Where Have All the Small Meetings Gone?

In the general scheme of things, it’s relatively easy to cancel small meetings—and you don’t have to worry about huge attrition, either. "If you have tremendous amounts of space and facilities tied up contractually, it’s a bigger deterrence to cancellation," explains Bill Howard, vice president of marketing, tourism, and communications with the Atlanta CVB. "Small meetings are just simpler to cancel. And," he adds, "I think the small meetings may be the slowest to come back."

According to a Meeting Professionals International survey released in end of October, 44 percent of planners said all their cancellations were for meetings using 100 or less room nights. "If the smaller meeting isn’t really necessary, people aren’t doing them. Or else they’re doing them electronically," says Mark Theis, vice president of the conference division at the San Francisco CVB. "People are evaluating whether or not they’re the best return on people’s time, the costs, and the fear factor."

Some groups "looked at their bylaws and found that they could work via mail and e-mail to accomplish the business part of what they need to do," says Teresa Larson, senior vice president, of Alexandria, Va.-based integrated communications and event management firm Smith Fairfield, adding that her clients also are doing a lot more conference calling than they used to.

Bruce Harris, who founded the Cleveland-based independent meeting planning firm Conferon Inc., also has noticed people replacing small meetings with conference calling. "It works well for very small groups because they can be highly interactive," he says. Having 800 people listen to an audioconference isn’t as effective because all you can do is audit the program, and maybe call or e-mail in questions.

But boards do still need to get together in person, Harris says, explaining that one board of directors he’s a member of recently decided, after years of meeting telephonically, to meeting face to face.

Harris tells of one corporate client that came to him with an RFP listing over 600 meetings. "But a lot of them were yellowed out—they were going to videoconference those meetings because they were for small groups." While Larson’s recommended videoconferencing to several groups as either an alternative or an addition to what they’re doing, she hasn’t had any takers yet. Still, says Edina Lessack, "Videoconferencing certainly can replace meetings that come up in a short timeframe and small meetings."

Among associations looking to augment their programs with some form of higher tech meeting, is Morristown, N.J.-based Financial Executives International. Diane Watanabe, FEI’s conference manager, says she was planning on augmenting her April 2002 meeting with a "Webinar," where participants can view the presentations on their computer and receive a copy of the presentations for a reduced price. The Webinar will be archived for 30 days, so particpants can view the program at their convenience. Her organization decided to move the schedule up and do it for the December program, and also to attach Webinar options to future smaller meeting programs as well. "My feeling is that we need to offer education with alternative means so that we don’t eliminate an important member benefit."

"People are going to balance the necessity of giving up two or three days to attend seinars and the networking opportunities," says Harris. "An electtronic forum is viable for purely informational sessions."