As the director of Vibe, an event design and destination management company in Miami, Florida, Valérie Bihet has a keen understanding of the importance of face-to-face meetings within the events industry.
With more than 20 years of meetings and events experience, Bihet has worked intimately with the management, design and production of special events. Her event experience spans high-profile social occasions, nonprofit fundraisers, corporate meetings, conferences, product launches and incentive trips. As such, Bihet has seen the way technology has impacted traditional face-to-face meetings.
“Technology has changed meetings in a couple of ways. First, there is much more interaction between presenter and audience,” Bihet says. “New software allows you to ask a question during a presentation and the audience can answer in real time.”
Nick Morgan, author of “Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World,” says he’s seeing three main changes affecting the face-to-face aspect of today’s meetings.
First, meetings have become tech-savvy in varying degrees, with polling software, apps and holograms leading the list of technical innovations.
“That’s probably the easiest and least meaningful kind of change — it’s really just a reflection of the surrounding society,” Morgan says. Also, meetings have adopted a streaming element and often allow people to participate remotely via their computers.
“This is a real change that meetings have embraced without really thinking through how that should change what’s presented and how it’s presented,” Morgan says. “As a result, those watching remotely are most often an add-on rather than an actual new dimension of the meeting and little is done to make the remote viewer experience a satisfying one.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Morgan says the increased use of technology and virtual experiences in our work and personal lives has created a deep need for face-to-face experiences, which meetings can provide, “but not if they try to become virtual,” Morgan says.
So, with the advancements in technology and virtual meeting options, is Bihet seeing corporations and others leaning toward embracing technology and lessening the amount of face-to-face meetings?
Not quite yet. “With all of my clients, they have one or two face-to-face meetings a year with all of the top management,” Bihet says. “After that, if you have quarterly meetings, those can maybe be done digitally with conferencing. I really think that at least one to two per year, depending on budget, have to be face to face. It’s more powerful when people know each other in person. You have a better connection and people who grow up in a company need to know each other.”
As Bihet explains, people cannot only be behind a screen to offer an experience. You need to be connected with your emotions, which comes from in-person events. “That is what will tie a person to a brand, their bosses and the strategy and values of the company,” Bihet says. “All my clients — and I produce over 90 events per year — are proof that they still do face-to-face meetings. But it all depends on the size of the company. For one client, they are doing one big meeting of 850 people every three or four years. But when you are 100 people, they may do an event every year face to face.”
Indeed, Morgan adds that the primary reason to forego face-to-face meetings is cost savings.
“But it’s a false savings,” he says. “My research has found — because virtual relationships degrade over time — our virtual connections have a negativity bias. And, so, if those virtual relationships aren’t renewed with face-to-face encounters, they will wither and die,” Morgan says.
According to Melanie A. Katzman, Ph.D., author of “Connect First: 52 Simple Ways to Ignite Success, Meaning, and Joy at Work,” people are naturally wired to connect with each other. But in today’s work environment we’re often more focused on interacting with screens than with those around us. We’ve forgotten how, when and why to connect with people.
“Meetings are less efficient as participants attempt to be in multiple places at once, checking their phones and answering emails while only partially tuning into the proceedings,” Katzman says. “Wherever possible, I suggest having in-person meetings. The investment in face-to-face interactions repays itself as individuals are more motivated to help and more easily understand coworkers once they have met in person.”
Being physically present also plays a critical role in workplace success, which is largely determined by a person’s ability to tune into the needs of the people around them.
“That means you show up, put your devices down, turn unnecessary alerts and ringers off, and, most importantly, mute your internal dialogue. Then, you need to pay attention to the person you are with. Engage your senses, see how they’re reacting, listen and pause to experience their mood,” Katzman says. “This is difficult if you’re connecting remotely. You can read people best if you interact with them in person. If all meetings are remote, you are encouraging robotic behavior and not taking full advantage of the passion and commitment that is unleashed when people come together on the human level.”
What Technology Offers
Amaia Stecker, managing partner, Events & Fundraising for Pilar & Co., an event-planning agency, has more than a decade of experience planning a variety of events for corporate, nonprofit and social organizations. She approaches each event holistically, with an eye for detail and a passion for making the experience purposeful.
Stecker says technology is, and can be, a fantastic tool to reach new audiences that could not or would not normally attend an in-person meeting. It can also be a double-edged sword.
If that person has a strong experience with the digital tool or platform, they could:
• Be inspired to attend in
person in the future.
• Like it so much that they never attend.
• Have a terrible experience
and you’ve lost them.
“With an on-site, face-to-face experience, I believe attendees are willing to give a margin for error or understand external factors, such as the site, host city or hotels. Whether it’s your fault or not, you can usually get a second chance out of people,” Stecker says. “With a digital experience, like a livestream or a webinar, that margin is much smaller or nonexistent.”
Of course, if the whole experience is digital, then the logistics are simpler. “With mixed on-site and digital, the planner and producers have to remember the digital audience and continue to involve them, like the old TV shows referring to the audience watching at home,” Stecker says. “There are a lot of cool ways to do this with online polls, texting, commenting, livestreaming viewers from home back to the on-site event, etc.”
Stecker says having a virtual element to a meeting is also a way to simplify the on-site experience as much of the pre-event work and/or convention business, bylaws adoption, position statements, etc., can be disseminated in advance — saving valuable stage time for other things such as education and experiential interactions.
“I’m seeing a shift in the type and style of meetings being held. Those headed to digital formats are transactional in nature, such as a specific training with a takeaway like a certification program or webinar,” Stecker says. “In-person meetings are really having to ramp up the quality of the experience and impact on attendees. The experience and impact also need to make sense and relate to the purpose of the event and why the attendee is there in the first place.”
