High-tech speaker and writer Doug Fox says face-to-face meetings will still be a very powerful medium for conferencing in the 21st century.

It's important to point out that most of today's Web-based training programs are not very exciting.



Meetings are still the ultimate chat room. Meetings are not yet under complete attack from the Internet or any other technology. Yes, there are countless ways that people can bypass face-to-face meetings. We are all familiar with them: Web-based meetings, instant messaging, chat rooms, videoconferencing, and other related tools continue to grow in popularity. But no technology can serve as a complete substitute for the networking, camaraderie, and interaction that take place at group gatherings.

The important question to consider is not whether people will participate in meetings, but what changes will take place in how participants evaluate the types of meetings they do attend:

  • Since Internet users have quick and ready access to information and contacts, there will be a tendency to attend more local and regional meetings and fewer national and international meetings. Why travel long distances when you are a mouse click away from many of the resources that you need?

  • Many companies will continue to constrain the growth in their travel budgets, both to reduce expenditures and in reaction to their belief that many forms of communication can successfully take place online. For example, some companies are eliminating product road shows and opting for Web-based sales seminars instead.

  • Web-based training programs will improve in quality this year, which will motivate many companies to have their employees take introductory courses online and more advanced classes in a face-to-face setting.



MEETINGS GET INTERACTIVE AND CHAOTIC

The hallmarks of meetings in the Internet age are collaboration, interaction, and participation. It simply will become very difficult to create meetings of any type that do not completely engage participants in the proceedings.

Just consider how the Internet is used today. E-mail is the most popular application, and there is a range of community tools, including product review sites, opinion surveys, and discussion lists, that allow all users to share their thoughts and reactions. Even more important, consider online presentation tools. With just about any of these slide show applications, any meeting participant can take over the slide controls at any time and lead the meeting. It is difficult for people to have incredible freedom online and then enter a meeting room and become passive robots shackled to a chair.

To respond to this changing mind-set, meetings will be designed in a looser, less structured manner so that participants can play a greater role in determining the design, structure, and focus of each gathering.

TECHNOLOGY COSTS GO DOWN

On the budget side, the cost of renting computers and establishing high-speed Internet connections on-site will go down. Renting lots of computers, loading them up with software, and ordering T1 or faster connections can be an expensive proposition. Plus, there are some glaring incongruities today. You can get T1 access in a hotel guest room for $10 a day, and then pay $500 for the same Internet access in a meeting room.

The good news is that, starting next year, a number of helpful developments will take place. First, dedicated Internet appliances will make it a snap to either purchase inexpensive, stripped-down computers for the purpose of delivering on-site Internet access, or these same machines will be available to rent at a very low cost. In addition, more attendees then ever will be porting super-lightweight notebooks, so you won't even have to provide any type of computer equipment for them. And as many users start taking advantage of faster wireless Internet access, you won't even have to provide as many network connections to the Web.

Next, the growth in broadband wireless Internet connectivity options will lead hotels to charge less for their high-speed Internet access. Venues will simply face more competition.

BLUETOOTH DEVICES INCREASE IN POPULARITY

Bluetooth is an emerging standard for the wireless exchange of data among different types of devices that are within close proximity. By many estimates, Bluetooth-enabled gadgets will become popular next year. For example, you will be able to print a document stored in your Palm hand-held computer on a nearby printer without having to use any cables.

The broad acceptance of Bluetooth is important to the meeting industry. Participants at events are very mobile and interact with a range of people during educational programs, networking sessions, and on the trade show floor. In other words, attendees have an extensive need to share information with others via range of devices such as cellphones, PDAs (personal digital assistant), computers, projectors, printers, lead-retrieval systems, and other tools.

As more vendors add Bluetooth connectivity options to different types of devices, it will become significantly easier for all attendees to more easily share information. Here is an example: You are sitting in a seminar. You have a PowerPoint presentation stored on your PDA. With the proper Bluetooth-enabled devices, you will be able to transmit each slide via a wireless connection to the data projector and instantly display the images for all to see.

MEETINGS — A GLOBAL PLATFORM

In 2001, meetings will continue the transformation from discrete, isolated events into communication platforms and hubs that reach out to a larger, global audience.

