Keep On Keepin' On

I write this a week after the terrorist assault on innocent people, on our way of life and, almost incidentally, on the meetings industry. Besides the obvious losses, something else has disappeared as well: our freedom to move about the country and the world without anxiety. Will we ever get back to business as usual? Yes, but "usual" will have to be redefined.

Before September 11, meetings budgets had already been slashed due to the economic slowdown. With the arrival of terror in the U.S., many firms have lost the will, at least temporarily, to hold meetings here and abroad. And it's likely that many of you have lost the desire to cajole, persuade, or otherwise convince people to attend meetings.

But if your meeting is canceled, how will your members, delegates, or co-workers stay in touch?

Reaching Out

Fortunately, technology has given us numerous alternative ways to stay linked for business purposes. The plain old telephone is an effective way to link, whether one-to-one or one-to-many. Cell phones make this link mobile, although many corporations have a de facto policy of refusing to allow cell phones on conference calls. Nothing can be more irritating to a phone meeting than the static and repeated strains of "Hello?" from a cell user with a bad connection.

E-mail and instant messaging, like a phone call, can go out to one or many, but are less immediate than a conference call. In fact, we all know not everyone reads their e-mail regularly. On the other hand, during the World Trade Center disaster, e-mail was my only link to friends in Manhattan.

Other technologies help pull us together. Videoconferencing is here, but with attendant limitations: flickering imagery, "speak-into-the-camera" stiltedness, muffled audio, etc. But participants can collaborate on documents through shared whiteboard applications. Other possibilities: video feeds of live conferences streamed over the Internet to broaden attendance, and meetings that can even be held in cyberspace, thanks to products such as Microsoft NetMeeting or through virtual trade show sites.

The Real World

But can we really cocoon up in our home offices and corporate videoconferencing centers, reaching out to co-workers through a screen? Ultimately, there's no substitute for the personal touch. Your business, whatever it is, will die without personal interaction.

Which is why, sooner or later, we need to get people back onto planes and into hotel rooms, to meet in those conference venues and convention centers. And that's where meeting planners will play a vital role, pushing for meetings to take place and be attended in 2002. Online registration is terrific, but don't stop there -- make sure to call, fax, and e-mail prospects to reinforce your message. Yes, you should use your computer and other tech tools to plan logistics, scout sites, and book properties. But ultimately, success will depend on old-fashioned personal contact to cajole, persuade, or otherwise convince people to attend meetings once again.

Your business, and the moment, demands as much. It's the least we can do.

Michael Goldstein, former editor of PC LapTop, writes and speaks on understanding technology. Contact him at (818) 906-3760, or at [email protected]