The meetings industry has a few answers to that question.
In a July speech describing the European Union’s “Digital Agenda for Europe,” Viviane Reding, the EU’s Commissioner for Information Society and Media, said the following: “If businesses in Europe were to replace only 20 percent of all business trips by videoconferencing, we could save more than 22 million tons of CO2 per year.”
It’s this comment that provided the dramatic headline for a late September press release: “UN to Declare War on Business Trips.” Written by EurActiv, an independent media Web site that covers EU news, the release suggested that the EU was about to issue an official recommendation in line with Reding’s comment.
While the European Commission did in fact issue a recommendation document a few days later (the “Commission Recommendation of October 9, 2009, on mobilizing Information and Communications Technologies to facilitate the transition to an energy-efficient, low-carbon economy”), it included no such charge for companies to cut business travel. Nor was a “war on business travel” declared in any recent European Commission or European Union document on the information and communication technologies sector.
Which didn’t stop the press release from prompting a quick defense of business travel from the U.K.–based International Association of Professional Congress Organisers, which issued a statement in reaction to what it called the “recent decision from the EU” related to “limiting business trips with the target of reducing them by 20 percent and replacing them with telecommunication and Web-based alternatives.” IAPCO called the idea a “seemingly obvious solution” that would in fact “create considerable difficulties further down the line. For example, there is a much-publicized move to use local produce in order to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. This could be applauded; however, by limiting the import of produce from certain developing nations, the local economy in those countries suffers dramatically, leading to increased poverty, starvation, and ultimately dependence upon those countries who helped inflict the problem upon them.”
Likewise with business travel, IAPCO stated, the unintended consequences would be many, from putting nations without the appropriate technical infrastructure for videoconferencing at a disadvantage to the loss of revenue for local economies to the delivery of inferior continuing medical education.
“We strongly believe,” the IAPCO statement concluded, “that face-to-face meetings, conventions, seminars, and events are an essential part of daily life and the economy. Reducing this will have no impact on the world gas emissions but will have a strong negative effect on the world economy and therefore the well-being of humanity.”
Meanwhile, Leigh Harry, president of the Amsterdam-based International Congress & Convention Association, sought to set a different tone in a letter of his own, which called on the meeting industry to admit that “not all meetings are worthwhile. It’s true!”
Rather than a blanket defense of business travel, Harry suggested advocating “professionally run meetings, those with clearfor organizations and participants alike, meetings which generate outcomes that cannot be as well delivered via other means.”
And he offered a further insight: Rather than trying to lead this issue, he postulated, the EU more likely is “reacting to what is already happening across the corporate world, where a massive investment in new-generation teleconferencing is already leading to the elimination of many smaller meetings. Not all small meetings are being replaced of course … but many of the progress-evaluation meetings, follow-up planning meetings, and especially ad-hoc meetings to discuss a specific issue or solve a sudden problem can very logically be replaced by some of the excellent technology that is now available.”
As an industry, he summarized, “I believe it is absolutely wrong for us to fight against this rational and climate-friendly business trend … If we argue that all meetings are better than alternative communication media we run the risk of sounding overly defensive, intellectually shallow, and opposed to climate-change solutions.”
Likewise, ICCA CEO Martin Sirk commented, “It is absolutely true that companies will find ways to switch some meetings into videoconference events, but they all recognize that the scope of this technology is limited. Corporate meetings now are more about relationship-building than about passing on information, and it is impossible to make a strong connection with clients, suppliers, and other stakeholders via virtual technology. It also fails miserably as an effective communication medium once numbers climb above a dozen or more. What this will do is increase the capacity for effective communication in between face-to-face meetings, which is required at the critical stages of particular projects. In that way, the technology acts to increase the ROI of the face-to-face meeting, rather than substituting for it.”
A discussion of these issues could hardly be better timed. The idea of balancing business travel and environmental sustainability should be in high relief this week as more than 12,000 official delegates hop on planes and trains to meet in Copenhagen, Denmark, for face-to-face talks on climate change.