Justifying investment in large, face-to-face meetings is not simple. The benefits that come to mind—relationship-building, inspiration, motivation, recognition—are not benefits with precise measures attached. You know intuitively that these things happen, but “intuition” doesn’t pass muster these days as a reason for planning a major conference.

So Maritz, the St. Louis–based meeting and incentive company, is looking to science to provide a foundation for corporate decision-making when it comes to meetings. With increasingly good virtual meeting options, not to mention the possibility of “hybrid” meetings that include both virtual and face-to-face elements—are there still situations where only face-to-face will do? And how can science prove it?

“This is a whole new frontier,” says Christine Duffy, president and CEO, Maritz Travel. “We are seeing a significant shift in the marketplace today—one that requires a key focus on engaging people.”

At the recent Maritz Meetings, Events, & Incentives Forum in Orlando, Duffy said the meeting and incentive industry must change the conversation around the value of what it does. “We need insights that are anchored in human science to address societal shifts that are occurring and specifically to address the importance of face-to-face interaction.” The Maritz Institute, which began its work in early 2009, is helping to provide those insights. As Maritz Institute Vice President and Executive Director Mary Beth McEuen describes it, the institute was created “as a bridge between the latest human science research and the new normal” business environment.

When You Need to Be Together
Earlier this year, Maritz Travel and the Maritz Institute began collaborating on these issues with the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research. The result is a newly released paper called “The Future of Meetings: The Case for Face-to-Face.”

The rationale for the project was that large, face-to-face meetings require the biggest investment in time and money, and therefore set up the greatest expectations for a return on that investment. So the question is, as McEuen phrases it, “What is the value that is created through face-to-face meetings that is very difficult to replicate in other ways?”

McEuen found some answers from a network of academics and neuroscientists and their research. There are five “intangible” qualities that face-to-face meetings enhance:

  • Attention
  • Mirroring: Research has revealed the existence of “mirror neurons” that react in response to visual cues—for example, in a conversation, the speaker’s body language causes a reaction in the listener’s neurons that would create the same action.
  • Emotional contagion: The report cites recent research confirming that emotions “ripple out from individuals and influence not only other individuals’ emotions … and behaviors, but also the dynamics of the entire group.”
  • Empathy and trust
  • Social networks

Based on this research, the Cornell/Maritz whitepaper defines three business goals that are best met through face-to-face gatherings:
1. Capturing attention
2. Inspiring a positive emotional climate
3. Building personal networks and relationships

Looking at the Evidence
Let’s consider the first goal—capturing attention. For participants in virtual meetings, the temptation to multitask can be too great to resist. Of course, multitasking, science shows, is a misnomer. What we are really doing is “switch-tasking,” or toggling back and forth between tasks, McEuen says. In this mode, the area of your brain that creates long-term memories is not being used. Therefore, the Cornell/Maritz white paper finds, whatever an employee learns while “switch-tasking” likely will not be absorbed and applied back at the job.

In addition, the brain remembers better when multiple senses are engaged, something that happens naturally at a face-to-face meeting. It’s a way to “break through autopilot”—the tendency of the brain to take in new information and make it conform to what it already knows. Engaging multiple senses “wakes up” the brain and increases attendees’ ability to see things from a new perspective.

As for the second goal—inspiring a positive emotional climate—anyone who has been at a football stadium cheering for the winning team knows instinctively what this is about. And forget about thinking that your business is rational not emotional. All businesses have an emotional climate. What successful companies will realize, the report states, is that this collective emotion represents a “powerful hidden resource as real as money or knowledge or physical labor.” Face-to-face meetings are the best way to foster a positive emotional climate, which in turn “enhances collaboration, relationship-building, creativity, and performance.” This is especially true in today’s environment, where “engagement” is seen as the key to employee motivation, performance, and retention.

Finally, “building relationships” seems obvious as a goal that can be best met in a face-to-face environment. The science comes in when you consider the success that results from a company that operates as a community. The paper credits Daniel Goleman, author of the book Social Intelligence with the idea that “while people in strained or nonexistent relationships are more likely to see ways they differ, people in great relationships are more likely to see and share what they have in common.” It follows, then, that they are more likely to work together toward their company’s goals.

In the industrial era, McEuen sums up, value existed in tangibles. In the knowledge and creative era, value exists in intangibles. “While information is increasingly commoditized, there is great power in ongoing relationships and networks,” she says. “Think about the value of capturing employees’ or customers’ attention and mindshare, and the information-sharing and collaboration that happens long after a meeting. That’s the real value of being together.”