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On the Agenda: Modernizing the Meeting

May 10, 2009 | Chris Payatagool

Thumbnail image for NYT_Polycom_RPX.jpgLIFE-SIZE  Mary Jane Sedor and Larry Quinlan of Deloitte in their New York office on a video conference call with colleagues in Tennessee.

By SUSAN CATTO
Published: May 6, 2009

DON'T tell Marge Anderson that the era of the business meeting is over. As the associate director of the Energy Center of Wisconsin, a nonprofit institute in Madison that provides training in sustainable energy, she is still planning meetings -- the big kind, involving travel, attendance fees and hundreds of people.

There's just one problem: many of the contractors, architects and engineers who could most benefit from the training can no longer afford to travel to get it.

"Our customers are affected by the economy; they've lost jobs and profits are down," Ms. Anderson said. "They have less money, and we have had to adapt."

First, the energy center is taking its seminars to customers. One example is the daylong course "Understanding and Managing Electrical Power Quality." In previous years, the center might have offered it once in Madison. But this month, it's being offered four times -- in Madison, La Crosse, Eau Claire and Green Bay. The center has also increased online educational offerings and made most of them available at no charge.

When the center held its first Web seminar in March, about 700 people logged in -- far more than anticipated, Ms. Anderson said.

So far, this kind of outreach has not reduced attendance at events held in person: more than 900 attended a recent two-day conference on green energy issues in residential construction, up 25 percent from last year.

The economic crisis and a backlash against perceived boondoggles present a minefield for corporate meeting planners. But the need to justify meetings -- with explanations, for example, of why they exist, how much they cost and what they achieve -- is seen by some professional organizers as a long-overdue opportunity to modernize how meetings are conducted.

Mary Boone of Essex, Conn., who specializes in corporate communications and large-scale meeting design, said, "That's what we need to focus on now: how we can create strategic value with meetings, looking at not only what we're spending but at their effectiveness."

At Bacardi U.S.A., Victoria Ascione, the director of corporate meetings and events, said the new attitude had "made us stop to think if there is a value in actually having people sitting together in a room."

Significant changes resulted. At some Bacardi meetings, executives whose input might be needed for only a portion of the sessions now phone in, rather than attending, and the company plans back-to-back events to make the most of its travel budget.

"If we're going to bring our sales vice presidents from across the company to Miami, where we are headquartered, we might do two different meetings," Ms. Ascione said, "a companywide leadership meeting, for instance, and immediately afterward a marketing meeting for those who have traveled in."

The heightened attention to cost and appearances, as well as the introduction of government rules for companies receiving bailout money, has also highlighted the benefits of centralized meeting planning and policies.

"Companies are looking for processes to ensure that whatever meetings or events they pursue don't come under public criticism," said Kevin Iwamoto, vice president of enterprise strategy at StarCite, a company in Philadelphia that offers Web-based meeting management software.

Mr. Iwamoto said he believed the time was right for travel managers to start using comprehensive meeting policies. There are also opportunities for business travel-management companies, which offer tools to compare vendors, track the cost of meeting-related travel, gather feedback and ensure compliance with regulations of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, and other policies.

According to Ms. Boone, many corporate travel planners have been trying to focus executives' attention on streamlining meetings for years, only to be told when times were good that the topic was not a priority. "The silver lining in all this is that it is raising the concept of meeting planning to a senior level," she said.

Another benefit might be that videoconferencing could finally come of age, as the drive to cut costs has dovetailed with the availability of less expensive, more sophisticated systems. The Regus Group, which operates a chain offering business facilities, has seen the demand for videoconferencing services increase by as much as 40 percent over previous years, said Guillermo Rotman, the chief executive.

 At Procter & Gamble, which several years ago started using Cisco's life-size videoconferencing product called TelePresence, the demand has been higher than anticipated. "Two years ago we planned to have 43 locations," said Laurie Heltsley, director of strategic projects for Procter & Gamble's Global Business Services. "Now we expect to have 50 to 70 by the end of the year."

"Recently we had our C.E.O. and his core leadership team together for a conference over TelePresence, linked to locations around the world for the first time ever, across nearly every time zone," she said. Saving money on travel is an advantage for the company, but employees also like being able to go home at night to their families, she added.

Similarly, at the accounting firm of Deloitte, which began adding high-definition videoconferencing equipment to its offices about a year ago, it's no longer unusual for as many as 80 employees in 10 cities to meet without the expense of airfare or hotels.

And according to Larry Quinlan, a principal at Deloitte, once employees and management overcome their initial resistance, they're happy to forgo travel -- perhaps indefinitely.

"In previous downturns, as soon as you got travel money in your budget again you'd get back on the planes because the videoconferencing experience wasn't that good," Mr. Quinlan said. But with better systems in place, he said, "you can now scheme to reduce travel on a permanent basis. The economic downturn merely provides management with the mandate to do it."

Like so many other beleaguered industries, the meeting business is unlikely to return to its former pace, even after the recession lifts. But companies that have adopted new approaches to meetings could emerge in better shape than those that slashed their budgets and canceled their plans.

"We know the economy isn't going to stay like this forever," Ms. Anderson said. "We don't want to lose our connection to our customers between now and when the economy comes back."

[via NY Times]








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