Virtual get-togethers, while still a small element of the meeting universe, are growing fast. In 2004, web-based meetings across all industries generated $600 million in revenues. That figure is expected to grow at an annual rate of 30 percent for the near-term, says Bob Maiden, president of The Maxwell Group, a provider of live, direct-to-physician web conferencing services. Pharma's share, now between 10 and 15 percent ($60 to $90 million), "will grow at the same rate as the overall market—or higher," according to Maiden. He attributes 50 percent of his pharma business to sales force training and communications, 25 percent to non-sales force training, and 25 percent to physician-related events.
The reasons behind this incursion, which also explains why live meetings have been comparatively untouched—their slice of the pharma meetings pie is probably in the single digits—depends on the economic logic that drives web conferencing in general.Its principle virtue is it can put a large, geographically dispersed group in touch fairly cheaply, allowing it to communicate, even collaborate, without incurring the time and expense of finding a suitable venue and getting everyone there on time. When an online meeting ends, participants get back to work instead of getting on a plane. Meetings that must be live—which is to say, most of them—will stay live. But those once conducted via phone or video are going the way of the dodo.
The message of the web conferencing movement for meeting professionals, Maiden says, is adapt. He believes meeting planners will need to modify or enhance their services by adding web conferencing to their offerings. Otherwise, they may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
What's the next big thing in web conferencing? First of all, in pharma, many of the biggest companies are just getting in the game. Beyond that, the most anticipated development will be the result of expanded broadband usage—dial-up is disappearing.
The Maxwell Group recently conducted an event involving 4,300 physicians. Doctors are not usually seen as early adopters of high-tech, but 82 percent of participants had broadband connections. That is "dramatically more," Maiden says, than the number of doctors with broadband just one year ago. As bandwidth grows, he says, so do the online possibilities.