Virtual meetings have been an industry talking point for over five years, but now that the technology is more robust and prices are falling, users are becoming more receptive to the concept and the mechanics. The challenge for corporates is how best to integrate virtual with face-to-face.
Bernstein Research claims that virtual conferencing could replace 70% of domestic travel and 10% of international corporate travel over the next 10–15 years. If this is true, corporate travel budgets could shrink by up to 21% globally.
Adoption is growing fastest in the US, Western Europe, Russia and South Africa. Forrester Research estimates that the US virtual meeting market will be worth $30 billion (£18.6 billion) by 2020. 17% of US business travellers have used video conferencing in 2010 to reduce their business travel and 48% expect their companies to introduce policies governing its use by late 2011.
Recent world events have helped the growth of virtual too. The recession forced companies to review their internal meetings strategies, whilst the volcanic ash crisis has led to a permanent increase in video conferencing for some. Telepresence goes beyond the traditional screen-to-screen experience, using high-definition video and audio to create the illusion that meeting participants are sitting in the same room, wherever they may be.
2010 research, published by the Institute of Travel & Meetings, showed that virtual technologies play two contrasting roles in business: as a tool that can “mitigate the need for some corporate travel” and as an enabler, enhancing “productivity while on the road and in virtual office situations.”
The financial advantages of virtual are now also being realised. Microsoft is assessing the potential reductions in corporate travel spend and has started measuring the effectiveness of its Telepresence suites in Seattle, Singapore and Reading to see how quickly they are helping users bring new products to market, thereby speeding up product development.
The reality is that businesses are embracing virtual as a component of, rather than an alternative to, face-to-face meetings. Live events deliver the advantages of networking, relationship building and personal interaction not viable through virtual. So virtual may work for some internal meetings, but others and external ones are a different story.
The healthcare sector
The healthcare sector has been a late adopter of virtual meetings, as the marketing director of one major player explains. “In our industry customers need access to the latest information and to networking, which is where virtual lets itself down.
“You have to look at the full customer experience and at customers’ needs, to determine how virtual meetings fit in with traditional face-to-face, and how this fits in with other customer activities. Keeping the customer at the centre is essential and virtual meetings certainly have a part to play, given their cost effectiveness and time efficiency.”
Whether, and how quickly, this will change in the healthcare sector depends mainly on the audience. For example cardiologists tend to be older than HIV specialists who are more web-literate.
The advice from virtual meeting adopters to those considering doing so reflects personal experiences and their own corporate culture. However there is some consensus: the need for senior management buy-in and for clear policies to be devised around the circumstances in which virtual is selected.
Jane Culcheth-Beard of Hewlett Packard: “You need to evolve policies for when to use virtual, or a hybrid, or face-to-face. At HP we developed an event balance sheet that enables us to track spend on both virtual and face-to-face so that we can achieve a better picture of costs and benefits based on real experiences.
“Even within a technology environment face-to-face still has an important role to play. There are cultural considerations and you cannot shake hands virtually. The key lies in understanding when the use of this technology is appropriate. It comes down to not losing sight of your objectives. Be clear on who your target audience is and how best to reach them.”
Challenges of integrating virtual into face-to-face
Corporate culture is a major influence on the integration of virtual into a meetings programme. For example, there may be a reluctance to hold virtual meetings because of a perception that they might distance the audience from the host.
Security and data protection are important considerations too. The reputational damage arising from cybercrime is potentially huge, so policies data sharing needs to be robust. But whatever the delivery medium, an event is still an event. It needs well-rehearsed, polished speakers who understand the different nuances of delivery in both live and virtual environments, and how to adapt to either.
Possibly the biggest barrier to the adoption remains cost. Installing a Telepresence system can require a six-figure capital investment. However, the potential savings gained from travel avoidance remain a key benefit of virtual for many corporates, yet as Grass Roots’ Alan Newton explains, this may be an over-simplistic approach:
“Putting aside for a moment the clear benefits of face-to-face, such as relationship building, networking, influencing, etc., a more effective way to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of this technology is for meetings involving delegates who are a medium or long-haul flight away from one another. The flight time and effort for delegates to reach the host increases the out-of-office time and the actual flight & housing costs. In this instance the cost of virtually meeting is more cost effective for three reasons:
- The distance – the longer it takes to travel, the more cost effective virtual becomes
- The longer the meeting, the more virtual can negate accommodation costs for the duration of the meeting. But remember at present virtual meetings tend to last up to eight hours and is not ideal for more
- Seniority of delegates – delegate time is money.”
The benefits of virtual for internal meetings seem to be understood. Yet virtual will not replace face-to-face. Organisations will just need to think more about what they are trying to achieve with a particular audience.
Future estimates of the ratio of virtual to face-to-face within a meeting programme suggest change is imminent, but that just as much growth will be in events that combine elements of virtual delivery within a face-to-face environment.