Most speakers start off with a quick outline of what they’re going to cover. Futurist Richard Worzel, CFA, generally does the opposite. He reviews what he won’t be telling his business audiences. First, he won’t be predicting the future. And second, he won’t be telling them about their particular industries.

What he will offer is context—the outside influences that will affect them and their industries—so that they may better plan for uncertainty. “The future will catch us by surprise,” he says. The question is: Are you better prepared for those surprises than your competitors are?

At the Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Annual Conference in November, Worzel gave planners and suppliers a lot to think about regarding the future of meetings. Here are the highlights.

Influence: Spiking Oil Prices. Growth in developing economies such as China, India, and Brazil—not to mention Mexico, Malaysia, and Indonesia—is expected to be very strong in 2010. One implication of that growth is continued strong demand for oil, which, Worzel believes, will send us back to the high oil prices of 2006 and 2007.

Response: Budget-tightening will continue at least through 2010. Travel costs will lead the list of priorities when it comes to site selection. And planners may need to redefine what a conference is, says Worzel, which leads to his next outside influence on meetings: technology.

Influence: Online Conferences and Trade Shows Are Cheap and “Green.” Virtual meetings look like a magic bullet. You deliver your message while saving money (and the environment).

Response: Planners need to remember that face-to-face conferences serve two purposes, says Worzel. The first is to deliver content and the second is to facilitate casual, even at times “accidental,” networking. Think of how many times you happened to sit next to someone during a bus transfer who ended up as a valuable contact. For meetings where this type of social interaction is not one of the goals, a webinar works. For the rest of your programs, it doesn’t.

Influence: Swine Flu. The U.S. is into week 13 of the “official” flu season. And while cases of the flu, outpatient visits for flu-like symptoms, and flu deaths, have declined, the CDC warns that flu activity could spike again. (Visit the CDC Web site for all the charts and stats.) If and when they do, Worzel says, meeting planners are likely to face disruptions in events or travel.

Response: You need a contingency plan for a conference or conference participant affected by the disease.

Farther Ahead: Conference Scenarios for 2020

1. Conferences will become more interactive. When you hire speakers, they may participate in meet-and-greet sessions following their formal remarks, Worzel suggests, or they may lead breakout sessions with more give-and-take with their audiences.

2. Conferences will include distant participants. “Presenters whose expertise is viewed as particularly valuable, but who can’t or don’t wish to travel may be included from distant locations by telepresence technologies that allow presenters to not only look as if they are in the room, but allow them to engage in question-and-answer sessions with people in the conference room,” Worzel says. Similarly, attendees at overseas offices may join conferences virtually.

3. We’ll start to see “conference 2.0” Crowdsourcing and Twitter are two of the hallmarks “conference 2.0,” Worzel says. Crowdsourcing will require planners to be more flexible, as attendees will shape some of the content of a conference. And, rather than simply tolerating Twitter, some planners will incorporate it. For example, a facilitator may monitor tweets during a presentation and pass selected comments to the presenter to address right then and there.

4. The “green” benchmark is coming. “This is based on the old dictum, ‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure,’” Worzel says. “So a yardstick will be defined to quantify the environmental cost per participant. And suppliers will compete not only on the ‘dollar price’ but also on the ‘environmental price’ of their offerings.”

5. Meetings live on! “Yes, there will be changes in structure, content, technology, and so on, but the overall value of conferences is too great to trash,” Worzel says. “In fact, this is a continuation of a well-established trend: Media accumulate, they don’t die out. Hence, TV didn’t kill radio and VCRs didn’t kill TV.”

Worzel’s overall message to planners is to imagine the future, create scenarios, and then develop plans for working in that future. He has created a handbook for doing that called “Risk Management and Scenario Planning: How to Avoid Problems and Spot Opportunities.” Contact Worzel at futurist@futuresearch.com to get a password enabling a free download of the handbook from his Web site.