Are face-to-face association meetings still relevant?

By John Ramsey posted 03-01-2011 07:08 PM


While preparing for an article that I will be contributing to the American Society of Association Executives, I chose to open a discussion for input and comment from the members of CEFPI on the subject of face-to-face meetings vs. technology.  As I communicate through both electronic and face-to-face meetings with members of CEFPI, I keep hearing a recurring theme.  Travel is very difficult, expensive and in some cases, out of the question for our members.  So, I pose the question- are face-to-face meetings necessary, or can we replace the majority of those meetings using technology? 


I get a wide variety of answers when I ask that question to our members.  Those who are so tech-savvy that they text their spouse “good morning”, instead of speaking  to them (that’s intended to be a joke), tell me CEFPI should all but eliminate conferences and conduct meetings only on-line.  Exaggeration and humor aside, there is some significance to that comment by those who believe they rarely, if ever, need to leave their office/home to conduct business. In addition to the obvious cost factors, social responsibility comes into play as members consider their carbon footprint and other “green” behaviors contributing to a sustainable future.  These issues transcend to the world of CEFPI conferences as well.  There are a number of members who would applaud an entire suite of education services online.  Would CEFPI members prefer to    communicate via a Skype call or other video/audio methods?  Is our business more easily conducted via remote methods?  Can we be more productive by eliminating or sharply reducing travel?  These are all good questions, but I should point out that conference calls, video conferencing, and even Skype all have associated costs as well as carbon footprints of their own.  For example, using an “Oprah Winfrey”- style Skype conference to an audience of 600 can cost as much as $10,000 to orchestrate.  


On the other side of the equation, we have members who tell me that face-to-face contact is essential to transact sales, exchange information and build relationships.  In researching this topic, I have come across several studies speaking to this very trend.  In his white paper “Why Face-to-Face Business Meetings Matter”, Professor Richard Arvey of the National University of Singapore Business School describes why ‘computer-mediated processes’ simply don’t cut it for some types of communications:

“Group processes and outcomes that require coordination, consensus, timing, persuasion of others, etc. are less effectively accomplished using computer mediated communication modalities.”  In this case, I believe that Professor Arvey makes a valid point and one that we can apply to the issue regarding expanding electronic communications. Considering both camps, I believe there has to be a balance struck between using technology wisely and efficiently, as well as conducting face-to-face meetings.  However, it’s not just simply saying; “we should do both.”  In order to be effective, we need to determine the properly balanced formula encompassing these options.  With regard to CEFPI’s educational delivery and networking opportunities, I don’t believe we can continue to do business as usual, i.e. presenting annual conferences at the international, regional and chapter levels and expect that to be the end-all be-all for learning, networking, and business development..  We have to create new ways to combine the face-to-face opportunities with technology and apply what works best in each situation.  Yes, we should have more webinars and video programs offering CEU credit, but we should also have more targeted face-to-face programs in addition to our annual programs. 

No association operates like it did 50 years ago.  I believe the key difference is that the rapid evolution of technology requires us to be more nimble than we were all those years ago and we must be quicker to respond to member needs in order to maintain our value and relevance as an association.  To say we are going to “blend technology with face-to-face meetings” isn’t enough.  We have to remain relevant as an association and I believe CEFPI is on the path to do just that.  I’d like your thoughts on this subject.