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Why virtual won’t replace face-to-face

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Remember when you had just the one telephone, and it was in the house? Nowadays we have an average of three phones, and some people don’t even have one of their three in the house at all. 

The number of mobiles is exceeding household phones is an example of how one new technology doesn’t necessarily replace an old one, it grows it. 

A recent report indicated that within five years 20 per cent of all meetings will be virtual. On first reading many venues and event agencies might be worried, but in my view they should rejoice and welcome this news. The virtual meetings debate isn’t black and white. One will never replace the other and in fact may well lead to an overall increase in meetings.

The way we use technology for business and meetings is always evolving. Just look at the growth and influence of the internet over the past 20 years. Remember the myth about the paperless office? People simply print emails now! Weren’t video conferencing, phone, internet, fax and WebEx all supposed to reduce the number of meetings? And yet, look at the growth of business travel, Regus offices, training venues and corporate focused hotel rooms in the last ten years. All that technology has done is enhance the market it has affected.

If you can live with the broad brush statements that conference calls are not virtual meetings (even though they are) and that there are only two types of virtual events (webinars and virtual conferences), then we can debate whether virtual conferences are going to replace live meetings. Half the world’s population was born in the internet age and will have different attitudes to online meetings. This generation will spread virtual meetings like a contagion through the “real” meetings sector, surely? 

They won’t. Yes, some “real” meetings may become virtual, but other will take their place. The question for me is: how quickly will virtual technology grow the “real” meetings world?  According to research, virtual meetings are set to rise to 20 per cent but not any higher. Why? Just look at the media industry. Online was supposed to have killed print by now, but new magazines spring up every month. Even my 18-year-old son armed with BlackBerry, iPhone and iPad likes to pick up a newspaper. Okay, only looks at the back pages, but that’s like a vegetarian eating their first bacon sandwich – you sort of know it will happen again. 

Virtual meetings technology will add value to mix and be utilised to when and where appropriate to not just replace, but enhance and create new opportunities for interaction.

How do you know what sort of event should be virtual? The question should be, what do you need your event to do?  If it’s to motivate, communicate, demonstrate, indoctrinate, invigorate, celebrate, commiserate, or in fact virtually any “-ate” then it’s probably more feasible to achieve your objectives with a live experience rather than by email. But if the message is the same in an email, it must be something about the delivery which is important in making the difference. 

Sometimes a virtual meeting will be more relevant, sometimes you will need to be face-to-face and sometimes a combination of the two will be the best solution based on the content, logistics, value and objectives. Virtual or real, live communication requires you to apply the same elements of content, interactivity, motivation and engagement. 

We recently held a semi-virtual conference by organising 26 “real” conferences in smaller venues across Europe and connecting them together live. The time and cost saving on the transport was incredible. The event’s budget was halved. In previous years this event has been held in one location and might have been cancelled this year due to the cost, but going semi-virtual made it possible for the same number of delegates to attend at the same time, just not all in the same place. Of course you might say we organised 26 events not one – just like I have 3 phones, not one anymore.

Nigel Cooper was the founding chair of events trade association Eventia. He is executive director of P&MM Events & Communications.

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