Globalist Perspective

Confessions of a Global Conference-Trotter

Can online virtual environments offer a cost-effective alternative for conference attendees around the globe?


  • The very notion of traveling to attend a conference may soon become passé.
  • The thought of attending virtual events is in line with the present push for greening business practices.
  • Today, there's simply no reason not to at least offer mixed-world conferences.
  • In a downturn, travel and training budgets are typically among the first items to be slashed.
  • Companies, governments and non-profits are looking at the rising costs of conference attendance and saying, "No mas."

We all know the conference drill. Lugging our luggage through a crowded airport to get on a crowded plane, only to go to a hotel ballroom to listen to a speaker clicking through his or her PowerPoint slides.

Yeah, your colleagues and your family may be envious of your trip to Washington or London or Sydney, but the truth of the matter is that while there may be a precious hour or two for fun on the beach or sightseeing, very little differentiates one conference from the next.

No matter how fancy the setting, no matter how many fake palm trees and live caged parrots, no matter how lavish the continental breakfast and cocktail hour spreads are, one conference hotel starts to look as bland as the others, blending together in our minds to say, “I heard an interesting speaker on that subject, I just can’t remember where or when.”

We also realize the opportunity costs involved, both in productivity and on our families, for the time spent away.

All too often, there’s precious little value that comes from all of the money spent on the formal part of conferences.

What real value there is for participants comes from the “informal” portion of such meetings, when attendees actually talk to one another during the break and “happy hour” times, as opposed to listening to a formal presentation or panel discussion.

And in today’s wireless world, rather than being tuned-in to what is happening right in front of them at the conference — what they and their organizations or agencies paid hundreds and often thousands of dollars to attend — attendees are talking in the hallway on their cell phones, answering their emails on their Blackberrys, or surfing the Internet on their laptops.

Personally, as a speaker, it becomes more and more challenging to engage the attention of people in the back of the ballroom when competing with YouTube and your email.

Today, in the wake of the global energy crunch and economic slowdown in the West, companies, governments and non-profits are looking at the rising costs of conference attendance and saying, “No mas.”

In a downturn, travel and training budgets are typically among the first items to be slashed.

However, industry analysts expect the impact on conventions and other meetings to be especially acute this time in the face of rising travel costs.

A solution within reach

In fact, according to projections from the National Business Travel Association, travel costs — including hotel rates, airfares and car rentals — will increase by 10% or more this year alone.

And, with the falling dollar, travel costs are rising even more rapidly for U.S. organizations and their employees.

What is the solution? It may be right in front of you — the screen where you are reading this article.

Increasingly, conferences and meetings are being held in the virtual world of Second Life.

This is opening up a world of possibilities for rejuvenating the convention and meetings industry and reinventing the very idea of participating in a conference.

Second Life has been perhaps the most visible and most talked about of a growing number of virtual worlds, spanning the gamut from so-called “men in tights” games, geared to adults, including medieval-styled fantasy games such as World of Warcraft, Runescape, Lineage, Ragnarok and Everquest to wildly popular games such as Webkinz, Club Penguin and Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom.

In these games, you assume an on-screen character — your avatar — and you can interact in real-time with individuals around the world.

Second Life, which has an excess of 13 million residents, is drawing particular attention for all types of organizations — corporations, non-profits, colleges and universities, and government agencies, who are fast setting up virtual presences in this game-that-is-not-a-game — an unscripted virtual world.

For conferencing, the advantages are obvious. One can participate in a conference from your desktop or laptop — wherever you may be (provided you have a high-speed Internet connection and an up-to-date computer).

Travel costs: none! Opportunity costs: minimized — just participate in “real-time” events or view archived events on your schedule.

However, when participating in “live” events in the virtual world environment, one can interact via both text and voice chat with either the entire group or with small groups and even individuals at the event.

And, as with a real meeting, one can continue the dialogue with conference participants after the speakers finish presenting their talks, their slides, and their audio-visuals.

In fact, just like traditional conferences, such “in-world” events often include social hours and meeting spaces. Increasingly, “real-world” conferences are adding virtual world “divisions” and simulcasts of real-world events in Second Life.

What does the future hold? The very notion of “traveling” to attend a conference may soon become passé, as the economics of presence and the economics of today’s rapidly increasing travel costs will combine to force more conferences and their attendees into the virtual realm.

The thought of “attending” and “participating” in virtual events is also in line with the present push for greening business practices, as virtual conferencing not only saves money, but vastly shrinks the carbon footprint of such events.

In doing so, conference organizers will be able to greatly expand the reach of their events, with little to no incremental costs for allowing for virtual attendees and participants.

Certainly, this is an area where virtual world solutions will garner a great deal of attention over the next few years, as we will quite quickly see the “ramping-up” of conferences held either entirely in Second Life or other virtual world environments (most likely private worlds accessible after gaining an access code via registration).

Of course, this could have a tremendous negative impact on the “traditional” meetings business — as well as on destination cities and their host infrastructure (airports, hotels, restaurants, etc.).

However, if your organization or agency puts on meetings and conferences, a simple question to ask is, “Why are we not doing at least part of this virtually?”

Today, there’s simply no reason not to at least offer mixed-world (part real world, part virtual world) conferences. And, for companies and organizations looking to reduce their expenditures and their carbon footprints, this may truly be a “win-win” situation.

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