Stecker says any decline in attendance at an in-person or face-to-face meeting is going to reflect the following factors:
• Cost to Attend/Return on Investment: Many companies have slashed their professional development budgets, so younger employees don’t have the sense that the annual meeting is a culturally mandatory event. And, if they haven’t built those relationships year-over-year with peers and mentors, attending may make them feel like outsiders and they won’t return the following year. They are certainly not going to pay to attend.
• Other life obligations: Let’s remember, the millennial generation, those born between 1981 and 1996, is huge. The oldest are in their late 30s and the youngest are just graduating college. The multiple demands of time and attention have shifted, and attending the annual conference or other face-to-face, on-site meeting requires time away from actual work responsibilities; taking care of families and pets, which increases attendance costs; second jobs; other educational commitments and more.
• Simpler ways to network: There are myriad local networking opportunities that don’t require travel or long hours away from doing actual work. Local chapters of professional associations, and even fraternity and sorority alumni organizations, allow for people to catch a happy hour or lunch meeting rather than attending a multi-day event. Social media also allows for people to remain connected outside of the ‘reunion’ model that many annual events used to provide.
Take steps To Enhance Face-To-Face Meetings
Making a face-to-face meeting successful takes effort and requires initiatives to enhance these meetings and make them as engaging as possible.
Katzman offers an example of how in-person meetings trump remote ones. Consider this: a meeting planner sets a very high bar when she orchestrates an out-of-town meeting for a group. A packet awaits each attendee when they arrive. This includes a personalized welcome note, often on a local postcard, annotated one-page maps, suggested places to visit before the event officially kicks off, and a small envelope with local currency so the attendee can get a cup of tea and a sense of their new surroundings. In advance, the meeting planner provides links to the photos, contact information and bios of the whole group. Afterward, she sends the seating charts so attendees can follow up with “that fascinating conversationalist to my left.” The event team is prepped beforehand as to “who might want to meet whom,” and they proactively find attendees and make the introductions. The meeting planner continually scans the room for the person who was ‘feigning’ disinterest by playing on their phone, and offers to personally escort them to a guest who might share a common interest.
“By modeling such attentive behavior and creating the conditions for maximum interaction, the meeting planner infuses energy and happiness into what could otherwise be dull, obligatory corporate events,” Katzman says.
So why should meeting and event planners go to the effort described above? For Morgan, it’s quite simple: Face-to-face meetings provide a type of human communication that virtual meetings do not.
“We exchange more information via body language — building trust, creating connections and making strong commitments — than we possibly can virtually,” Morgan says. “All virtual relationships tend to degrade over time, so, there’s a deeper kind of efficiency — the efficiency of profound human connection — that happens much more effectively in person. Meeting planners should make the in-person richness of human connection clear because it simply cannot be done virtually.”
Bihet says the room setup plays an important role in face-to-face meetings, so it is vital to make it attractive. Also meetings should no longer have four- to six-hour presentations in a classical ballroom.
“You need to shake the mind up to keep attendees energized,” Bihet says. “Do more workshops where people are really learning about the company in a more hands-on way. Use those apps to engage them in the presentation and include entertainment.”
Morgan says the single-most important thing for meeting and event planners to do to make face-to-face meetings most effective is to allow for structured networking. According to Morgan, meeting planners tend to overload meetings with speakers in order to demonstrate a packed meeting, but it’s usually overkill.
“The second-most important thing is to allow the participants to have structured ways to interact with the speakers and panels, so that there is a merging between audience and speakers,” Morgan says. This is rarely done but is astonishingly powerful for the audience when it is done well.
What’s more, meeting planners who want to enhance face-to-face meetings should focus on who is in the room. Make quick verbal introductions. Is it a big group? Ask a few questions that, with a show of hands, allows people to have a sense of their fellow attendees. If possible, place name cards in front of guests so they can be addressed personally and to help participants put names to faces.
“Assign seats to relieve social pressure, add an element of surprise and ensure exposure for people who might not otherwise meet,” Katzman says. “Company meetings of even six people are enhanced by shaking up who sits with whom.”
Melissa Park, award-winning global event producer, says for a while, many corporations believed that virtual events were the wave of the future and that traditional meetings would be obsolete.
“While the virtual model has its benefits, mainly cost efficiency and easier access to key participants in a timely manner, the importance of human interaction and the relationships formed during in-person meetings became incredibly obvious very quickly,” Park says. “The level of human connection from being face to face, with its ability to read and feel someone’s emotions, cannot be replicated in any form of online delivery.”
Park says that, right now, most corporations are adopting a hybrid approach. Face-to-face meetings are used to create connections and begin to build relationships. Then, technology such as video conferencing, online chat tools and social/community groups take over to keep conversations going.
“While face-to-face meetings are more expensive than their virtual counterparts, successful corporations have recognized that the magic really happens when you bring people together into the same physical space,” Park says. That provides a value with which no price tag of an event can compete. The key to success is identifying the format required to achieve the meeting goals and the desired level of impact.
“There will be ways for us as planners to continue to use technology to reinforce the power of face-to-face meetings,” Bihet says.
Experts agree that the real future of face-to-face meetings is to provide the vitality of human connection that is missing from the virtual world. So meetings that succeed will double down on the face-to-face aspects of the meeting rather than the virtual. And they will have to figure out how to make the best possible use of the audience’s time, since that is increasingly scarce.
“At the end of the day, despite all the technology we’ve come to rely on, the future of work demands a professional, practical way of establishing quality relationships by connecting with each other first as fellow humans, and then as coworkers and collaborators,” Katzman says. “This makes face-to-face meetings more critical than ever.” I&FMM