Friday, September 07, 2007

Will technology replace face-to-face meetings?

Jeff Rasco of Attendee Management Inc. pulled me aside at the MPI World Education Congress in Montreal last month with an interesting problem. He had a client who needed fax delivery of their online confirmations, which Certain Registration offers only via e-mail or printable documents. The situation behind this need led me to some interesting discoveries about the application of technology in the meetings industry.

"Virtual" Road Shows - in Person

Jeff had a client who manages events for a major pharmaceutical company. Instead of the typical practice of using a sales rep to pitch a product, the company wanted to arrange a nice steak dinner for doctors to sit down and listen to a world-class expert in their field discuss topics of mutual interest (some of which happened to be the company's products). But the cost of flying such expensive talent around the country to each major city would be high, and no expert is willing to use that much time meeting with a large number of small groups.

So Jeff's client contracted with 50 or so Morton's steak houses to use their new Velocity Suites product. One evening, doctors across the country come to the Boardroom at their local Morton's, are greeted by local representatives from Morton's and the pharmaceutical company, sit down for a nice dinner, and then at a specified time a large screen rolls out and the keynote address is broadcast into each dining room from the headquarters in New Jersey. The Boardrooms are set up for interactive presentations, so attendees can "raise their hand" and ask questions, which are heard at the other locations also.

To me, this is a perfect example of one way technology and "virtual meetings" are changing and will change the meetings industry. Humans are social, and fine food coupled with face-to-face contact with a personable sales rep simply works for businesses. But add to that mix a top-tier speaker in a small group setting, and you have a winning combination. This technology makes it possible to hire a speaker for 50 Boardrooms of 40 people each, when you could never afford the time or cost of meeting each group one at a time. And, done correctly, each small group will feel like they are getting the same attention as if there weren't 2000 others seeing the same program.

Since my conversation with Jeff, I've read more about this concept in the August 2007 issue of Successful Meetings ("Steakhouse Chain Makes High-Tech Meetings" by Vincent Alonzo, p. 11) and at Meeting Focus. I expect to see more restaurants offer this format and more companies use it in the near future.

New Meeting Formats, Same Registration Challenges

So back to the point of Jeff's conversation. His challenge was to manage registration for 50 or so small meetings, which together acted like one big meeting with a couple thousand attendees. Many doctors continue to prefer fax over email for their registration confirmations, so with past small meetings, Jeff's team would handle this request once or twice by simply printing out the email confirmation and then sending it via their fax machine. But the volume of fax requests for the Morton's meeting series was making this process cumbersome. He asked me if we could offer this capability, or if any online registration company does.

I thought about this problem on the flight home and wondered if maybe I could devise a feature for our application where he would enter an e-mail address that contained the registrant's fax number, and then our service would receive the e-mail, convert it into a fax, and deliver it to the appropriate number. I realized this solution could have broader application outside of meetings and briefly thought about starting an offshoot business, until I searched Google and found a dozen existing services. The one I liked best was Faxaway, where you send an email to [fax_number] (e.g.,, it faxes the content to the number provided, and then charges $0.11/minute to your account (based on the "From" email address that you used).

I'm not sure if Jeff used the service, but it was an example to me of the growing breadth of web-based services available to meeting professionals. Application designers don't always have to fit every solution into one system; sometimes it is better to figure out what you want technology to do and then look for it in a stand-alone system that can integrate with your current process.