The meeting industry coronavirus silver lining

coronavirus silver liningDespite the terrible impacts of the coronavirus on the meeting industry, there’s a silver lining.

Hear me out!

There’s no question times are hard. The coronavirus pandemic has already devastated lives and businesses globally, and we don’t know how much worse things will get. The meeting industry is reeling under a wave of cancellations, postponements, and uncertainty. All my short-term facilitation and on-site training engagements have been cancelled — and I’m lucky in comparison with colleagues who are struggling with the significant financial impact of the loss of work, deposits, and income that a few months ago looked secure.

Consequently, in the short term, the situation looks bleak. In addition, no one knows what “short term” means right now.

In the long term…

Unfortunately, it currently looks like one potential short-term improvement outcome, containment, will not be successful. In the long-term, however, the current turmoil caused by the spread of COVID-19 is likely to subside. The development and introduction of an effective and affordable vaccine may bring the virus under control. Or, enough people may get COVID-19 and develop an immune response, leading to herd immunity.

Eventually, the coronavirus is most likely to either burn out, or return seasonally, like influenza.

So what’s the coronavirus silver lining?

I believe there are three silver linings that are long-term positives for the meeting industry.

1—Virtual meetings will replace many broadcast-style meeting sessions

The dramatic cancellation of face-to-face events has led to an immediate focus on replacing them, when possible, with virtual meetings. This focus is welcome, because online technology can and should replace the lecture-centric components of conventional meetings.

2—Virtual meetings process technology will improve

In my opinion, we can significantly improve virtual meetings process technology. The pressure to find a replacement for face-to-face meetings may speed the development of technology process for connection that current platforms lack.

All major online platforms support broadcast-style meetings. In small meetings, any meeting participant can become the broadcaster of the moment by speaking. As in face-to-face large meetings, this speaker-switching mechanism doesn’t work with a large group without central control over who, or how many, can speak at any moment.

What virtual meeting technology currently ignores or implements poorly is participant-initiated small group voice or video chat discussions of the kind that happen at face-to-face meetings. Although some platforms implement breakout groups, they are generally limited in number, and platform facilitators initiate them rather than participants on an as-needed basis.

Hopefully, a pressing demand for virtual meetings that can provide the spontaneous interaction and connection possible at face-to-face meetings will spur development of connection-centric online meeting technology features.

3—We will better understand the true value of face-to-face meetings

Right now, the human race is responding to the short-term devastating effects of coronavirus by implementing social distance. We are rapidly curtailing the ways we get together for entertainment, education, and the thousands of other reasons we meet.

But human beings do not thrive long-term on social distance; rather, we want and need social existence. Over time, restricting meetings to online modalities will make us aware of what they lack: personal connection and engagement around pertinent content. Consequently, the meeting industry will better understand the unique possibilities that face-to-face events can provide. And, perhaps, we will become increasingly open to the value of human process technologies that allow meetings to become what participants actually want and need.

Can you think of other long-term silver linings for the meeting industry as a result of the coronavirus pandemic? Share them in the comments below.

Image attribution: Flickr user dewet

Virtual Meetings Lower Costs … and Interaction

“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

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, and one of our jobs was to find out what they could be used for. Could businesspeople be persuaded 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.”

Forty years later, “group telemedia”, now known as virtual meetings, are firmly established and increasingly popular. Solomon’s New York Times article quoted above explores how some corporate shareholder meetings are now held virtually. The biggest advantages of virtual 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.

Solomon concludes:

“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 meetings offer a convenient and low-cost 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.

I believe that the unique benefits of face-to-face meetings will continue to be valued. 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, and that, either in the moment or in retrospect, they may even be seen as pivotal times in one’s life.