What if your company held an annual meeting and virtually no one came? That's not uncommon when it comes to public companies' shareholders meetings. Most shareholders have grown accustomed to receiving the company's financial updates in the annual report--even if that news is often six months old.

Bell & Howell, Skokie, Ill., decided to change all that by holding the first-ever annual meeting on the Internet. Once known primarily as a manufacturer of movie cameras and projection equipment, the 91-year-old company has evolved into a global provider of information access and distribution systems and services, with nearly $1 billion in annual revenue. A privately held company since 1988, Bell & Howell went public in 1995. Given the kind of business it's in, and desiring to get its message out to shareholders around the world, the company decided to apply its high-tech expertise to taking the meeting online.

Hundreds of shareholder "attendees" took part in the first meeting, held in May of 1996. They could hear what was going on through the Web site audio function, and as officers conducted their presentations at the real meeting, visual accompaniment was simultaneously fed to the Web site so that people could see charts and graphs presented on PowerPoint slides. The actual meeting drew only about 40 attendees, "and only about 12 of them were non-employees," according to Hank D'Ambrosio, vice president of administration for Bell & Howell.

Last year, Bell & Howell added a new twist: Online shareholders were able to cast their proxy votes, via the Internet, as if they were at the meeting in person. D'Ambrosio said this capability, and the media attention, contributed to an even larger group of shareholders logging on for the '97 meeting.

"We got significantly more Internet attendance the second time than we did the first. In 1997, we had 1,741 people who attended the meeting over the Internet, many of them from overseas. We were pleasantly surprised."

In addition to being able to cast their proxy votes online--more than four million shares were voted in this manner--online attendees could e-mail questions for directors as early as two days before the meeting, or while it was in progress. The questions were read and answered during the meeting.

"We think this is just a great way to get information out to our shareholders about the company if they can't attend," D'Ambrosio adds. "Otherwise, they have to wait for the annual report to get information about the company--and by that time, it's old news. The Internet access lets them hear results, strategies, and plans as they're being discussed in real time."

The bonus for Bell & Howell is the low cost of providing annual meeting access to online attendees--between $10,000 and $12,000, according to D'Ambrosio. Setup is done mostly by Bell & Howell's own employees.

Of course, it's impossible to put a dollar figure on the return on investment, but as D'Ambrosio says, "It's giving people a positive image of Bell & Howell: a high-tech company using a high-tech means of communication to deliver information to our shareholders."

DATA NETWORKING AT FORD MOTOR COMPANY In one of its old advertising campaigns, Ford claimed it had "a better idea" about how car-loving Americans could drive down the highway in new Ford vehicles. Today, the world's number two manufacturer of cars and trucks might want to make that claim again--this time about using the information highway to make meetings more productive.

The Dearborn, Mich.based automotive giant now uses the Internet companywide to help its massive corps of employees in 800 locations communicate. Ford also has a data networking system online, which is used extensively by designers on different continents to share data and solve problems. And there is some data networking done by what the company refers to as "virtual teams," where individuals log on to their desktop systems to communicate with far-off colleagues one-on-one. The next step? To use the computer to conduct larger meetings.

About 1,000 Ford employees are already using Microsoft's NetMeeting, a tool that lets them communicate in real time over the Internet and even share documents. Says Al Huberty, conferencing technology planner for Ford, "Any work you can display on the computer you can work on [with this system]."

The goal is to take the concept from one-on-one and small-group use to a large-group function. "There is so much opportunity in the area of virtual meetings," says Huberty. "We're trying to make the time [employees] spend in meetings more efficient. And you can reduce the number of meetings because you no longer have to have that second meeting to review what was discussed in the first."

Huberty gives the example of holding a meeting to discuss the refining and finalizing of documents. "Everybody in the meeting has a real-time visibility of the documents being discussed," Huberty says. "Any changes you want to make can be made on the computer, again in real time. It's not like people leaving a meeting and then waiting to see the changes that have been made on a fax later in the day or later in the week."

However, the technology is new and evolving, and Ford is finding that there are certain types of meetings for which "virtuality" works less well than for others. "With interactive meetings, where there is a high level of exchange among a number of people, a face-to-face meeting still makes more sense," he says. "The discussion-type meeting is where we find [virtuality] much harder to do."

That's because with the technology now available, the off-site viewer probably will have a good deal of trouble identifying just who is talking, unless that viewer happens to be able to recognize the voices of the speakers (which is highly unlikely). New technology that is being developed and tested will identify speakers for the off-site attendee, perhaps in the form of a name displayed on a screen.

But for meetings that are conducted more in a "presentation mode"--one main speaker at a time, with a minimum of interaction--virtuality is already viable. "For this kind of meeting, it works almost as well as being there," Huberty says. "You can even have a Q&A, but it must be structured. In essence, the questioner becomes the presenter."

