The popularity of virtual meetings for certain types of communication is surging. Particularly in merger-crazed industries like financial services, e-meetings can help far-flung employees communicate with each other while keeping travel costs under control.

Consider the case of Aid Association for Lutherans/ Lutheran Brotherhood. Shortly after Aid Association for Lutherans in Appleton, Wis., announced it was merging with Lutheran Brotherhood in Minneapolis in June 2001, two computer-based videoconferencing rooms were set up in each location. "We thought this was adequate to meet demand, but we were totally wrong," says AAL/LB manager of media productions Mike Shetter. One year later, the number of videoconferencing rooms has grown to 16—and they’re usually booked solid eight hours a day, five days a week.

"It’s the next best thing to meeting face-to-face," says Lynn Schwandt, financial associates event manager for AAL/LB. Schwandt works in the Appleton office, but her two-person staff and most of her other 10 colleagues in the event planning department are based in Minneapolis.

In addition to its videoconferencing rooms, AAL/LB also has teleconferencing facilities, and eight executives are outfitted with desktop cameras that allow them to videoconference from their desks.

Videoconferencing is proving to be the most popular virtual meeting option with AAL/LB employees, and Shetter says that additional videoconference rooms are being considered for both the Appleton and Minneapolis offices.

"It’s difficult to pinpoint the cost-savings," he says, "but we know that videoconferences save people a tremendous amount of time. They don’t have to waste a whole day of travel for a one-hour meeting. Would we have all the meetings we are now having without videoconference capabilities? Hard to say."

Videoconferencing has not replaced person-to-person internal meetings at AAL/LB: There’s also a daily chartered plane that shuttles employees between the two locations. Schwandt has used the plane several times and says it is likely that she will fly weekly to Minneapolis for person-to-person meetings in the foreseeable future. "But it’s not feasible or cost-effective to fly back and forth every day," she adds. "And as much as videoconferencing has taken off here, I think it’s going to increase even more. When mergers happen, people need to travel a lot at first. Then as things calm down and you get to a business-as-usual atmosphere, virtual meetings become more and more effective."