As the economic crash unfolded last year, industry associations and various think tanks unleashed a torrent of statistics to track the downturn’s impact on meetings and events.

In November, the U.S. Travel Association proclaimed that leisure and business travel would create 90,000 U.S. jobs in 2010. Several months earlier, a senior executive with Gartner Group predicted that virtual technologies would eliminate 2.1 million airline bookings per year by 2012. Together, the two numbers are a snapshot of an industry caught between older and newer ways to meet.

Steve Prentice is the Gartner vice president and senior fellow who projected the drop in air travel. His figure is based on the rather conservative assumption that one in 10 business trips will be canceled.

Prentice stressed the time and productivity lost to air travel. (I reached him by phone in an airport, where he’d been delayed several hours after a meeting was canceled.) However, he maintains that beyond a few organizations like Cisco Systems Inc., which cut its annual travel budget from $750 million to less than $250 million, there’s no groundswell of enthusiasm for virtual meetings.

“It’s a decision being forced on them, rather than one they’re voluntarily making,” he said. “The expectation over time is that this will result in a fundamental shift in behavior,” but the real challenge will be to strike the right balance.

“The idea that virtual meetings will replace all face-to-face meetings is patently absurd,” Prentice said. “The suggestion that all face-to-face meetings are absolutely essential is equally false. You need a sensitivity to both the circumstances and the culture.”

All of which adds depth and texture to U.S. Travel’s contention that travel jobs will increase this year, driven by a 4.7 percent increase in spending. The association’s annual travel forecast showed domestic “person-trips” rising 2 percent, with business travel accounting for about 30 percent of the total. Dr. Suzanne Cook, the association’s senior vice president of research, offered only a general explanation of this job figure, saying it was based on an economic model that factors in unemployment rates, personal incomes, consumer intentions, and other influences.

Cook acknowledged that the model probably misses the impact of virtual technologies that may have kept business travel flat when the economy was stronger. “A lot of the new business travel that might have come with the growth of the economy is being picked up with virtual mechanisms.” But she maintained there are “an awful lot of other benefits to business travel that you’re not going to replace with technology that doesn’t work right half the time.”

That may be, but a huge number of organizations are still making the decision to slash travel costs, without thinking through the benefits, limitations, or results of virtual meetings. With strong arguments to be made in both directions, I wonder if 2010 will be the year when planners begin influencing the choice between live and virtual formats, with the purpose and objectives of each meeting as their starting point.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to mitchell@theconferencepublishers.com.