E-conferencing spiked just before and after U.S. troops invaded Iraq, but it isn't like the stampede that came after the terrorist attacks of 2001. “If you go back to those days, I think we were all awestruck,” says Randy Salisbury, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Atlanta-based Premiere Conferencing. “There was a sea change in the way you viewed how you do business.”

Recently, the economy, the war in Iraq, and SARS have fed demand for e-conferencing services.

When the war started, several of Premiere's clients began updating clients via conference calls daily instead of weekly. Premiere saw a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in use of Web- and audioconferencing minutes as soon as war seemed likely.

Bank of America just expanded its license with Pixion, a Pleasanton, Calif.-based webconferencing vendor, to accommodate 850 concurrent connections, up from 500. The banking company conducts its internal meetings and communications with Pixion's technical help. CKE Restaurants, parent of the Hardee's and Carl's Jr. restaurant chains, doubled the capacity on its Pixion license, which it uses to communicate with franchisees.

In the medical field, on-demand e-conferences are growing in popularity. “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.

More 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 to start thinking about it now, because it's a complicated industry,” says Stephanie Franks-Downs, founder of ConferZone, a Web site for those interested in learning about e-conferencing. Her advice:

  • Participate in an e-meeting to get a sense of how it works. Many vendors provide demos or allow potential clients to sit in on actual session.

  • Start small. Many planners shy away from e-conferencing because they fear that it will make their jobs obsolete, but “they cannot ignore this,” Franks-Downs says. Many organizations use a combination of live and virtual meetings, which is a good way to ease into it.

  • Line up a supplier, but choose carefully. “I was producing an event for a client and the company went bankrupt a week before the event,” recalls Franks-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, and whether it's profitable.

The ConferZone site (www.conferzone.com) includes such resources as a glossary, vendor directory, white papers, and how-to documents.