E-conferencing spiked immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. And it continues to grow in popularity, but not necessarily because of events like the war in Iraq or SARS. "I believe the economy has more directly affected the approach to conferencing," says Bill Dunn, director of operations for Interactive Medical Networks, a satellite videoconferencing company in Carrollton, Texas. (IMN is a division of Primedia, MM's parent company.)

Dunn says he hadn’t seen any meetings converted to e-conferences resulting from the outbreak of the war and SARS. "I think customers, generally speaking, are maintaining their business flow. "Most of the meetings we produce have to do with a launch or education about a medical product. That continues; medical staff have to understand how these products work."

But there is a growth in e-conferences as an adjunct to face-to-face meetings. "We’ve seen a huge increase all over for e-CME to extend live meetings," says Simone Karp, executive vice president of business development for CECity, a Pittsburgh-based technology partner for healthcare companies. "There’s still a huge role for live symposia, but to increase the access distribution of that information, we are seeing a large interest in capturing that information, repurposing and webifying it and offering it on demand." That way, busy physicians and other healthcare providers can rack up CME credits at their convenience.

With all the challenges to face-to-face meetings these days, more medical meeting planners are exploring alternatives, at least as part of a contingency plan. For those unfamiliar with e-conferencing, one expert advises doing a little advance homework.

"The main thing is planners need to start thinking now about it now, because it’s a complicated industry to learn," says Stephanie Downs, founder of ConferZone, a Web site for anyone interested in learning more about e-conferencing. Her suggestions include:

-Participate in a virtual meeting to get a sense for how it works. Many vendors provide demos or allow potential clients to sit in on actual session.
-Start small. Many meeting planners shy away from e-conferencing out of fear that it will make their jobs obsolete, but "they cannot ignore it," Downs says. Many organizations are using a combination of live and virtual meetings, which is a good way to ease into e-conferencing.
-Have a supplier lined up, but choose that supplier carefully. "I was producing an event for a client and the company went bankrupt a week before the event," says Downs, once a meeting planner herself. "It would be like a hotel burning down." Ask questions about the firm’s client base, how long it has been in business, whether it’s profitable.
-Downs’ Web site (www.conferzone.com) includes resources such as a glossary, vendor directory, a newsletter, white papers, and how-to documents designed to walk novices through the process of setting up an e-conference.

For planners anticipating a need to convert a face-to-face meeting into a virtual gathering in a pinch, Dunn also suggests having as much content as possible available in graphics files, such as Microsoft PowerPoint, which lend themselves to a virtual presentation. E-events can be mounted relatively quickly, but Dunn says often it takes more time to let the audience know about them.