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.
But, web conferencing's gains are not coming at the expense of live meetings. They are, instead, "typically replacing or upgrading
meetings that were formerly tele- or videoconferences," Maiden says.
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.