Throughout the history of meeting planning, attendees have traveled to gather in one destination.
However, in recent years, advancing technology, the rising cost of air travel and the need to use time more efficiently have prompted some planners and stakeholders to hold more virtual meetings.
Meeting via video conferencing, web conferencing, Skype, FaceTime teleconferencing and by other virtual means are becoming more common because technological meetings are relatively inexpensive, convenient and easy to organize.
“The bottom line is, it’s not about which meetings are best for face-to-face, but rather can you afford not to meet in person?” Beau Ballin
Planners typically use virtual meetings as an add-on to in-person meetings for certain groups and purposes. Indeed, virtual meetings are sometimes necessary depending on a planner’s needs and goals.
Virtual meetings, like those held in person, can allow participants to share content and ideas, make presentations and review documents. But virtual meetings won’t ever replace face-to-face meetings because they best help planners meet all their goals.
Beau Ballin, vice president, commercial leader, North America, CWT Meetings & Events, explains why in-person meetings are best.
“Every meeting has a purpose,” Ballin says. “Most fall into the categories of engaging attendees to sell more, buy more or learn more. Ultimately, these meetings drive bottom-line profitability for their sponsoring organizations. The bottom line: It’s not about which meetings are best for face-to-face, but rather can you afford not to meet in person?”
Surveys generally show that attendees almost always prefer meeting face-to-face to meeting virtually.
“Face-to-face meetings in our experience, as measured by CWT, have a 90% preference,” Ballin says. “Stronger relationship building, less distraction and better decision making are the top reasons for such a strong preference.”
Ballin adds: “In-person meetings create emotional connections to peers, products and corporate visions. While virtual opportunities continue to emerge, they lack the connectivity amongst attendees and the memory recall driven by experience and emotion.”
Paul Axtell, author of the book “Meetings Matter” and corporate trainer and consultant at Contextual Program Designs, specializing in how to run productive and effective corporate meetings, agrees.
“Face-to-face meetings will always be important because they are best at helping planners get results,” Axtell says. “Face-to-face meetings allow relationships to be created and enhanced.”
“If business results are a product of relationships, then results follow,” Axtell adds. “Candid conversations are tied to trust and safety, which are hard to obtain unless a relationship is first established.”
Axtell adds that, while in-person meetings may be more expensive than technologically enabled versions, in-person meetings are more cost-effective in the long run.
Ballin agrees. “In almost all cases, an in-person meeting will pay significant dividends in sales growth compared to meeting cost,” Ballin says.
And, adds Ballin, planners can show that face-to-face meetings are more cost effective.
“There is a myth in the meetings community that ROI is difficult to measure,” Ballin says. “I would submit that for the purpose of sales kickoffs, product launches and user conferences, that it’s quite easy to measure the cost per attendee against incremental sales growth following three months, six months, nine months and 12 months from the meeting date.”
Axtell says that the financial benefits of in-person meetings stem from the ability to better align goals and strategies.
“People need to be heard before they will align with each other,” Axtell says. “Aligning requires eye contact, non-verbal clues, attention and empathy. These rarely happen except when people meet in small groups in the same location.”
Face-to-face meetings also prosper because people have an innate need to see each other in order to cement important business and social relationships. Meeting in person makes it easier to make an impression and build a personal business ‘brand’ based on conduct, speech, intelligence, etc.
According to Amberlee Huggins, DMCP, president and chief marketing officer at CSI DMC, “People are social beings, and while social media provides an outlet to engage virtually, face-to-face connection is at the core of how we experience each other in a holistic way. Networking in person allows us to build trust and empathy and an opportunity to bond over a shared moment.”
Huggins adds that in-person meetings provide a multitude of ordinary ways for attendees to meet and bond.
“At its simplest level, take having a meal together, how it feels to share food flavors and talk about it with those around you,” Huggins says. “Over and again it’s been proven that team-building activities or give-back projects yield far greater results and a sense of unity when people gather together in a single place.”
Technology will increasingly enhance, not replace, face-to-face meetings.
According to the American Express 2018 Global Meetings and Events Forecast, “Regional meeting leaders across regions agree that bringing people together virtually may be helpful for smaller meetings or to complement a live, face-to-face meeting, but virtual meetings will not replace face-to-face.”
However, technology will continue to complement and transform meetings and events.
