The fact that he came over to chat had very little to do with me.
I was sitting on the patio at Bridgehead Trading, the funky, fair trade coffee shop that serves as an informal meeting room and home-away-from-home for our office two blocks away. One of the counter staff came over to visit with Maydeleh, our 3½-year-old Shetland sheepdog.
Maydeleh has all the best conversations when we take her out for walks. When we get to participate, it’s really just a collateral benefit. But at one point, her visitor mentioned that his upcoming trip to Uganda had vanished overnight. The carrier, Ottawa-based Zoom Airlines, had filed for bankruptcy, caught in the familiar squeeze between discount fares and skyrocketing fuel costs.
Just at that moment, I was working on a segment of our report on MPI’s recent World Education Congress, dealing with the balance and trade-offs between live and virtual meetings.
I mentioned the coincidence, told him about the air travel concerns that have been roiling the industry. He wasn’t worried, even though he was about to pay an extra $1,000 per ticket for the Ottawa-Heathrow leg of his journey.
Commercial air travel isn’t going to disappear, he assured me, simply because customers will pay what they have to for a service they can’t do without. And “people will still have to meet,” for those moments when there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction.
We readily agreed that you can’t have a good, articulate argument over the phone, build trust and understanding over an instant messaging system, or have a tentative, confidential conversation about a promising new idea when you’ve replaced the hallway outside a meeting room with a chat line or a wiki. Social media are brilliant for carrying on conversations, dialogues, debates that already have a life of their own. But it still takes a face-to-face meeting to get things started.
It isn’t that the conversation was new. The rise of virtual meetings and the imminent fall of various airlines have both been hot topics in the industry.
But I can’t remember the last time I heard about the value of live meetings from someone who wasn’t a meeting professional. In this case, from a member of the generation we tend to equate most readily with virtual events, but who was thoroughly sold on face to face.
None of which is to suggest that every meeting must fit the conventional profile of a face-to-face gathering. As an industry, we have a lot of work ahead of us to define the purpose and value of different meeting formats and figure out how they interact. But when we get to the finish line, we may find that some of our clients and participants are already there, waiting for us. Some of them might even be cheering us on.