I'm writing this editorial right smack in the middle of a four-hour WebEx meeting. I just finished my salmon and crackers, my phone is on speaker and muted, and I'm still in the same sweats I wore on my morning exercise walk. I'm desperately resisting the pull of my e-mails, which lie just below the PowerPoint on my desktop, piling up by the minute. But I'm on deadline (aren't we all?), so I'm multitasking and writing while I listen. No one ever will know.

Let's be honest: To say that virtual meetings can replace live ones is crazy. As more and more companies slash their travel budgets and take their non-customer-facing meetings online (42 percent of corporate planners we surveyed said they plan to replace meetings with some form of e-meetings in '09), they need to think about what they will lose — not just the money they will save.

For starters, people today are so fragmented that it's nearly impossible to sit through a Web meeting uninterrupted. Despite the organizer requesting that people refrain from checking e-mail, I kept hearing the clicks of keyboards as people broke the rules and attacked their messages. Even in a live meeting, people can't resist peeking at their BlackBerries in the middle of presentations; with no one watching, you had better believe virtual meeting attendees will give in to distractions.

GoldenGate Software, which switched one of its two sales meetings to a Web conference (see page 28), had some ideas for keeping attendees' attention, including intermittent electronic polls and tests and Q&A sessions directing questions to specific callers — who knew in advance that they would be called upon. More meeting leaders need to use these techniques if they're going to hold online meetings.

Clearly, a virtual meeting can never replace a program that includes a reward element — whether it's just the chance for hardworking employees who rarely get out of the office to do so, or an opportunity to bring a team together in challenging times. Though few companies are speaking about employee motivation these days, there's no question that when people return from a meeting, they're reenergized and ready to keep giving their best to their jobs. Not when they return from their computer screens to the work that has piled up while they sat there.

The same goes for online trade shows, the newest buzz in virtual meetings. As you'll see from Stratus Technologies' story on page 22, many exhibitors — and attendees — miss the live interactions. “When you have an event, you have those hallway conversations in between breakout sessions where you pull someone off to the side for a five- or ten-minute conversation,” said our cover subject, Sue Lawrence-Longo, vice president of global marketing at Stratus. Despite the savings, she's not sure if she will do it again in '09. And I can understand why.

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