Virtual meetings are hot. According to the International Teleconferencing Association (ITCA), the North American teleconferencing industry has grown an average of 30 percent a year since 1993. Henry Grove, president of the Philadelphia-based group, reports that revenues of $2.3 billion in 1993 grew to $5.1 billion in 1997 and are forecast at more than $6.3 billion for this year. Videoconferencing experienced the greatest growth--over audio, audiographic, and business television conferencing--with revenues of $2.7 billion last year that are expected to reach $3.2 billion in 1997. One industry supplier, ACT Teleconferencing, Denver, reported an astounding average growth rate of 60 percent.

Lyndhurst, NJbased Ernst & Young, for one, is extensively involved in teleconferencing. Its nationwide offices do about 2,500 hours of audio teleconferencing a month and 1,500 hours of videoconferencing, says Bill Muller, the firm's conferencing technologies manager. "Externally, teleconferencing is a wonderful way to do customer service follow-ups, and internally it's effective for a variety of meetings: Its the easiest way to bring people together for team project meetings and the most inexpensive means of distance learning."

Muller says teleconferencing use has further potential given the increase in staff members working from home or from a customer location. "Teleconferencing is the only way to bring those people into the company," he says.

Still, despite the extraordinary growth, ITCA's Grove says, "we've got a long way to go before teleconferencing becomes ubiquitous."