers, says Steve O'Malley, vice president, operations, Maritz Travel Co., St. Louis. "We try to build the best arguments for ROI for the spend they have, because we don't want our clients to invest unwisely.” To justify a major national meeting these days — a $1 million or $2 million event — ”it has to be viewed as an investment," he says.