People hate meetings. but they love events: special occasions that bring together colleagues who don't often see each other - to consider topics that they don't often discuss. Most business events are physical gatherings: off-sites at posh resorts, training seminars at conference centers. The trouble with physical gatherings is that they impose so many limitations: How many people can take time away to attend? How many people can you afford to fly in?
Enter the Web. Don't think of the Web as merely a place to find information or to sell products. Think of it as a place to hold events. Web events have a number of advantages over their physical counterparts. For one thing, they can handle more people. British Petroleum recently held a three-day strategy session to which it invited 20,000 employees - everyone in the company with intranet access. "This changed the whole spirit of the meeting," says Keith Pearse, a 16-year company veteran, who spearheaded the Web sessions.
Web events can also reach people in more places. Bell & Howell has held its last two shareholders' meetings on the Web. Although fewer than 40 people traveled to the physical gathering in 1997, more than 1,700 attended virtually.
The four events described here show what's possible - and offer lessons on how to make such events work. So start sending out the invitations. By email, of course.
Virtual Strategy Session
Event: Under CEO John Browne, British Petroleum has worked to become flatter, faster, and more democratic. That's easier said than done in a company with 53,000 employees - many of them stationed in remote locations like the North Sea and Alaska's North Slope. Where do you hold a company-wide strategy session when your people are scattered around the world? On the Web. Last summer, BP convened a three-day Innovation Colloquium to devise ways for the company to become more creative. It was a high-priority event. When BP convenes these colloquia, they involve its most senior people. This session brought together CEO Browne, 70 other high-ranking BP executives, and a star-studded cast of outsiders, including a well-known futurist, a senior official from the U.S. Army, and executives from Intel and McKinsey and Co.
One other group was invited as well: the 20,000 BP employees with intranet access. "The topic was innovation, so we wanted the event to be innovative," says Pearse. "The feedback we got from all parts of the world bowled us over. We'll never do a conventional meeting again."
Agenda: The physical gathering took place at BP's training and development center, 10 miles west of London's Heathrow airport. Several days before the event, Pearse's five-person Web team sent out a company-wide email and included a URL so that people could attend virtually. People who logged on could review presentation slides and handouts, and hear a real-time audio broadcast of the proceedings. They could also email their questions from the field - including the oil fields.
According to Pearse, 10 BP workers on an oil platform in the North Sea spent the night shift discussing one of the sessions. They then sent emails about innovation in their work. Pearse was amazed: "Here you have all these high-level executives participating, but you also have a bunch of engineers floating around in the North Sea. We tried to make it obvious that their comments were making it into the room."
Reviews: BP's Web event was a gusher. Thousands of employees visited the site as the session was happening; hundreds more have accessed an archive of the proceedings. Pearse says the company's next Web gathering, a Futures Forum to explore BP's competitive environment over the next 20 years, will incorporate streaming video as well as real-time audio. It will also incorporate lessons that Pearse and his team learned during the innovation sessions.
First, Pearse says, you have to make Web events feel "live" - and lively. The BP event included a clock that "counted down" to when each session would start, photos of the facility, copies of all the materials the delegates received - even dinner menus.
Second, he adds, you need to make it easy for people to be heard. Offering access to an event isn't enough. You also have to engage in dialogue and debate. BP employees could click on a "Feedback" button and offer their thoughts to people at the gathering. "Employees can feel excluded. This event improved BP's family feel," Pearse says. "It created shared context."
Coordinates: British Petroleum, http://www.bp.com; Keith Pearse, email@example.com
Virtual Annual Meeting
Event: Most executives, in their candid moments, would admit that they don't mind if their annual shareholders' meeting attracts only sparse attendance. After all, shareholders have been known to ask awkward questions.
Bell & Howell has a different attitude. The company, based in Skokie, Illinois, generates annual revenues of more than $900 million and sells a wide variety of products - from high-speed mail sorters to online-information services. After going private in 1988, it went public again in 1995 in order to raise capital, boost its profile, and share the wealth with its employees. It wants to communicate with its shareholders, not to hide from them.
