Absent Friends

Despite advances in digital communications, conference organizers are learning that there is no substitute for face-to-face events. Merging the best of both formats could be the key.

The paperless office has been promised for years – and has never materialised. For some in conference production, the promise of events which bypass all face-to-face contact between delegates and speakers falls into a similar category. Is it really possible, and even if it is, does anyone actually want it?

For most types of conference – from the internal seminar format to the major external event hauling in a spectrum of delegates – the priority is to make the day as interesting, motivating and memorable as possible. Having the right person presenting live and in situ is often the best way of meeting all three objectives.

That said, the benefits of having access to some sort of remote digital conferencing technology, as well as web-based preand post-event communications, are clear. Client expectations are changing, and events companies which have organised conferences along traditional lines in the past are having to gear up in order to compete.

“If you go back a few years, much of the events production business started with industrial theatre,” claims Nick Lamb, managing director of independent production company Crown Business Communications. “If you still have industrial theatre as the mainstay of your company, then it has a grim future indeed. Those sorts of companies will not survive – nor should they.”

Lamb admits that there may be some specialist markets where low-tech production will still be required. On the other hand, it is also perfectly feasible for companies to evolve in order to offer a more sophisticated service, he says.

As Lamb stresses, this sophistication is not just to do with the event itself. “It is post-event where our service has improved the most,” says Lamb. “In the past, you built up to a crescendo, and then it was finished. But in my opinion, nowadays that’s only the start.” Follow-up, which is increasingly channelled via Internet and intranets, can include more efficient feedback systems from delegates, as well as further marketing.

Pre-conference communications, registration and information gathering about delegate preferences can all be handled more effectively using the Internet, says Lamb. During the event itself, companies which are technically adept will be able to deploy everything from automatic scanning of name badges to state-of-the-art lighting effects. “But it’s not rocket science, and you’d really need to have your head stuck in the sand not to embrace all of this,” he says.

Of course, use of the Net is far from being limited to the preparations for a conference or the follow-up. When Line Up Communications organised a major three-day event for Hotpoint earlier this year, one important plank of the production was a live webcast for those who were unable to attend the event in person.

Aimed at high street retailers and consumer press, the award-winning exercise was no traditional conference. A total of 1,400 delegates were treated to a “walk-through” experience presenting new Hotpoint products to small groups. One room even created the illusion of being inside the drum of a washing machine, with a turntable and water-effect lighting.

But while remote access via websites and webcams was very much in keeping with the hi-tech nature of the event in this case, there may be good reasons for questioning the relevance of a real-time link-up. “Usually, the reason why people can’t turn up to these events is because they’re too busy,” points out Lawrence Croneen, managing director of brand communication agency Jack Morton Worldwide. The logical substitute will often be to field a more manageable package of edited highlights.

“When we organised an event for Credit Suisse First Boston in Hong Kong, it included a commitment to having the top messages webcast around the world within 24 hours,” says Croneen. “You could see and hear the speakers, but it meant that in half an hour, you could grasp the essentials of eight hours of presentations.”

Of course, where the conference is information-based and divides into a series of timed presentations, those who are interested but cannot attend the event may welcome the opportunity to log on to a specific contribution in full. Increasingly, for this kind of material, it seems likely that a combination of web-based live coverage and “streamed” or recorded summary will be offered.

Most organisers are sceptical about the degree to which digital communication can take the place of face-to-face contact. “The idea that this sort of technology can replace a live event ignores a fundamental human characteristic that we want to be in each other’s company,” says Line Up managing director Duncan Beale.

“You simply cannot replace the sense of belonging that people need, whether you are talking about supporters of a football club or a company workforce,” says Beale. “With more people working remotely now for more of the time, the importance of getting together on specific occasions becomes even greater.”

The aims of Line Up’s Hotpoint presentation were to raise the profile of the manufacturer and, above all, to boost sales. Significantly, the walk-through finished with a carefully scheduled one-to-one meeting with the company’s sales personnel.

This underlines some of the benefits of both involving the delegate directly in a given event and tailoring content to the individual. “There is always a balance to be struck between drawing people into a shared experience and ensuring that they are recognised and treated as individuals,” says Beale. “You have to tread a line between the two.”

Experiences which are live and which address the individual as part of a tangible group have been shown by research, Line Up argues, to make an event and its key messages more memorable, and to help in the acceptance of ideas. The psychology of an event like the Hotpoint launch can be further honed through interactive sessions and hands-on product trials. The entire concept of the “presentation”, says Beale, has now moved on from the traditional model where the audience was passive – and saw itself in that role.

Of course, one of the irreplaceable elements in most business events is the frenzied networking that accompanies them. According to Alex Fenn, marketing manager at conference organiser IIR, making new contacts and renewing old ones remains one of the principal reasons why people attend conferences at all. So certain is the company of this market that it has just created IIR Bespoke, a new division which manages and stages events for third-party clients.

While IIR has channelled more of its preand post-event communications towards the Web, it has not yet used the medium to provide a live link-up with a speaker. Fenn draws a comparison between remote Net-based presentations as a replacement for conferences and virtual online exhibitions, for which “stand” space can already be bought. Both may be very effective in achieving certain objectives, she says, but both lack that essential element of networking.

Ian Clarke, marketing director of Internet solutions provider Polyspan, prophesies that the bulk of business will still be carried out face-to-face, and that there is no substitute for this. “But technology is also allowing people to be a lot more productive,” he says, citing the example of one of the company’s own product managers who was able to use a two-way webcam link for a 15-minute presentation rather than being out of the office for an entire day.

Increasingly, says Clarke, the cost of ferrying an expert to a conference or, say, a roadshow presentation, will be difficult to justify. A live link-up can be perfectly acceptable, he believes, within the context of an otherwise face-to-face event. The company offers systems both for real-time and on-demand access over the Web.

Jack Morton’s Croneen is rather more cynical about the reasons why certain companies may want a live link via the Internet rather than a satellite. “Often, if it is someone who sees themselves as a representative of the Web, you have to use the Web,” he says. “But if you want greater reliability, then you use satellite.”

Organiser Apex.co.uk has similar reservations about the dependability of the Web, but is wary about real-time links in general. “Conferences are live situations,” says director Paul Ashford. “And in live situations you don’t take risks. If you pre-record a contribution on video, you don’t run the risk of having the screen blank out halfway through.”

With webcasting, says Ashford, you also have to be conscious of how many users are likely to access the site in any given moment, and he believes that bi-directional technology is still very stilted. But use of the Web is cheaper than satellite, he admits, and its reliability will improve. For those determined to present live, an ISDN link is another option.

Ashford predicts that the “show-and-tell” type conference will wither away, partly because the contents can be better presented through other media, but partly because audience expectations from live events will also change. “It’s a shame, because we’re moving away from human interaction,” he says. “I’m not saying that it’s sinister, but interaction remains one of the joys of conferences. So, will technology kill off the conference business? No, it won’t.”

What is clear, says Apex, is that the conference will continue to evolve into a format which emphasises communication, but with the informative element increasingly channelled towards the Net and intranets. Production companies which recognise this, which can invent stimulating and interactive event formats, and which have mastered electronic handling of the lead-up and follow-up should see their client list growing – not shrinking.

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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here

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