I do a lot of public speaking about how technology, specifically the Internet, is changing our business practices. I like to ask my listeners a question originally posed to me by a colleague in San Diego. " What product does the television industry make?" The auto industry makes autos; the steel industry makes steel; the software industry makes software. But what is it that the television industry makes?

I usually get the answers you'd expect: entertainment, shows, advertising, and a few other creative responses. But only once have I ever heard someone give me the right answer, which is audiences. The television industry, and the publishing industry, too, for that matter, create audiences which they then sell to advertisers.

So what does this have to do with technology meetings? The answer to that question rests with the growing practice of creating Web sites to accompany a conference or a trade show. These sites are frequently referred to as virtual trade shows or virtual conferences, terms that carry an uncomfortable amount of uncertainty and slipperiness. But without defining what a virtual trade show or conference is (a subject that warrants its own column), the proliferation of these sites raises the question of why a meeting organizer should want one in the first place. And the answer is, of course, audiences.

The concept of building an audience underlies everything a traditional meeting planner does. A meeting or trade show with an insufficient audience won't be around for long. But today, most meeting planners look at the Web simply as a means of providing potential attendees with marketing information about the actual event.

Progressive planners also recognize the Web's ability to serve as a point-of-sale transaction processor. A sophisticated event Web site can take registrations, process payments, generate leads for show exhibitors, and handle a wide range of other transactions, all of which add value to the physical event. But even this level of sophistication misses the larger significance of event Web sites. Event sites, when done well, create their own audiences, audiences who may or may not attend the physical event.

Creating audiences on the Web forms the underlying business model for all the hot Web sites today, from Yahoo to Netscape's Netcenter to Microsoft's new Start Page. America Online has a subscriber base of nearly fourteen million, which surpasses the combined subscriber base for Time and Newsweek magazines. It's this audience and not AOL's meager profitability that drives its stock price. Audiences are assets with tremendous value in today's market, even if the businesses that generated them are not always sure exactly how to exploit those assets. Netscape has discovered, perhaps belatedly, that the constant stream of visitors to its Web site represents an asset that is potentially more valuable than its software products. This irony should not be lost on event planners.

In today's market, the idea that an event Web site could become more valuable than the physical event strikes us as absurd. But planners need to keep in mind that, just like the television industry, the thing they produce that has value is an audience. And the Web is the single greatest potential business audience creator we have yet seen. In fact, a great Web site has the power to create its own loyal audience completely apart from those who actually attend the physical event.

So why should a meeting organizer care about building and nourishing a sophisticated, flexible, appealing, user friendly, and in depth event Web site? Because we're in the business of building audiences, and the Web is where the competition for new audiences will take place in the coming decade.