So where is the best place to hold its annual meeting? On the Web. In May 1996, Bell & Howell became the first major company to conduct an online annual meeting. Its 1997 meeting was even bigger and better, and it plans to hold this year's annual meeting on the Web as well. "It's a great way to get our message out globally," says Hank D'Ambrosio, Bell & Howell's vice president of administration.
Agenda: Bell & Howell shareholders can still physically attend the annual meetings.The May 1996 meeting took place in Ann Arbor, Michigan - in the cafeteria of UMI, a Bell & Howell subsidiary. Last year's meeting was held in a conference room at corporate headquarters in Skokie. About 40 people attended each one.
Lots more people attended on the Web, either during or after the event - nearly 1,800 in 1996, or 45 times as many as attended in person. What's more, 25% of all the proxy votes cast in 1997 were cast on the Web, rather than in person or through the mail - another big change from how most companies interact with shareholders.
Virtual attendees heard and saw almost everything the physical attendees did. Bell & Howell broadcast a real-time audio feed over the Web, and company executives addressed the meeting using PowerPoint slides, which were posted on the Web to accompany that feed. To vote, online participants used a secure Web server and typed in a personal-identification number that they received at registration. During the meeting, about 4.5 million shares were voted by proxy over the Web. "That was more votes than I expected," D'Ambrosio admits.
Reviews: D'Ambrosio says the Web fits well with Bell & Howell's style of shareholder gathering. The in-person meetings involve a minimum of fluff or flash, so online attendees don't feel as if they've missed an extravaganza. The company is eager to reach investors outside the United States, few of whom are prepared to fly to Ann Arbor or Skokie, so the Web's global reach is a real benefit. "We received email from all over the world - from shareholders as far away as Japan," D'Ambrosio says.
His advice for other companies that are considering an online shareholders' meeting? Make it easy for people to attend. Back in May 1996, for example, when Bell & Howell held its first virtual meeting, many of its investors didn't have Internet access. So the company offered free software and provided 30 days of connection time for just $5. That wasn't necessary last year. ("Pretty much everyone has an Internet service provider now," D'Ambrosio says.) But he and his colleagues have continued to search for ways to make the online experience as seamless as possible. Indeed, shareholders who wished to attend the 1997 meeting didn't even have to know a specific URL: Bell & Howell's home page featured an icon that took visitors straight to the meeting.
Coordinates: Bell & Howell, http://www.bellhowell.com; Hank D'Ambrosio, firstname.lastname@example.org
Event: Calico Technology isn't just in the software business. It's in the idea business. The six-year-old company makes sales-configuration software (called Concinity) that helps other companies do business on the Web. Because it operates in such a new and fast-changing field, Calico has to convince potential customers of the commercial merits of the Web before it can persuade them of the merits of Concinity. That means seminars - and lots of them.
So last year, from March to June, the company organized seminars with some of the biggest names on the Web: venture capitalist John Doerr; Pete Solvik, chief information officer for Cisco Systems, which has sold billions of dollars of products over the Net; and Charles Kirk, a senior technology executive at General Motors.
The seminars put Calico on the map - and took place on the Web. They attracted 1,300 participants from around the world. "What are the chances, unless you're Microsoft, of getting 1,300 people to come to your seminars?" wonders Michalene Adams, Calico's marketing-communications manager. "And we couldn't expect John Doerr to fly across the country and speak at a seminar. We got senior people because they didn't have to leave their offices."
Agenda: It's hard to imagine: a business seminar without bad coffee, cheap pastries, or endless agendas. Each of Calico's Web seminars ran for just 45 minutes. Speakers talked for about 30 minutes and presented 10 to 12 slides. Then participants emailed or telephoned questions to a moderator, who screened them and posed them to the speakers.