“We expect that technology will continue to make an impact on the overall end-to-end management of the delivery of meetings and events, and on the attendee experience perspective,” according to the American Express report.
The report adds, “Modern attendees expect an online experience will be available to enhance their face-to-face experience and are eager to deploy technologies that facilitate personal event attendance goals, such as networking and interacting more deeply with content.”
Ballin agrees with the American Express report. “In-person meetings are in fact most effective when followed by virtual or remote meetings to reinforce key learnings, conduct knowledge checks or reach those unable to attend in person,” Ballin says.
Ironically, face-to-face meetings grow more important as the world becomes more virtually interconnected. That’s a big reason why in-person meetings are on the rise even as planners selectively use technology-enable meetings.
According to last year’s CWT Meetings & Events Future Trends report, corporations are having more meetings due to the strong economy. In addition, according to the survey, 92 percent of planners think face-to-face meetings have intangible benefits that outweigh any savings through long-distance meetings.
The CWT report also notes that planners continue to juggle face-to-face meetings and budget concerns.
“Budget restrictions were the most commonly cited hurdle, with nearly two in five respondents saying this had prevented them from meeting face-to-face,” according to the report. “Instituting a travel freeze towards the end of the year is an annual ritual at many companies. It’s frequently used as a relatively painless mechanism to save money.”
Despite budget issues, surveys and studies show that in-person meetings are better at fostering engagement, trust, networking brainstorming and strategic thinking.
Research shows that all generations, including millennials and Gen Xers, prefer in-person meetings because they provide many ways for attendees to have the formal and casual interactions necessary to forge business relationships.
Attendees also prefer face-to-face meetings because they are considered more credible.
The expectations and returns are higher with in-person meetings because, more often than not, there is a deeper investment of both time and money, two very valuable commodities for planners.
Here are some other crucial advantages of face-to-face meetings:
In-person meetings provide some flexibility if an issue occurs that threatens the agenda. “Have you ever presented to a new client online only to lose the internet connection?” Huggins says. “The recovery is not always easy. In person, with worst-case scenarios, you can switch gears and improvise if you need to.”
Face-to-face meetings are more likely to get positive feedback from participants. Says Axtell, “If the meeting goes well, planners get high marks. If attendees feel like nothing was accomplished, low marks. One thing that attendees remember is when they really click with someone and that rarely occurs outside of face-to-face meetings.”
Huggins agrees. “Face-to-face meetings are more likely to get both positive and negative feedback from attendees in my experience, and both are important for improvement,” Huggins says. “If attendees find value in the investment, the likelihood of positive feedback increases. Conversely, if attendees don’t find merit, they very quickly become critics.”
One of the biggest advantages in-person meetings provide is the opportunity to read non-verbal communication which, according to research, accounts for most of what attendees really intend to say. Virtual meetings don’t allow attendees to read crucial body language, inflections and tone to determine true intentions.
It’s also easier to control distractions and multitasking during face-to-face meetings. Sure, attendees in meeting rooms may check their mobile devices periodically. However, long-distance meeting participants can mute audio, listen to music, type and view documents on a laptop and more.
Without such distractions, it’s easier for planners to drive attendee attentiveness and participation during sessions, breakouts and workshops. Being in the same room also encourages attendees to participate and get to the point when they talk.
According to Axtell, “Attention is a primary advantage because it is tightly associated with caring, connecting and self- expression. Otherwise, the conversations feel merely like transactions.”
It’s also easier for on-site meetings to create common experiences that are more memorable and impactful than those in virtual meetings.
According to Ballin, “In-person meetings have a way of delivering information through experiences which are personal and meaningful. The emotion, experience and the corresponding memory recall simply can’t be replicated with today’s technology in a virtual environment.”
That’s because memory is driven by emotional cues, Ballin adds.
“Ask someone what they did, who they saw or about their day some time in the past, and they will likely return a blank stare,” Ballin says. Conversely, ask them about what they did, who they saw and about their time at a national sales meeting, and they will likely fill the air with conversation.”
Shared in-person memories are also more effective than remote meetings for creating trust and personal connections essential for following up and getting results from business leads.
According to Huggins, “For driving business outcomes, meeting face-to-face is often key to building rapport, especially in the formative stages of the relationship. The ability to read each other’s body language, correct course and troubleshoot ideas and outcomes in the moment are often better served in person.”
