“Intel’s annual meeting was entirely virtual. There was no in-person gathering site, the questions were submitted in advance, and management and the board made all of their presentations online.”
—Steven Davidoff Solomon, New York Times, Online Shareholders’ Meetings Lower Costs, but Also Interaction
The dawn of online meetings
I spent the summer of 1973 working for the Long-Range Studies Department of the British Post Office, a long-defunct group that attempted to predict the exciting future that new technologies would surely bring about. The Post Office had just built a few hideously expensive teleconferencing studios, connected by outrageously expensive telephone trunk lines. One of our jobs was to find out how to best use them. Could we persuade businesspeople to stop traveling to meetings, to sit instead in comfortable local studios hundreds of miles apart, handsomely equipped with cameras, microphones, screens, and speakers that magically allowed them to meet as well as if they were all in the same room? Why yes, we concluded brightly in our final report:
“A substantial number of business meetings which now occur face-to-face could be conducted effectively by some kind of group telemedia.”
Online meetings today
Forty years later, “group telemedia”, now known as online or virtual meetings, are common and increasingly popular. Solomon’s New York Times article quoted above explores how some corporate shareholder meetings are now held online. The biggest advantages of online meetings are clearly convenience and much lower costs: no travel, venue, or F&B expenditures.
There are, however, some downsides.
Solomon points out that virtual shareholder meetings typically pre-empt meaningful shareholder interaction; convenient if management is facing awkward questions.
“It was no coincidence that the CSX Corporation held its 2008 meeting at a remote rail yard in New Orleans, the same year it was the focus of a shareholder activist putting up a proxy fight. In previous years, it had held those meetings at the luxurious Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, which the railroad owned at the time. A virtual meeting eliminates the potential for a public relations disaster.”
He contrasts such approaches with what some companies do:
“Think about the extravaganza that is the Berkshire Hathaway meeting. Days of talking and showing off the company’s products, including copious amounts of treats from Dairy Queen, a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary. The Walt Disney Company’s meeting is also known for highlighting the company’s latest movie or ride. Even children can ask questions; one recent interaction led Disney’s chief executive, Robert A. Iger, to give a private tour of Pixar to a child. Some companies are local legends where the entire town will gather. It is at these meetings that connections are made between the company and its shareholders.“
“By forcing everything onto the web, we lose the personal interaction. Everyone logs in and watches a preprogrammed set of questions and answers. And then everyone goes away. Management’s worldview is reaffirmed in the 10 or so minutes it allows for questioning, and there is no engagement except with those investors who own a portion of shares large enough to personally meet with management. It’s a modern world that is frightening in its disengagement.”
Online versus face-to-face
Virtual meetings lower costs, offer a convenient way to receive content, and they can provide limited interactivity. Yet you can also abandon one with the click of a mouse. Such meetings require little commitment, so it is harder to successfully engage participants when the cost of leaving is so low.
If you think of a meeting primarily as a way of transferring content, then online meetings seem attractive, inexpensive alternatives to face-to-face events. If, however, you value meetings as opportunities to make meaningful connections with others, face-to-face meetings offer significant advantages.
Yes, virtual meetings lower costs. Yet I believe that the unique benefits of face-to-face meetings are still valuable. Think of the advantages of being physically present with other people: dining and socializing together, the serendipity of human contact, the opportunity to meet new people in person rather than hear a voice on the phone or see an image on a screen, the magic that can occur when a group of people coalesces. All these combine into more than the sum of their parts, building the potential to gain and grow long-term relationships and friendships. Anyone who has been to a good face-to-face conference knows that these things can happen. Either in the moment or in retrospect, participants may see them as pivotal times in their lives.