Before, During, and After: Technology Enhances Meetings Technology is already changing meetings, and if used well, it can enhance them. Consider the ways in which the the Internet, video, and other technologies are making meetings more strategic at every stage.

Before a meeting, Gary Steel, director of LEAP (Group Leadership and Performance Operations) for Shell International BV, The Hague, Holland, uses the Internet and online discussion forums to share information so people arrive better prepared.

During a meeting, Carol B. Schoenfeld, director of IBM Executive Education Programs and of the IBM Palisades Conference Center, Palisades, N.Y., uses multimedia to jazz up presentations. During the Olympics, for example, her team used video clips, the Olympic games results system, and two live Web sites to tell the "technology story" behind the operation of the games.

Varied presentations are important in this age of short attention spans, says Donna Sharp, executive director, World Trade Institute of Pace University, New York, N.Y. "Using one format - even PowerPoint - bores people. We need to intrigue attendees by introducing things like [online] chat sessions," she says.

After a meeting, Schoenfeld adds, technology can offer more opportunity for discussion and information sharing.

New technologies may make attendees uncomfortable - and even that's good, says Steel. "People learn better when there is some discomfort, some edge. Technology is part of that."

Schoenfeld, Sharp, and Steel discussed these issues (Steel via teleconference) on an International Association of Conference Centers (IACC)-sponsored panel moderated by Dr. Lalia Rach, associate dean, New York University's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Travel Administration.

Laughter is the best medicine for whatever ails a meeting. So says Dean Steeves, vp of shameless marketing (his actual title) for LaughingStock Comedy company (www.laughing.com). According to Steeves, laughter raises the energy level of any room and makes even the driest meeting more memorable.

Steeves cofounded LaughingStock with Lesley Abrams (vp of creativity and taste) in 1993. Today, the company's troupe of six performs nationwide for organizations as diverse as United Airlines, Compaq Computers, and Merk Pharmaceuticals.

At a performance for 1,500 software marketers from IBM Worldwide Marketing, LaughingStock studied written materials, then interviewed the sponsor and representative attendees. They learned that many attendees worked from home and had bosses whom they'd never met, except over the phone or through e-mail. LaughingStock customized its show around a typical day of the typical attendee, negotiating deadlines over different time zones using e-mail, faxes, modems, and other tools in "an arsenal of modern communications."

For those who need more convincing that humor heals, Steeves points to the popularity of group activities that tap into peoples' creativity and sense of fun. Whether lip synching, putting on skits, or creating funny song lyrics, says Steeves, "Everyone's tendency is to comedy."

MERCURY COMPUTER SYSTEMS, INC. president and CEO Jay Bertelli loves Porsches. So, back in early 1999 when he cast around for an exceptional reward for senior-level executives, he could think of nothing more appropriate than the snazzy Porsche Boxster.

The goal of Mercury's Porsche Challenge was to exceed the company's revenue and earnings goals to such a degree that shareholder value would double by the end of 1999. The management team responded so vigorously to the challenge that the stock price of the $141 million, Chelmsford, Mass.-based company (www.mc.com) actually tripled - and 20 top performers were rewarded with two-year leases of silver-and-blue Porsche Boxters.

The program was so successful that Mercury added three more Boxters and now gives all of the company's nearly 500 employees a chance to take possession of the cars for periods that range from two weeks to one year.

The Porsche Challenge is part of Mercury's plan to build staff loyalty by offering several team performance recognition awards. According to Mercury spokesperson Dave Price, a "lifestyle reward" like a Porsche is particularly valuable for employee retention. At Mercury, the top-performing executives who win Porsches are encouraged to stay with the firm, since they sign a two-year personal lease for the cars (the company reimburses them monthly).

The flood of publicity generated by the Porsche Challenge has also helped to attract new hires, and the $240,000 annual cost is less than Mercury would pay headhunters to recruit three or four executives for the rapidly expanding company, Price says.

Most of all, the sight of 23 Porsches in the parking lot is a continuing reminder to Mercury's employees of how the company rewards exceptional performance.