The meeting industry continues to "e-volve," taking advantage of the quicker response time, reduced paperwork, and lower costs of e-commerce, e-mail, and industry Web sites. Now Congress has joined the e-trend by enacting a new law, The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, which gives electronic signatures and records the same legality as those written on paper.

Organizations were allowed to begin using paperless contracts and electronic signatures on October 1, 2000. Beginning March 1, 2001, organizations may store legal documents and records in electronic form, provided the materials are "capable of being retained and accurately reproduced."

What You Can Sign Online Thanks to the new law, you soon will be able to negotiate, finalize, and execute a hotel or convention center contract entirely over the Internet. Under this law, contracts can exist solely in electronic form and can be used without ever having a paper copy. The law even allows parties to "sign" these contracts electronically. Besides making the hotel contract legal as an electronic document, the law will enable meeting planners to use additional e-documents to satisfy contract requirements. For example, if a hotel contract requires a written notice, an electronic form of notice can be used.

However, meeting planners still must pay attention to the terms of their contracts. While electronic signatures and records are allowed, their use still depends on other factors. For example, if a hotel contract requires that a written termination notice be delivered in person or by certified mail, then sending the notice by e-mail will not suffice. Further, it does not change existing requirements for board meetings and other matters of corporate governance. Where a vote of the board of directors is required, for example, such a vote can be taken electronically only if provided for under state law or the organization's bylaws.

The new law also will give even more validity and meaning to the process of registering for meetings electronically. Even very legalistic issues such as signing waivers for special events can be handled exclusively in electronic form.

Is That Really You? Before entering into e-contracts, meeting planners should determine how they will verify and authenticate electronic signatures so that they are legally binding. Besides requiring a logical connection between an e-signature and a signed document, the new law's definition of an electronic signature - a "sound, symbol, or process, attached to or logically associated with a contract or other record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record" - provides no guidelines on how to verify and authenticate signatures. Congress intentionally left that to the market to resolve. It is likely, however, that an electronic signature will need to be accompanied by some additional information to verify the identity of the signer (for example, the signer's name, address, phone number) in order to be legally binding.

Finally, electronic contracts and other legal documents should be treated with the same degree of care as their paper counterparts. Like paper records, electronic documents must be retained in a form that can be accurately reproduced, and there should be a means to track changes made to electronic documents to ensure their integrity.

While some sorting out of issues is still needed to fully implement a world of electronic signatures and records, this new law is a first step. Now it's up to the experts to address the real-world issues. Meeting planners are particularly well-positioned to start taking immediate advantage of the e-opportunities that exist.