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
’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.
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
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
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.’
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
’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.