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AIPC OPINIONMaking thequantum leapFor as long as modern meetings andconventions have existed, there hasbeen debate about whether or notface-to-face meetings would be eliminatedby evolving communications technology.On the one hand, critics pointed to thesavings in cost and travel that could beachieved by having participants on eitherthe end of a phone or a video link; on theother were those who said such anarrangement could never replicate thebenefits of actual personal interaction. The debate raged on year after year,punctuated by rising levels of panic everytime an economic recession or travelchallenges such as those that arose fromthe SARS epidemic or the trauma of 9/11captured everyone's attention. The personal element seemed to win outand the conclusion was that, for the vastmajority of people, nothing could replicatethe benefits of face-to-face interaction.But, throughout this period, two thingswere quietly happening and, together, theymay be shifting the odds in a new direction. First, the technology was getting better.Tiny, fuzzy images with startling lag timesgave way to crisper, larger ones with realtime interaction, leading to a much greatersense of reality. Costs became more manageable withweb-based options replacing the morecostly dedicated links and specialisedequipment that characterised earlierversions. The remote alternative not onlybecame higher in quality but also morecost-effective and readily available. Thistrend will only continue. Most observers feelthat communication technology is poised tomake quantum leaps forward, propelled bygreater storage and transmission capacitiesand better software. What has now gonefrom barely tolerable to useable, may nowbe headed for the downright remarkable.Second, concerns around sustainabilityintensified and, in particular, the carbonimpacts of the long distance travel requiredof delegates to attend meetings. This issuehas gone to the point of creating calls bymany governments, NGO's andinternational organisations for new limits onbusiness travel, and it is unlikely to subsideanytime soon. And, while convention centresand other industry suppliers have madehuge efforts to reduce the impacts of themeetings themselves, there's not much theyor anyone else can do on the travel side. It is a combination of several factors thatposes the greatest risk. The synergy amongcorporations and governments eager toachieve cost savings and the ability of thesame groups to reference environmentalresponsibility as the reasoning behind theirdecisions is irresistible. At the same time, there are manytechnology providers that would benefit froma move toward remote meetings and whowould be only too happy to encourage amove in this direction.What to do? I think we have tolook at three areas:First, we need to document the benefits weclaim face-to-face meetings have, ratherthan relying on old adages. It won't be easy,but anything that is real, as we claim thebenefits of personal interactions to be, lendsitself to some form of measurement and it'sjust a matter of figuring out how this canbest be done.Second, we need to organise our counterarguments about why collective meetingsare more efficient. I think the advantagesthey precipitate in the end have greateroverall value than any sustainabilitycosts they may incur. We have takenAIPC President Edgar Hirtsays meetings technologies provide both opportunities and challenges.Edgar Hirt is the President of theInternational Association of CongressCentres (AIPC); and Managing Directorof CCH, Congress Center Hamburg.Visit www.aipc.orgJanuary 2011Conference+Meetings World www.c-mw.net all this for granted for so long that little workhas been done to identify and organise thepositive points. We will need far morepersuasive arguments.Finally, we need to make sure that we aredoing our best to incorporate the newtechnologies into existing meeting formats.The new technologies aren't going away sothe challenge is to make them work for usinstead of seeing them as a threat. If wecan harness their strengths to make face-to-face meetings more powerful, they willbecome more of a force for meetings than a threat.