This past spring, a pregnant Ph.D. candidate had come to the point in her studies where she was ready to defend her doctoral dissertation. There was just one problem. The committee examining her work was located in Montréal and the candidate had since moved to Kansas City. She was literally days away from giving birth, and a 1,200-mile flight was not going to happen.
Even ten years ago, this problem would have been solved in some very inconvenient ways. A telephone call, when visual aids were needed and sections of the dissertation would be examined closely, was not optimal. Video conferencing was expensive and hard to find. The other solution would have been to wait until the baby was born and either ready for separation or able to travel.
Enter Sam Scarfino, founder of the Cyber Center in North Kansas City, Mo.
“She came here, her teachers had their system set up and she was able to give her defense, wait for their decision and hear she had received her doctorate,” Scarfino says. “It all happened in a matter of hours without any travel.”
In the year since Scarfino opened his doors, he has hosted training sessions for hospice workers, online auctions, legal depositions, sales meetings, recruiting sessions and employment interviews.
Video conferencing is here for groups of all sizes and most budgets – and its place in the meeting industry might be growing because of a tough economy and major advances in technology. The idea of “virtual” meetings is nothing new – it’s been used in movies for decades and has been a reality, if not ideal, for nearly 20 years. The difference today is the equipment to host online meetings is more affordable and reliable, exponentially so, than before.
“Global and remote team communications are becoming the norm as businesses focus on cost reduction while trying to develop stronger, more productive teams,” writes Stuart Duff, head of development at Pearn Kandola, a business psychology consultancy.
However, are meeting planners going to embrace it?
“Video communication could provide a viable alternative to in-person meetings,” Duff continues, “so the significant question is how people develop the familiarity, confidence and comfort to use video communication regularly, and what factors allow those users to reap the full benefits of this leading-edge communication style.”
Scarfino would not even be in this business if North Kansas City, a town of 5,000 just across the Missouri River from downtown Kansas City, had not installed fiber optic cable to every house and business in the city.
“When I saw the opportunity from that high-speed cable,” Scarfino says, “I could see how a relatively inexpensive video conferencing option would be attractive to a whole range of companies and individuals.”
In the past, dependable video conferencing was a studio-based technology, demanding equipment on par with television stations. Computer-based video conferencing suffered from slow transmission and equipment that lacked sophistication. And both methods, if done right, were cost prohibitive. That’s not the case anymore.
“You are talking about between $150 and $200 an hour,” Scarfino says. “That is not terribly expensive.”
Scarfino’s enthusiasm is not unique. Most conference hotels, conference centers and meeting venues are investing in the technology, as are more and more companies for their own uses. Other companies, such as TKO VideoConferencing, can connect people in locations around the world. TKO offers video conferencing centers in Clayton, Frontenac, Jefferson City, Kansas City, Springfield and St. Louis. The company offers connections
to most major cities across the globe.
Technology leaders such as Cisco are calling it “Telepresence” – the next step beyond teleconferencing.
Industry commentator Jay Rollins recently praised the concept as both technologically impressive and more cost-efficient than ever before.
“In the suite that I saw, Cisco set up several high-definition TV screens, a high-end audio system tied to its VoIP (voice Internet protocol) products, and HD cameras in each room,” Rollins wrote in Tech Republic. “Cisco looked at every element of the solution to try to make the telepresence
experience as close to having a face-to-face meeting as you can get … Even the furniture plays a role: Halfmoon conference tables appear to be full-moon tables once the sessions become live. Camera setups and other elements of the interaction management make sure that people are all looking in the same direction when someone is speaking.
Of course, there are limitations. Even the best screen setup can’t create the dynamic of being in a room with someone. Karen Hoch, managing director of adult programs at People to People International and vice president of communication for the Kansas City chapter of Meeting Professionals International, has had ample opportunity to run both kinds of meetings.
“Though I see the value of having Web training, or Web sessions, it can never replace the value of face-to-face meetings,” Hoch says. “Relationships, the networking, the social environments can’t be replaced.”
With Hoch’s organization, the whole point is to make connections. People to
People was founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to “enhance international understanding and friendship.” Understanding and friendship, as it turns out, are keys to good business too. Hoch says there will never be a technology that replaces all the sensory experiences of being with people in distinct places.
“When I am in an online meeting, I find my attention being diverted often,” Hoch says. “When it is in person, in a meeting room, I am focused. The dynamic is different in a room filled with people than just me in front of my computer.”
Where do Meeting Planners Fit?
Still, there is no question that a technology that can get nuts and bolts meetings done without the time and expense of travel is going to continue to grow. So where does the meeting planner fit?
For Scarfino, the question is pretty simple to answer.
“I see planners acting as brokers for these kinds of online meetings,” Scarfino says. “They know how to plan the event, how to promote it, how to work out the details of it. All those skills will still be needed.”
Hoch agrees, there’s always going to be a need for planners in the digital age. And she doesn’t feel the technology adds much of a challenge either.
“It’s just another piece to fit in,” she says. “You find the right people to take care of that. Planners are not afraid of a little new technology.” MM&E
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