There is one small drawback for the virtual meeting participant in this scenario, Huberty says: "What's missing is the 'hallway interaction' with colleagues before and after the meeting." Also lacking at this point: The company's large conference rooms have to be brought up-to-date to accommodate the new technology. But Ford is working on it.

"You have to have consistent conference room facilities for dataconferencing," Huberty says. "We're looking to certify our conference rooms for audio, full-duplex conference phones, video cameras, and monitors."

Other challenges to pulling off successful virtual meetings are coordinating international schedules and taking into account cultural differences--most obviously, multiple languages. "Generally, our overseas partners are amazed at how well they can speak and understand English," Huberty says. "[Language] is a consideration, but not a barrier. Basically, you have to remember to slow down when you're speaking."

Slowly--but surely--also describes how Ford is rolling out its dataconferencing capabilities. "Dataconferencing is just emerging--it's very new," Huberty says. "We're taking a grassroots approach to it, rather than over-marketing it to our employees. We want to make sure it works the first time people use it, so that they'll be comfortable using it the next time."

Just when will virtual meetings, or dataconferencing, become commonplace? Huberty answers that question with a question. "Do you know when the technology was developed for faxes?" he asks. "We've had it since World War I. But penetration didn't become ubiquitous until the past 15 or 20 years. It takes time."

VIRTUAL EXHIBITING Hamilton Beach and Warp Bros. take their trade show booths online Your small, Seattlebased company runs a chain of home furnishings and appliance stores. Your industry's biggest housewares show is coming up in Chicago in January, as it does every year. You know you have to send your buyers to the show to keep your stores' inventories stocked with the latest products. But the airfare from Seattle to Chicago is substantial. The same is true about hotel rates in downtown Chicago. And, you know the cost in man-hours associated with going to the show, but you have no choice--you have to be there.

Or do you?

Some attendees and exhibitors at the annual International Housewares Show are finding that's not the case, since the Virtual Show Planner made its debut in January. The Virtual Show Planner lets exhibitors display their products online and lets users log onto the Web site--www.housewares.org--and visit these virtual "booths" to view photos of products and get information about companies. Users can also register for the show, create a personalized floor plan print-out of booths they want to visit, and communicate with business associates to make appointments or plan meeting details. The Virtual Planner is made available three months before the show, during it (via computers set up on the show floor), and for two months after. The show's sponsor, the Chicago-based National Housewares Manufacturers Association, says its show is one of the first to feature such an online enhancement.

The value of the Virtual Show Planner for attendees who can't be there is the near-year-round availability and the streamlining of registration and appointment-planning functions. And for exhibitors, the Virtual Show Planner serves as another tool for them to get information out about their products and services.

Exhibitors who purchase a virtual booth on the Show Planner site also receive a link to their own Web page. "It's a springboard from the Virtual Show to our site," says Scott Bickford, director of new media for Richmond, Va.-based Hamilton Beach, a longtime Housewares Show exhibitor. Bickford says Hamilton Beach's presence on the Virtual Show Planner site resulted in 233 visits to the company's virtual booth--"one of the higher number of visits, we're told."

Though Bickford states that his company is "not really in the business of selling online," the Hamilton Beach Web site [which has been online since September] gets many e-mails from retailers wanting to buy in volume, as well as from consumers with questions about products displayed there. "It's also a customer-service tool," he says. "More people are using our homepage instead of our toll-free number to get information or help with products. I get these kinds of e-mails every day. This is another way to let your customers know that you are there for them.

"A lot of companies try to 'bottom-line' their Web presence," Bickford adds. "They want to know how it translates into sales. But in my opinion, [a Web site] is an image builder and a customer service tool."

Dave Roadruck would agree, to a point. Roadruck, advertising manager for Chicago-based Warp Bros., purchased a presence on the Virtual Show Planner to get more exposure for the company's new product entry into the housewares industry. And even though there were not as many inquiries as he would have liked-- "I don't think we got the responses we anticipated, but then again, we're new to the industry"--he's planning on purchasing online presence again.

Roadruck concedes that the Internet is an important part of the future for companies like his, describing it as "a big supplement to our sales tools." But he's not convinced it will ever be more than an enhancement.

"I'm skeptical about the time buyers have to search the Web," Roadruck says. "The Internet is a wonderful tool, but it takes a lot of time for a buyer to search through it to look for things."

And as for the Internet ever replacing real presence at a real show, Roadruck's opinion is that it will never happen. "The one thing I've learned is that buyers and consumers have to touch and feel whatever it is they're interested in," he says. "You have to go face-to-face with customers to make sure your programs are working."