SBHD: Video and satellite conferencing is taking over from the traditional one-dimensional conference, presenting information in a way that is easier to digest and retain. But, warns Julia Davies, exciting media vehicles cannot disguise a bland message
No-one can question the impact developments in audio-visual and communications technologies are having on our lives. We have turned from records to CDs in ten years, our children will soon be learning from interactive CD-Roms instead of books, and teleworking is no longer a rarity.
At work, databases can be accessed and searched at the touch of a button, colleagues can send substantial documents and graphics down a telephone line and designs and hard copy are giving way to virtual reality and the paperless office.
Communication businesses that try to resist this rapid change do themselves no favours. Competitors who have invested time and money are doing things faster, cheaper and more efficiently. Market resistance to change is lessening and clients are increasingly demanding state-of-the-art products.
Venues are also moving with the times to deliver up-to-date communications technology as part of a standard package. “The leaner Nineties organisation is concerned with how to use technology effectively to make the best use of time and space. The key to the future for hotels and conference venues is responsiveness to these new ways of working,” says Hilton National director of commercial marketing Carmel Cahill.
Venues are turning to video-conferencing, business television and satellite links directly into meeting rooms. De Vere Hotels marketing manager Janice Eagleson says: “Video and satellite conferencing is becoming more common. It’s not widespread yet, but there’s no doubt that more and more clients are looking for these facilities, particularly for smaller meetings.”
Robin Nash, presentation development manager at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London, has been actively developing customer interest in new ways of communicating. “We have been running client education seminars on technology and audio-visuals. Video-conferencing is on the increase since we upgraded to eight ISDN lines, which gives us near-broadcast quality transmission. The King of Sweden recently used the facilities to promote Sweden’s bid for the 1997 World Expo without leaving his country,” he says.
Inter-Continental Hotels are offering professional multimedia PCs with on-line facilities in hotel rooms. Churchill Inter-Continental general manager Chris Cowdray says this is the first time a hotel group has adopted such a system. “We are constantly looking for ways to improve our service to business guests and are delighted to be able to offer such a technological first.”
It is widely recognised that the conference circuit has a lot to gain from developments in IT. “Event organisers are looking for new ways to connect. Delegates have been getting `conference-wise’ – they knew what they were going to get. New technology is a tool that allows us to create a new flexibility and challenge convention,” says Imagination marketing director Ralph Ardill.
Crown Business Communications managing director Nick Lamb says: “As a method of communicating information from a speaker to an audience, developments in multimedia and audio-visual technology are invaluable. The days of uninspiring slides, limited computer graphics and conflict in screen format sizes are gone. Audiences are becoming increasingly demanding about the information they require, and technological advances make the information more focused, easier to digest and retain.”
But no amount of technical back-up will cover up a poor message. The content of an address must take precedence, whatever media is used to convey it.
“Technology must be seen as giving us more tools to match the right message, with the right media, for the right audience. Within that matrix, identifying the right content has to be where the front end thinking is,” says Ardill.
Though multimedia is a familiar term, when questioned few conference buyers can actually define it. Nick Lamb prefers to break multimedia down into two distinct categories: presentational multimedia and consumer multimedia.
“Presentational multimedia is a variety of media, including text, graphics, images, sound and full motion video linked together and appearing simultaneously on one screen. Consumer multimedia will take off within the next five years, with the convergence of the telephone, PC and TV into one box to give the consumer video-on-demand, shopping, banking, travel and leisure services, open learning, interactive television, video phone and so on,” says Lamb.
“Although it doesn’t have a direct impact on UK business now, the predictions are that consumer multimedia will revolutionise the way people live, work and think. Its potential for both consumers and business is akin to a second industrial revolution,” he says.
The most immediate benefit for conference buyers is multimedia presentations. Lessons can be learned from the Managing in the `90s DTI Road Show which toured the UK last year.
The DTI wanted to speak to 20,000 managers from small to medium-sized UK businesses to advise them about relevant management topics, as well as collating a vast and unique database about managers’ attitudes and information requirements.
Each visitor to the road-show was provided with a lap top computer for the duration of the event. This technology not only transmitted presentation material to each delegate, but allowed interactive access to the DTI facilitator. Visitors could choose options, key in priorities and, ultimately, determine the format of the presentation.
In addition to business preferences, each delegate was required to key in personal details, including regional bias. The DTI used the resulting database to send relevant information to the right people.
Without the aid of new technology, the scale of events such as this would present organisers with a logistical and financial nightmare.
IML is a company that manufactures, operates and supplies interactive group response systems. Sales and marketing director Peter Knowles believes that the judicious use of interactive multimedia allows conference speakers to stimulate their audience: “If an audience can react to comments made and see their reactions flashed up as part of the presentation, they are bound to sit up and take notice.
“There is far more opportunity for empathy-building and communication than there was in the old lecture-style conferences.”
Ardill adds that: “A `sit-up-and-listen’, one dimensional conference will soon no longer be enough. The opportunity for conference organisers and their speakers to connect and interact with an audience will shortly become a necessity, not a novelty. The benefits of two-way communication are too great to ignore.”
Media such as business TV and video-conferencing have threatened to reduce demand for large scale conferences. An efficient application of business TV is exemplified by a major car dealer, which has installed a satellite dish at each of its hundreds of dealership sites across the UK. It receives a designated TV channel run by and about the company, so that all dealers can be kept abreast of events. Video-conferencing reduces the need for face-to-face meetings and the need to travel to them. Representatives from several countries can be brought together without leaving their offices.
Knowles says: “It is a clichÃ©that the only real assets of a company are those that go home at night. But it is true that the proponents of multimedia have to listen to the end user. The need for face-to-face contact will never disappear. Much of the point of conferences and events – networking, socialising and exchanging ideas – is not achievable unless people gather together.”
Knowles says even business TV will be made interactive, with employees being able to convey as well as receive information. This would reduce the feeling of isolation that may affect teleworkers and remote dealers.
“IML will shortly be piloting an interactive keypad system for business TV. This will enable data to be transferred down the telephone line, according to prompts from the business TV programme, collated, and then re-transmitted on the same channel. This will provide a communication loop between delegates at multi-sited meetings,” says Knowles.
The future of conferences depends as much on audience attitudes as the technology used to deliver information. “Today, there is already an emerging re-definition of what a conference is about. In the future, the name of the game will be to develop communication vehicles effective enough to change behaviour – to carry the message of the conference forward long after the event itself,” says Ardill.
It looks as if these vehicles will be IT-based and that interactive audiences will break down the model of the conventional conference.
However, organisers must be aware that no amount of exciting media vehicles will give real impact to a flat message. Technology is just one element, and will never be the driver.
Nick Lamb predicts that the next few years will see an explosion of multimedia business applications, but that by the millennium attitudes may have changed again.
“No technology can replace the benefits of meeting people. In the future, it may become a popular option to listen directly to a conference speaker in a room full of other people, with no technological back-up whatsoever,” he says.
IML’s interactive keypad system (left) will enable data to be transferred down the telephone line, according to prompts from the business TV programme, collated, and retransmitted on the same channel.