by Alex Palmer | September 25, 2012
One of the most frequently cited benefits of virtual meetings is the savings of time and money that they provide. But many companies have found the benefits to extend beyond cost cutting, actually boosting the value of a live meeting beyond the event itself. 
 
There are few better examples of the multiple benefits of adding a virtual element to meetings than the Independent Oracle Users Group (IOUG), which holds an annual event called Collaborate that is run with two other outside associations. It is a community of Oracle professionals, mostly focused on database technology, and drawing about 6,000 attendees in total. The three-and-a-half day conference features about 1,000 sessions of speakers, panels, and education events. 
 
IOUG streams several dozen of these online, offering them to members who are not there in person to view or through bundled pricing as part of the registration fee. This “digital license” to view the online material (called Plug-In to Collaborate) gives recipients full access to the programming, which they can watch individually or as a department or team.
 
“Maybe I went last year and it’s not my turn this year. I can still stay plugged in and get a little bit of the education and training, a little bit of the feel of it,” says Carol McGury, executive director of the Independent Oracle Users Group (IOUG), as well as the senior vice president of education and learning services for association management and professional services company SmithBucklin, which is the management partner for IOUG. “It’s another way to keep in front of our community.”
 
To determine which sessions to make available virtually, IOUG surveys some of its larger group members who are most likely to take advantage of the offerings. Looking over the full conference program, these members help McGury and her team to design the online portion to insure the sessions will be of significant interest to the potential attendees. Often these members they reach out to for input include the “rock stars” of the industry and those covering hot topics of the day, such as cloud computing. 
The idea to add this virtual element to Collaborate’s offerings was devised when the economy dipped in 2009. The event organizers wanted to find ways to keep the individuals who might now have difficulty affording a pass to still stay engaged. Or in the case of an organization that couldn’t logistically send its whole team there, Plug-In gave a way to expose them to the event’s offerings. 
 
“We advocate more of a group training,” says McGury. “So envision that your company buys access to the virtual content, then you can assemble your colleagues in the conference room, you can attend different sessions or the same session, and then you all can have a conversation as well.”
 
That is precisely how Veolia Environmental Services, which has attended IOUG for years, has been using the technology. While Todd Sheetz, manager of database administration and enterprise architecture for Veolia, attended the event in person, other members of the team could watch the sessions without leaving the office, with the company setting up as many as four offices where employees could view the seminars.
 
“It’s one thing for me to go and say, ‘here’s what the person said,’ and another thing for the person to actually listen to the session virtually and be able to ask questions of the speaker in real time,” says Sheetz. “It also means they aren’t relying on the sessions I went to — if I’m going to a session, at the same time they can watch another session.”
 
All of these programs are then archived and readily available for members and Plug-In holders to review later or share with a colleague (there are currently more than 200 sessions available). This serves as an effective way to promote the next year’s conference, as those who access the seminars are reminded they can experience them in person the next year.
 
With cost-savings in mind, IOUG worked to keep the cost of the platform itself down. Instead of spending on top-notch video software, the IOUG kept it basic, so the expense would not be passed down to the individual members. This has meant that they had to limit what was available — instead of interactive videos they are only able to offer visuals of the presentations, with voiceover — but on the whole McGury believes it balances out.
 
“There are very high-end ways that you can delver this, and I think they’re great, but you have to make sure that you’ve looked at all your ROI,” says McGury, giving the example of the sophisticated virtual tradeshows that include a simulated tradeshow floor and avatars who can interact with attendees.  “Our clients go to the tradeshow to walk around, but they don’t want to do that virtually — at least for the demographic we’re serving.”
 
Virtual attendees are able to type questions to the presenters during the Q&A session and these are fielded by a SmithBucklin representative at the event. 
 
In her role overseeing education for SmithBucklin, McGury coordinates similar programs for other associations and organizations. The goal for these is to address a demographic that may not be able to attend and in that way add additional value to the membership.
 
In a number of these cases, the virtual offerings have served as marketing tools for the events. For example, the Financial & Insurance Conference Planners, an association client of SmithBucklin’s, streamlines the keynote speaker from its conference and makes that available for free to show potential attendees the kind of offerings that they can experience at the group’s annual conference.
 
For some companies, offering educational discussions virtually offers the added benefit of immediacy. Viewers can apply what they are learning right after watching the session (or even during it) rather than a day or more later when they return to the office.
 
“You can spread your investments out in a real-time environment, or you can learn and apply it in your own environment right away,” says Todd Lenhart, president of Shapiro Negotiations Institute (SNI), a training company that works with client through both in-person classroom training, and through virtual events. 
 
SNI conducts virtual coaching through Skype, utilizing HD cameras and monitors when available, and has been dabbling in 3D virtual platforms for its meetings and training. Lenhart sees a tradeoff in using virtual technology for meetings. While he finds trainees are more likely to be distracted and do not quite get the engagement level of a live event, there is both a serious dollar savings and also individuals are able to immediately apply what they have learned.
 
“You’re not pulling people from their dirt to go to a classroom 1,000 miles away just to get back on a plane where they’ve already lost a decent percentage of what they learned by the time they get back,” he says.