Ballin notes some other pluses of in-person meetings compared to virtual versions.
“Additional advantages of face-to-face meetings include access to key executives or business stakeholders that are often difficult to come by for most employees,” Ballin says. “The ability for stakeholders, decision makers or regional leaders to gather in a common place often allows for decisions and timely decision-making.”
In addition, Ballin says, “In-person meetings allow for more complex thinking as technology-enabled meetings are often disrupted by multi-tasking or competing priorities both personal and professional.”
Here’s another key advantage of on-site meetings: Research shows that attendees remember much more of what they experience, see and hear in person. More importantly, attendees are more apt to remember face-to-face meetings and how events made them feel.
Says Huggins, “I do feel that attendees remember how the experience and meeting made them feel, how they could engage, how they could make an impact, what they did, where they laughed, what moved them and, hopefully, the results. That experience and interaction can best be done in person while follow up and further connection is possible remotely.”
Studies and surveys back up the advantages of on-site meetings for emotional engagement.
• According to a poll by Eventbrite, 69% of millennials say live events make them feel more connected to others.
• According to a Meetings Mean Business Coalition report, 91% of business leaders think face-to-face meetings improve engagement, and 94% say that they advance collaboration.
• The Harvard Business Review found that in-person meetings are 34 times more likely to get positive responses than a virtual meeting.
• According to a study from Oxford Economics USA, organizations that cut business travel such as face-to-face meetings experience a 17% drop in profits during the first year following the reduction.
• Oxford Economics also reported that every dollar invested in business travel resulted in $12.50 in incremental revenue.
Given the comparative costs of face-to-face meetings and virtual alternatives, an important question for planners is: Are attendees more likely to value experiences of in-person meetings? “Absolutely,” Axtell says, “unless technology is present at the meeting in ways that take away from conversations. Intimacy requires physical presence. The question is whether attendees leave feeling they were self-expressed, heard and their presence acknowledged.”
While face-to-face meetings may be more expensive than the virtual variety, they continue to be well worth the investment.
According to Huggins, “Cost needs to be viewed in a short- and long-term position. Let’s talk about an organization that is growing. The cost of bringing a group of people together to work through new information, find challenges and solutions, bond in shared outcomes and experience is often less expensive long term than losing attendees because you didn’t take the opportunity to connect them to a sense of unity and fellowship.”
Huggins adds, “Meeting face-to-face with clients better affords attendees the opportunity to learn and understand their individual needs and challenges and offer thoughtful and cost-effective solutions. Remote communications can be lengthier, lead to missed opportunities, and therefore become costlier in the long run.”
Ideally, says Huggins, virtual meetings should only be used to connect those who can’t attend on-site.
“At CSI DMC it costs a considerable sum to bring a team of 140-plus people together each year, and certainly we supplement some regional meetings via video conferencing throughout the year,” Huggins says.
“However, we have learned that even once a year, face-to-face meetings for the whole team is one of the core reasons we continue to retain and grow talent,” Huggins notes.
People typically attend face-to-face meetings because they want to connect with others and are receptive to it. Although many people attend alone, they are primed to establish new relationships with other professionals.
However, even with attendees’ predisposition to network and learn at meetings, they must be well-planned and structured to reap the advantages of face-to-face contact.
Huggins offers the following advice to maximize the advantages of face-to-face meetings:
“Look at the goals of the meeting before deciding whether it should be in person or virtual,” Huggins says. “I do think there will always be certain meetings, with certain goals, where physical synergy and face-to-face interaction and bonding will yield better results.”
In addition, planners and meeting stakeholders should ask the following question, Huggins says:
“Is it important to get an agreement from attendees to move forward with a critical business decision? If so, giving attendees a tangible, human element of interaction can add a level of comfort and ease when moving into uncharted waters.”
In-person meetings are best at networking, creating business relationships, education and training for a range of meeting types. These include sales meetings, product launches, customer events and medical meetings.
That is likely to remain the case even as virtual meeting technology advances. Although it’s becoming easier to have virtual meetings, that doesn’t mean businesses should have them — something that former Apple Inc. president and technology guru Steve Jobs realized.
Jobs once said, “There is a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings; from our random discussions.” C&IT