The logistics behind the Web seminars were remarkably uncomplicated. Speakers dialed into a teleconference line. AudioNet then took the live telephone feed, converted it into RealAudio, and broadcast it over the Web. The only serious headache came with checking telephone numbers, email addresses, and passwords - to make sure that participants could get connected without encountering lots of glitches. "One person did absolutely nothing for three days except verify phone numbers and email addresses," says Adams.
Reviews: Adams concedes that there were a few problems in the early seminars. Overall, though, these sessions worked well, both for the participants and for Calico. "We were very nervous," she says. "There was real fear that the technology would fail. But everyone was thrilled with how everything went." What makes Web seminars work? First, Adams says, never underestimate the value of star power - even on the Web: Big-name celebrities like Doerr and Solvik drew the biggest crowds. Second, keep the sessions short and crisp - shorter, certainly, than in-person seminars usually are. Since people didn't have to travel to participate, Calico didn't have to fill an entire morning with activity to justify their effort. Calico has plans for another series of Web seminars in 1998. "The Q&A sessions were really fun," Adams says. "Participants got a kick out of being able to ask questions of such important people."
Coordinates: Calico Technology, www.calicotech.com; Michalene Adams, email@example.com
Virtual Town Meeting
Event: Back in 1993, when Ray Hoag retired from the staff of Grand Rapids Community College, he vowed to help west Michigan use technology to become more connected. The result was GrandNet, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting community through computers. Hoag became GrandNet's executive director. And in October 1996, he organized a conference to inspire his constituents. It was a good idea. It was also a huge expense. The two-day session cost $65,000. That's real money for a young nonprofit. "Our revenues didn't cover our expenses," he notes. "And we had zero dollars in the bank. It was a scary situation."
So last fall, Hoag held the group's second conference - on the Web. From mid-October to late November, 50 panelists and nearly 700 registrants took part in Grand Community InterActions. (Only about 400 people had attended the physical conference the previous year.) "This is more efficient and more effective," Hoag says. "The Web helps solve the problems that come with busy people and conflicting priorities."
Agenda: Hoag's virtual town meeting covered 15 topics pertaining to the future of greater Grand Rapids - from the Faith Forum, a dialogue on religious unity, to the Environmental Forum, a debate on transportation policies and urban sprawl. Participants came from every walk of life. They included church leaders, businesspeople, political figures, even a low-income resident from the inner-city Heartside neighborhood, who logged in from a laptop. "It was a good cross-section of citizens," says Hoag. "It wasn't overrun by people from any one sector."
Hoag used Caucus, a Web-based conferencing tool developed by Screen Porch (www.screenporch.com), to support the discussion forums. Each day, different people moderated the discussions. In the morning, the moderators introduced new issues for the online participants to consider.
Hoag says virtual conversations miss some of the body language and emotions of a physical gathering. But they offer benefits as well. "People aren't as intimidated by the pecking order," he argues.
Reviews: Hoag believes the best way to measure the success of Grand Community InterActions is not by the conversations it provoked but by the actions it inspired. Which is why, during the last week of the event, participants were encouraged to post to Wave of Actions, the wrap-up topic. People described the steps they would take after the sessions ended. Some steps were personal - a renewed commitment to exercise by participants in the Health Forum. Some were political - a promise to attend meetings of the West Michigan Greenway Council or a transportation summit.
Hoag's own actions will include measures to improve future events. For example, he'll work harder to give people a break. Most Web organizers worry about featuring too little activity in their events. But Hoag says that too much activity raises problems as well: "People need to stop, reflect, and think." He also says the quality of discussion seldom exceeds the quality of the moderation: "You can't throw technology out there and say, 'Anyone can do this.' I'd love to have more voices. But we need some electronic mentoring."
Coordinates: GrandNet, www.grandnet.org; Ray Hoag, firstname.lastname@example.org
Heath Row email@example.com is an associate editor of Fast Company.
A version of this article appeared in the February/March 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.