Incentives - Meetings - Special Events
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Face to Face Meetings - Let’s Keep them Alive
Jyl Ashton Cunningham, CMP

Benefits of Face To Face Meetings:
You can actually see the person.
You can touch the person.
And it isn’t weird.
(Courtesy of Wiki Answers)

The last thing that any meeting planner wants to hear is that face to face meetings are becoming obsolete.  For the moment it appears there is little to be concerned about.  The F2F concept continues to be popular for corporate meetings, conferences and trade shows, even in the global age of social networking, where people have rapidly become accustomed to sharing their most private and even intimate thoughts and photos with the world, without ever having to leave their homes. 

Stacey Hanke’s article in the last issue of The Planner outlines the personal communication aspect of face to face and the topic is further developed in this article.  The intention is not to compare the advantages and disadvantages of the two meeting types – such information is widely available on the internet – rather to look at the logic behind the strategies behind face to face and technology developments that may one day change the meeting planning industry completely.

There are many reasons why face to face meetings are so important.  One is that they offer an unmatched opportunity to see people in their true colours.   Case Study: Several years ago in London, England, a large food industry corporation held a student talent acquisition event for a couple of hundred young hopefuls looking for high entry level salaries in a marketing career.   A good friend was among students selected to attend, from top universities across the country.  Drinks flowed and guests were shown an excellent time all round, with food and entertainment to elevate the mood.  The friend sensibly sipped a very diluted drink, whilst others availed themselves liberally of free booze and canapés. 

Whilst the event was in progress, several corporate “plants” were vetting the group, subtly noting those who over-imbibed.  Needless to say, the drinkers never made it to the second round of interviews.   Would it have been possible to conduct a similar screening process via the internet or telephone?  Probably not.  Was it an expensive undertaking?  Absolutely, but hiring potentially irresponsible employees could carry a far higher price tag and liability down the road. 

Such a direct screening practice probably wouldn’t happen nowadays, as drinking alcohol is no longer considered derigueur in corporate circles and such tactics might be considered offensive today.  However face to face career drives and talent fairs are still among the most effective ways of screening potential candidates.  A fabulous cover letter and a first class resumé are often diminished by poor face to face skills at the interview process, which is generally where the final decision is made on whom to hire.   People are reportedly judged by their peers  within three seconds of meeting, with assessments based on body language, facial responses, eye contact, dress and posture.  Unfair as it may seem, it’s how things work and is not possible to do without being face to face. 

As a meeting planner, the responsibility of planning a successful face to face meeting for any genre - eg corporate, association, media - lies beyond goals, objectives, education and return on investment.  Bringing people together, especially from different parts of the world, for a face to face meeting requires skill, creativity and guts.   Being able to justify bringing a busy delegate across the globe to a three day meeting is crucial, otherwise some top people may simply decline the invitation.   

Whilst meeting content and education is extremely important, the main objective of meeting face to face is networking, as the rest of the time is spent being educated, motivated, entertained and fed.  Several elements can be brought into a face to face meeting that often would not be possible in virtual circumstances.  The atmosphere of a gala dinner, live entertainment, even a workshop environment, are all still just beyond the extent to which virtual meetings operate.

The Canadian Urban Transit Association, based in Toronto holds two major conferences each year, each with its own regular audience.  CUTA uses interesting and sometimes eclectic venues in cities with major transit systems, across Canada.  The same delegates attend year after year yet the face to face experience is always animated and educational.   The fall conference welcomes around 450 delegates and a trade show that includes over 30 buses and 120 booths.  The concept of running such an event remotely would be futile, so for CUTA the face to face meeting is here to stay.

It is claimed that face to face meetings strengthen bonds among team members who might normally only meet on line or by telephone.   I recently took a group of independent sales agents from across Canada representing a Toronto engineering firm, to Nassau.  They each said that the most important aspect of the trip was being able to interact with like minded professionals and that by meeting each other in both a formal and recreational environment, they were able to bond more effectively as colleagues.   They also validated their own roles within the company structure and were able to air grievances and criticisms in a more constructive manner than if they had been in a virtual situation.   The group meets once a year face to face at a resort and the rest of the time remotely or face to face in small groups.

With the increasing popularity of Telepresence technology, albeit at a very high installation cost and monthly maintenance fee, board room meetings have taken on a whole new dimension.  Originally designed by Teleris and since developed by Cisco, HP and LifeSize to name a few, the effect is incredibly realistic, with typically half the attendees being in one location and half in another on a giant pan screen, with each side of the board room table appearing to become one unit.  The attendees appear life size on each side of the table and real-time meetings can be held across the globe for a fraction of the cost of flying and hotel expenses. 

If you haven’t seen this technology, it really is something to experience.  The only issue I encountered last year with Telepresence, is that the meeting room became extremely hot and uncomfortable for the users, due to the equipment being used giving off significant heat with insufficient ventilation.   Also, drinks could not be brought into the room, so the meeting had to have frequent breaks.   At that time the room was limited to six participants in each of two locations, however technology continues to develop and improve, so we could well see several large meeting rooms join together remotely for a major conference in the not too distant future.

There is a school of thought that face to face meetings have outlived their usefulness and that everything that could be done to improve them has already been done.  Cost is usually the first issue to be brought up when weighing the pros and cons of face to face versus virtual meetings, as well as environmental debates on whether conferences and conventions are even ethical from a corporate social responsibility perspective.  Other serious factors that may affect transporting people globally to physically interact include pandemics, terrorism and green initiatives, all issues that were quite rare only 10 years ago, and all of which require now require careful consideration when planning an international event. 

When considering face to face versus virtual communication, ask yourself this question.  How often have you answered the telephone to a sales caller saying  “Hi, how are you today?”, (before any introductions have been made).  Do you find yourself becoming instantly suspicious of the caller trying to sell something, or do you respond with a friendly “I’m just fine thanks, and you?”.  If you encountered a person in the street who asked you the same question, even a total stranger, your response would likely be the second one, as the initial question really only works successfully as a friendly face to face experience.   On the telephone it’s just annoying and even invasive, yet so many sales pitches start in exactly that way.   

In conclusion, the argument of F2F versus virtual meetings will continue well into the 21st Century.  However, human nature is to be with other humans and isolating them in virtual circumstances cannot be healthy in the long term.  Depending on the mission, face-to-face meetings can bring delegates together and provide a quality experience that virtual communication cannot compete with.  
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The articles remain the property of Jyl Ashton Cunningham and may not be reprinted or used for any purpose without permission of the Writer.