November 01, 2001
Meetings & Conventions - Virtually Yours - November 2000

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Virtually Yours

Smart planners are becoming in-house experts at holding events in cyberspace

By Martha Cooke

  The events of Sept. 11 gave new meaning to the phrase "business as usual." Reduced airline schedules, security concerns, massive layoffs and budget cuts have some organizations concluding that in-person meetings aren't so critical after all. For many, the answer lies on the Web.

The number of virtual meetings -- events in cyberspace that attendees access from their computer desktops -- is growing at an unprecedented rate. Even before the terrorist attacks, virtual meetings were expected to be a $2.8 billion business by 2005, according to New York City-based research firm Jupiter Media Metrix. Meeting planners, who already comprise the bulk of the technology's customer base, are taking note.

Corporations are projected to spend $142 million on business-to-business collaborations via the Web by 2005, while product launches and marketing events using virtual tools will account for $567 million, according to Jupiter Media Metrix. The reason for the growth: Firms have been forced to reduce costs, and people simply have less time to attend conferences, says Billy Pidgeon, an analyst for the research firm.

To users, a virtual meeting resembles a cross between a teleconference and an online graphic presentation. The most common types of content attendees view and discuss are PowerPoint charts and graphs, software applications and new product demonstrations. Meeting facilitators also can conduct post-presentation polls or live chat sessions, which can be archived and accessed at a later date. The technology is unrelated to videoconferencing, which requires camera equipment and a facility with high-speed phone lines.

"Meeting planners are being asked to be involved with these tools now," says Alan Zingale, manager of hospitality and leisure consulting in the Washington, D.C., branch ofPricewaterhouseCoopers. Those who want to protect their jobs aren't waiting to be asked. They're positioning themselves as experts in an area that promises to bring value to their organizations.

The new experts
"The event planner is typically the first adopter of this technology," says a spokesperson for PlaceWare, a virtual meetings firm in Mountain View, Calif.

"I think this could be a great new career path for meeting planners," notes Rod Marymor, president of San Francisco-based meetings technology firm Cardinal Communications. "Learning how to use today's technology takes a lot less time than learning how to successfully run meetings," he adds.

Texas Instruments was an early advocate. The Dallas-based electronics maker created a new position last year to manage the burgeoning number of online events. Virtual meetings provider WebEx was integrated into the company's intranet; the program is used to hold staff briefings with employees in different countries, and marketing and product design meetings with far-flung associates. Reduced travel and quick product roll-outs are among the benefits, says virtual teams manager Marshall Woolard.

Other corporations are designating gurus of virtual events. Earlier this year, Honeywell Corp., the Morristown, N.J.-based aerospace manufacturer, decided to consolidate its patchwork of Web-based meetings. Kelly Pratt, Honeywell's newly named manager of learning administration, has been charged with selecting a single supplier, training employees who will use the software, as well as monitoring the actual process and soliciting user feedback.

The company should realize a six-figure savings for just three meetings held online earlier this year, estimates Richard Hoeg, manager of technical education and training services at Honeywell.

Not far behind is San Francisco-based Charles Schwab. The brokerage firm now uses a hodgepodge of applications for virtual meetings, says Amelia Barnes, director of creative and production services. Some are pieced together by the company's IT department and some leased from third-party vendors. "I handle the management of it, but it's not anyone's job at the moment," she says, adding, "We are looking at purchasing something a little more user-friendly. There's going to be a need for someone to pull this together."

Choosing a partner
When selecting a virtual meetings supplier, planners should first consider current and future needs. Some key factors:

  • Group size. Charles Schwab initially had a contract with a virtual meetings company but quickly outgrew the supplier's limit of 1,000 participants per event. Now, Barnes says, "We're looking to do virtual meetings regularly with technology that's reliable, easy to use and scalable to our 20,000 employees," as well as to the external shareholders who log in for quarterly report announcements.
  • Limited participation. Small gatherings are more conducive to attendee interaction. Planners setting up larger events should predetermine which attendees will be able to ask questions.
  • Interactive tools. Options regarding audience participation include polls, real-time chat rooms that can be archived, access to shared files, and whiteboarding, which lets attendees "draw" on a virtual whiteboard. These functions can be preset prior to the meeting and modified during the event.
  • Security measures. Suppliers offer browser-based meetings that provide encryption. In addition, meetings can be "unlisted" instead of being posted on the supplier's Web site. Some suppliers, such as Santa Clara, Calif.-based Latitude, offer both browser-based and internally hosted platforms, which are contained within a firm's firewall. Since nothing is transmitted over the Web, the chance of information leakage is greatly reduced.
  • Price. For a one-time event, expect to pay a fee that includes a basic setup charge of several thousand dollars, depending on the number of attendees. For regular usage, buyers purchase subscriptions for each participant. Subscription or "seat" holders may engage in an unlimited number of meetings during the term of the subscription. Per-seat costs average a few hundred dollars annually.
  • Learning curve
    Most virtual meetings suppliers offer free demos, letting planners set up a small meeting to acquaint themselves and their supervisors with the programs. The demo is accompanied by a phone connection, so planners can ask questions and can be talked through any instructions they do not understand.Some caveats to keep in mind:

