As the business world increasingly turns to electronic communication, the need for face-to-face meetings has decreased dramatically. The potential effects of this trend on the conference industry are currently under debate, with some suggesting the requirement to bring people together in a conference format may disappear altogether.
But obviously there are those who disagree – not surprisingly conference organisers and venues.
Managing director of Royal Horticultural Halls Rene Dee is particularly vehement in his belief that technology does not decrease the need for physical conferences.
“The essential ingredient to the events industry has always been people. Electronic devices and technological advances are good facilitators and have their place, but will never change the need for people to physically get together.
“I don’t believe the day will ever come when we are completely locked in rooms, communicating to each other through television consoles or videoconferencing. The conference industry is pretty buoyant and I don’t see it being damaged or eroded by these sorts of things.”
Jane Littlewood, operations director for Hayley Conference Centres, agrees that predictions of the industry’s demise are unnecessarily alarmist.
“We’ve discovered as people start to use electronic communication tools on a daily basis, the need for face-to- face meetings becomes more important. People go to conferences because they are away from their office environment.
“It’s away from the e-mail, the Internet and telephones. It gets people out of the box and into a different creative mood. It may be their only opportunity to really get to know each other.”
What goes on after hours is as important as the content of a conference, in Littlewood’s experience.
“Everybody sits around after the conference and puts the world to rights. A lot of good ideas come from sitting over dinner and discussing a project. It doesn’t matter how much you try, you can’t get that kind of informal interaction and communication any other way.”
The only area where technology such as videoconferencing has the edge is where the cost of long-distance travel can be avoided.
“If someone wants to have a meeting in the US or Australia then the cost benefits of videoconferencing are immense, but most companies still prefer to meet around a table in the same room.
“Internet coverage is probably the area we get asked for most. People want to access Internet and particularly their own e-mails. Very few want to broadcast proceedings on the Internet during a conference, although they might do afterwards,” says Littlewood.
Andrew Hillary, managing director of Clearwater Communications, cautions against the inappropriate use of technology.
“It may make live meetings smarter and better, but you cannot motivate people electronically. The behaviour of individuals changes when they become part of a crowd – they move together and act in unison – and this allows for human motivation.
“The benefits of face-to-face events are crucial to business. Networking, motivation and relationship-building are vital to the smooth running of companies. True interactivity does not work electronically, and because so much of our communication is now done electronically, we actually need the ‘touchy-feely’ meeting more than before.”
A sense of belonging is a key benefit of conferences, says Hillary.
“Digitisation may have made it easier for us to communicate speedily and conveniently, but the need to belong is instinctive. Being invited to attend functions makes one feel special, and we enjoy associating with like-minded people to share thoughts and experiences.”
The tools used aren’t as important as what you are trying to achieve, says Hillary.
While most events require relationship building through human contact, he believes there are some business sectors where technology should be given free rein.
“If you’re in an IT-related business, why not have your conference in cyber-space? This is what we’re looking at in terms of e-business.”
In the field of actual exhibitions, rather than conferencing, technology can also be used to provide a much-needed overhaul of expectations.
Says Hillary: “Exhibiting is terribly chauvinistic: there’s this thing about the size of your stand. It’s not a relationship-building environment, it’s built on having big graphic panels, or giving people loads of product information or having product on display. You see these poor business people wandering around festooned with bags filled with brochures, pens and goodies that they’ve picked up on the rounds. Even quite sophisticated exhibitions are not that different; it’s that awful inevitability of it all.
“You can now connect a stand to the outside world using ISDN, optical fibre or digital connections. You could have videoconferencing with key people in your organisation rather than a sad individual collecting business cards.”
Nick Lamb, managing director of Crown Business Communications, points out that reticence about technology is only a problem among the current generation of managers and possibly the next one.
“The generations coming up behind us do not have the baggage we do in interpreting things. Strong drivers that are holding back technological changes will not exist in the next generation.
“The whole basis on which people are looking at technology is changing. The Internet has become a total living tool. It will be in everybody’s homes. Whether or not it’s integrated in a box or a screen, we’re already starting to find it in every facet of our lives.”
Digital technology has many advantages in the conference industry, says Lamb.
“With an Intranet, you can introduce speakers, ask for content, involve the audience, and get them motivated, just by having a weekly update on the site. You can also hotlink to other clients, speakers and companies that have done it successfully.
“The event itself, even now but certainly in the next two years, can be used almost as a live resource. You can take a live feed or do it interactively. The power of the digital platform is such that anybody can download information from it. You can interact with an audience in a way that’s never been possible before. In longer conferences, you can actually change the content for the next day’s presentation by getting the comments on what happened before.”
Post-event research and evaluation will also receive a shot in the arm from technology, says Lamb.
“It used to be that a few questionnaires and calls to the managing director could be regarded as sensible research and evaluation. The Internet allows you to find out what people are thinking and to continue to monitor the success of the event. You can drive the whole process of an event through a 365-days-a-year cycle; you can even start to drive the content for the next conference.”
Jane Garner, director of Wembley Conference & Exhibition Centre, is equally upbeat about the changes the industry can expect from technology.
“Through advancements in technology we can only improve the quality of communication and content of the message by increasingly sophisticated presentations, and save time and cost with the ability to communicate to a far wider audience.”
Global business demands global technology, in her view, and Wembley is prepared for the challenge.
“Companies can link international directors, management and sales teams for simultaneous pan-national briefings with our video conferencing facilities.”
There are, however, still some aspects of conferences that technology will not touch, says Garner.
“The demand for syndicate rooms and secondary meeting rooms alongside the main hall is a reflection that a conference is often not just one all-in meeting.
“Companies and organisations can make the most of bringing people together by making the event interactive, dividing teams for workshops, and by holding various sub-group meetings or training sessions during or after the main event,” she adds.
Garner also believes that the growing trend for people to work in virtual teams results in a desire for communal gatherings that might not have existed before.
“Companies with staff who work from home or different sites find personal contact, the occasional face-to-face meeting with colleagues, is an essential element of team working. A conference is often the best regular way to provide this.”
Despite the buoyant demand for old-fashioned personal contact, the nature of conferences and exhibitions has already changed fundamentally, says Lamb.
“I think it is foolish to suggest that technology isn’t effectively reducing some of the shows that used to happen. Certain events are now being produced on a digital platform. But other shows are taking their place. These things are running parallel. It’s not a negative, it’s just a change.”
Organisers and venue providers alike may wish to be seen to embrace the new technological realities so as not to appear vulnerable. In this process, it is important that those who hold the purse strings are not left out of the loop, says Clearwater’s Hillary.
“Often the people who are budget holders for stands are far removed from the people who are looking at the long-term brand strategy. It’s a big industry but it has got itself into something of a conservative rut. It’s going to take a while for the industry as a whole to change and for people’s perceptions to change.”