For instance, an increasing number of meetings today connect an on-site network with a corporate network. Videoconferencing is a popular tool for linking two or more locations. And remote participants in educational programs can now have access to and can control slide presentations, charts, and other data.

The advent of high-speed Internet access coupled with viable immersive (3D) technologies will accelerate these trends. Once it is possible for more people to experience 3D worlds and highly realistic renderings in cyberspace, a greater effort will be made to involve remote participants in different types of meetings.

For example, imagine a press conference where an auto manufacturer launches a new car. Remote journalists will be able to enter an immersive environment and take the car for a test drive without leaving their desks.

On another front, exhibitors participating in trade shows will expand their focus from marketing only to an on-site crowd to also directing their time and energy to a remote audience. By using webcasting and high-quality collaboration offerings, vendors will interact in real time with remote customers from their on-site booths and offices.

DECLINE IN INTERNET-ONLY EVENTS

One result of the bust in some Internet stocks is that we will see a decline in the number of Internet-only events.

Over the last two years, there have been so many new Internet-focused educational programs, conferences, and shows that there sooner or later had to be a shake-up.

This shake-up will benefit established producers of events in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds. Increasingly, events in all industries will continue the process of incorporating Internet training and offerings within their own programs. This makes sense, because the Internet is a tool that helps people work more effectively in different jobs and different industries. And as the newness of the Internet wears off, businesspeople will be much more focused on solutions than the excitement of new technology introductions.

MEETING VENUES REDEFINED

Your options for selecting venues for upcoming meetings is about to become more diversified.

As a rule, today you have to stick with modern hotels that have the infrastructure in place for supporting your meeting requirements. Among your critical needs are bound to be voice and data networks that are required to host a meeting.

But with the introduction of broadband wireless connectivity options, everything is about to change. Consider how your choices expand if everybody attending your meeting has a lightweight notebook computer with a reliable, wireless high-speed Internet connection.

All of a sudden, you don't need the communications infrastructure offered by most hotels. You can now host your meeting in an ancient castle, an historic home, a cruise ship, or anywhere else that you feel like meeting.

ON-SITE EDUCATION UNDER ATTACK

In my wavering prediction in the introduction to this article, I said that many companies would encourage employees to take introductory education courses online. This trend will accelerate.

It's important to bear in mind that most of today's Web-based training programs are not very exciting. Actually, they are boring. So it does not help to compare today's sub-par programs to on-site educational programs. It is better to assume that online training programs will improve dramatically in quality, sophistication, and scope in the years to come.

Then, considering these improvements, you have to figure out what impact these courses will have on your face-to-face gatherings.

For starters, Internet-based programs will increasingly lead people to take programs online instead of in person.

In addition, the wide availability of online courses will change the expectations of attendees when they participate in your face-to-face programs. Most importantly, attendees who participate in your on-site programs will want more control over the learning process, they will want more case studies and simulations, and they will want extensive time to interact with others.

NEW ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES

If you add up these predictions and trends, you will probably reach the conclusion that if you are in the business of marketing, planning, and producing group events, you will want to expand the definition of what you do for a living.

In many cases, it is simply too confining to limit yourself to being in the business of facilitating face-to-face meetings. The real opportunity is to be in the business of selecting the right communications medium or combination of mediums that best helps your colleagues and customers achieve their objectives.

For example, you may help your company launch a new software program by designing a series of monthly Web-based seminar programs that are promoted around an annual customer conference.

Or you may design an integrated educational offering that incorporates in-person programs, self-paced educational courses, as well as audiotapes and videotapes.

Meetings are not going away, but there are many avenues that people can pursue to seek education, business leads and networking opportunities. So your best approach is to position yourself as an expert in the optimal selection of delivery mediums for each of your customers.




Copyright 1996-2001 Doug Fox Communications. Reprinted with permission from the EventWeb Newsletter. Doug Fox, publisher and editor of the EventWeb Newsletter, writes and speaks about the Internet for the meeting industry. You can contact Doug at (804) 364-1212, dougfox@eventweb.com, or subscribe to his newsletter at http://www.eventweb.com.

TechTips for Small Meetings

  • Make sure a technician is assigned to your meeting and that you know how to get hold of him or her quickly in case of technical difficulties.

  • If you do use PowerPoint, never have more than seven bulleted items per slide.
    — The Editors