  • Hardware requirements. Computers must have a pentium chip and at least 64 MB of RAM. Some systems are not compatible with Macintosh units.
  • Software issues. Some corporations do not let their employees download files off the Internet for security reasons. If an employer has blocked Java, most virtual meetings systems will not work, since users might be required to download a plug-in provided by the supplier.
  • Connectivity. The speed of each participants' Internet connection is important. Dial-up connections often are insufficient. Users should have a cable, DSL or land connection.
  • Setting up. Once a supplier has been selected, planners register meetings by entering a name and password to access the site, then selecting a date and time. Planners can send e-mail notices to all participants including this information plus an optional password. The site then provides a list of options about audience participation and meeting content, which includes instructions about how to upload PowerPoint material, establish links to other relevant Web sites and set up virtual whiteboards.
  • Meeting in progress. Planners who will not be facilitating the meeting should select an attendee to lead the proceedings. Include a list of who will be able to speak and/or work with the content. Consider holding a Q&A session at the end of the meeting to allow all attendees a chance to comment.
  • Audio. Live voice contact can be carried out either over an Internet phone or by a concurrent teleconference set up by the supplier. Most users choose a teleconference, since Internet phone use requires each participant to have a sound card and a speaker, and each speaker also must have a microphone.
  • Video-streaming. Live video, while an appealing concept, cannot match the seamless connectivity of a videoconference. A number of obstacles are associated with streaming video, including the need to hire a video crew and access a robust Internet connection, typically an ISDN, DSL or cable line.
    Java: A computer program on Web browsers such as Netscape and Internet Explorer that must be enabled in order for users to access most virtual meetings. An IT professional easily can facilitate this if Java is not already activated.

    T.120 application: A program, such as Microsoft's NetMeeting, that allows a user to connect to certain virtual meetings without a Web browser. This is typically used when a high level of security is necessary.

    Video streaming: A live video feed that allows participants to see one another in real time, similar to videoconferencing. It is not commonly used, because bandwidth requirements are very high and special cameras and microphone equipment are required.

    Web conferencing: Small virtual meetings with two to 50 or so participants, characterized by a higher level of interactivity. Most or all attendees participate by telephone hookups or live chats. Visuals can include PowerPoint charts and graphs, software demonstrations and pictures or graphs "drawn" on a virtual whiteboard.

    Webcasting: Suitable for much larger meetings of up to several thousand. Unlike Web conferencing, attendee participation is limited to a few speakers and perhaps a Q&A session at the end. Visual components are similar to Web conferences, although Webcasts are more likely than smaller events to include live video.


    Times were rocky for Canton, Ohio-based Timken Co. this summer. The metals manufacturing firm had decided to close two plants, a move that would likely put 1,500 employees out of work. Elaine Reolfi, manager of corporate marketing and communications, was concerned about delivering the news in a sensitive, personalized manner but faced logistical hurdles.

    With plants in 26 countries running 24 hours a day, face-to-face meetings or videoconferences were impossible to coordinate without shutting down assembly lines and losing productivity. "We had time- zone issues, we had access issues, and we couldn't stop operations," Reolfi says.

    Her solution? Go online. Timken's top 200 global managers participated in a teleconference, which was recorded and photographed. Reolfi then set up a macromedia flash file summarizing the announcement by way of audio, photography and charts. The three-minute file was e-mailed to 12,500 employees, who could view it as their schedules allowed. Line workers on shift and employees without access to the company intranet saw a looping version that played in public areas of the plants. An estimated 20,000 workers saw the presentation.

    An e-mail link invited employees to send comments to management, and despite the somber content, Reolfi received positive feedback from several dozen employees. "You can't replace face-to-face contact, but we're tying to use technology to reduce costs in reaching people," she says.


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