CONFERENCES: Digital delegates - The first virtual conference is now successfully under way - could it be the end of traditional conference venues? Sharon Smith investigates

It sounds too good to be true. Not having to haul yourself halfway across the UK (or the world) to spend precious time, energy, and money on transport, hotel bills, and sustenance to attend a conference where speakers interminably expound their theories from the rostrum.

It sounds too good to be true. Not having to haul yourself halfway

across the UK (or the world) to spend precious time, energy, and money

on transport, hotel bills, and sustenance to attend a conference where

speakers interminably expound their theories from the rostrum.

Instead, simply sit in the warmth and comfort of your home or office and

join in through your computer, courtesy of the Internet. It’s much

quicker and simpler, and infinitely kinder on the wallet.

Virtual conferencing is being described as the future and the answer to

the prayers of those harassed business folk with never enough time to

fit in the endless rounds of compulsory national and international

conferences. But is it true?

Environment 97 is an international conference which started on November

3 and runs to November 14. It is expecting around 20,000 delegates from

all over the world, but no venue has been booked, no plane or train

seats reserved, and no hotel rooms allocated.

Environment 97 is a virtual conference. It is taking place entirely over

the Internet and is believed by its organisers, the Engineering Council,

to be the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

The conference is addressing issues such as sustainable development,

energy efficiency and environmental technology. But attending

Environment 97 only costs delegates the price of going online.

It also reaches an audience far wider than the registered delegates.

Some 100,000 people enjoyed pre-conference access to 150 papers from a

range of speakers such as environment minister Michael Meacher and

Professor David Bellamy.

Just like the real thing

Delegates can even enjoy the feel of being at a physical conference.

The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), which developed the Web

site, set it up to resemble a real conference village - delegates can

even visit a coffee bar to exchange views or to post questions for the


John Duffy, head of marketing at IChemE, says: ’The conference hall we

were thinking of could only hold 7000 people, but we decided to make it

virtual because we wanted this conference to reach as many people as

possible.’ And because the site is designed to resemble a real venue and

delegates are invited to join in, he maintains they will not feel

isolated from events.

He says virtual conferencing can represent a big financial saving to

companies and can also attract top-quality speakers who might not

otherwise be able to attend. Environment 97 cost around pounds 200,000

to organise, but subsequent virtual conferences organised for clients by

ICE could cost as little as pounds 20,000, because the IT framework is

now permanently in place.

Virtual conferencing could also prove to be a boon to the


ICE is conducting a study into the comparative environmental impact of

virtual and physical conferences. It is measuring how much carbon

dioxide is generated by people attending a real conference in terms of

air, road and railway travel, compared with that released by power

stations generating electricity to run the computers used to attend a

virtual event.

’The results will be out as soon as the conference is over, but we’re

hoping that virtual conferencing turns out to be a huge environmental

saving,’ says Duffy.

While Environment 97 might be the first virtual conference to be staged,

other types of virtual conference combining the concept of physical and

Internet-based event are taking place.

Adding value

Marketing consultancy Julie Fitzsimmins Associates was project manager

for the International Federation of Consulting Engineers’ annual

conference in September, organised by the Association of Consulting


Held as a physical conference in Edinburgh, Fitzsimmins introduced a

virtual parallel conference for the first time in the event’s 25-year


Delegates were given pre-conference access to abstracts (synopses of

speeches), and biographies and pictures of speakers were posted on the

conference Internet site. They could also access and download papers and

related material for weeks after the event.

People unable to attend the conference could attend through the

Internet, listening to speakers through Real Audio technology, following

texts and posting questions for speakers on the site.

’It also enabled delegates who could attend to come better prepared for

the conference which, after all, costs them a lot of money,’ explains


’The data can enjoy a much longer life, it is up-to-date, and saves

delegates lugging home piles of paper which will be tossed onto a shelf

and forgotten.

We also put slides up onto the Internet site which we normally cannot

supply to delegates in person. It has been such a success that FIDIC

wants to do the same next year

But advantageous as virtual conferencing appears to be, nobody denies

that the technology involved is expensive.

The Virtual Conference Company (VCC) , which set up the virtual

conference for FIDIC and which also ran a virtual event for the

Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers’ (CIBSE) conference

at Alexandra Palace in October, says that the cost can range from pounds

100,000 upwards.

Nichola Garvey, marketing and sales consultant at VCC, says: ’It is

expensive to set up a virtual conference, but you can recoup costs by

selling space to exhibitors in the virtual conference hall, with the

site also linked up to their Web sites.’

Where next?

One such exhibitor is the Design Council, which has taken a virtual

stand at Environment 97 to advertise a paper it has written for the

conference and to promote other eco-design projects.

Francesca Murray, research co-ordinator at the Design Council, says:

’We’re very keen to capture the virtual market because it is potentially

the most environmental way of transferring data.’

Murray admits that it is very early days yet for virtual conferencing,

but it is slowly gaining momentum. The Virtual Conference Company is

negotiating deals including with CIBSE and FIDIC.

The time is even approaching when satellite video conferencing will be

able to beam in speakers to conferences via the Internet. ’There’s not

enough bandwidth at the moment, but it could be here early next year and

the quality will just get better and better,’ says Nick Lamb, managing

director of business communications specialist Crown.

But is virtual conferencing here to stay, or is it just another nine-day

wonder? Industry observers agree that virtual conferencing will be key

in the future. But most believe that it will not and could not replace

physical events.

’We found that holding a virtual conference didn’t stop delegates coming

to our physical conference. Virtual conferencing will become an integral

part of events, but it can never be a substitute for the value of people

meeting up and exchanging ideas, details of projects, anecdotes and eye

contact at a real conference,’ says Andy Walker of the Association of

Consulting Engineers. ’People enjoy meeting and building up a rapport

with one another. By not attending conferences in person, people miss

out on the networking.’

Lamb disagrees: ’Why can’t you build up a rapport with someone over a

screen? The younger generation will adopt a different way of thinking

and see that using the Internet is 90% as good as going to a


So is the cost, trouble and time of catching a train to a physical venue

worth the other 10%?’ Perhaps not.


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