Responsible Travel Week #rtweek17
Conferencing in the Virtual and Natural Worlds

related: Index of Online Conferences, How Green is Your Conference?, events
flickr: how green is your eco conferencee?
recommended listening: future of conferences
slideshare: engaging events (41,000+ views)
worksheet: events checklist

In today's world of wired and increasingly wireless communication -- blogs, wikis and internet telephony -- traditional meetings, events and conferences risk becoming obsolete. This is not to deny the desire to convene in physical space, but rather a proposal that such events fully use the social web. Any conference that does not have a hashtag or a back channel on Twitter does not have a proper understanding of how to engage its participants.

A colleague works for the United Nations tells me that often he is in the air or in airports for more time than he spends at meetings. Is this an effective use of human or natural resources? Just how green are these eco conferences? Are we ready for OpenSpace and the integration of micro events and treasure hunts?

Creating Bridges

While traditional conferences have many benefits, particularly in terms of networking and information sharing, there are drawbacks. Events in the physical world bear high costs and space constraints. There is an alternative -- using the Web for online conferencing. Sometimes this can be a replacement, but more importantly it is a critical add-on before, during and after events in the natural world.

A Few Words about has been a leader in developing online conferencing, particularly in the realm of sustainable travel and ecotourism, hosting more than twenty online conferences since 2000. Each of these events stimulated a number of 'face to face' encounters among participants. has a successful track record of creating events in the virtual and natural worlds. We have hosted twenty formal online conferences.

In 2002 Planeta was tapped to develop the Sustainable Development of Ecotourism Web Conference, conducted online as a precursor to the World Ecotourism Summit.

During the 2002 Ecotourism Summit, for example, Ron met more than 50 of the 900 participants in physical space. Leaders from the WTO and UNEP said that many key comments generated during the online event were the most substantive of the preparatory events.
Another example is the 2001 online Media, Environment and Tourism Conference which was summarized in an article published for the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Another examples include workshops based on online events, including Ecoturismo Urbano y Vias Verdes which summarized lessons from the Urban Ecotourism Conference.

Online and Natural Worlds

Conferences can be more effective when conference organizers integrate online and offline communication strategies. Accomplishing this task is a co-responsibility of organizers and participants.

While many talk about the 'digital divide,' few manage to build the bridge.

Many events -- trade shows, congresses and academic meetings -- are held as a means of justifying the existence of the organizers or to provide resume fodder for participants. This is ok for bureaucrats and students. Professionals soon opt out.

Once I visited a state tourism office and noticed a poster for an ecotourism event that had taken place a year earlier. "What was accomplished?" The official looked at me blankly, shook her head and said, "We made this poster."

Creating Spaces

Natural world conferences succeed because they provide a much needed sense of community. Participants expect events will generate contacts that facilitate professional efforts. In short, we go to network -- see and be seen. We seek transformation, be it our understanding of a particular topic or our relationships with colleagues.


If the objective is to facilitate a dialogue among multiple stakeholders, online conferencing boasts advantages beyond events conducted in the physical realm. Ideas are what matter. Those who can express themselves clearly will be listened to with greater attention and their opinions will carry more weight. Online conferencing can be much more egalitarian, allowing time for multiple voices to be heard.

One other important advantage of the online format is immediate documentation. E-conferences foster a global exchange of information without incurring often-daunting travel expenses.

In addition, the summaries from online conferences tend to be more lively than traditional conference conclusions. That's because we recognize individual voices -- much like a collection of oral histories, such as the work of Studs Terkel and Elena Poniatowska.

A Few Words about Lurking

It's ok to lurk, but don't complain about the interaction (or lack thereof) if you are not an active participant yourself. When the wallflowers start to dance, everything changes!

Opening Spaces

Online conferences are not confined in physical space, but occur during a specific time frame -- typically 2-12 weeks. One of the surprises has been the high level of participation by online conferences. By limiting the discussion in time, an animated interchange ensues.


Transcripts of online conferences resemble lively content-rich conversations at coffee breaks, more so than static reading of papers from the traditional podium. This analogy provided the fulcrum for one innovative thinker, Harrison Owen, to create a successful, interpersonal conferencing methodology known as Open Space Technology (OST).

According to OST-creator Harrison Owens: "Open Space produces better conferences, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Why does it work? Recently I have come to the conclusion that the core of Open Space is actually Peacemaking, for ourselves, our organizations and in the troubled spots of our world."


We need more events in the natural world which engage people instead of encouraging them to read at one another. Instead of using a podium, use a podcast.
The Web enables the development of "virtual communities" -- based on shared interests and goals. Here, practical work becomes a satisfying byproduct of clear, open, readily-shared communication. And one of the best tools for that ... is online conferencing.

Limitations of Online Conferencing

While there are many benefits of online conferencing, there are disadvantages. For openers, many users are NOT (or not YET) Internet-savvy.

This is one reason why Planeta offers practical web seminars. We need to ensure that those who can contribute to or benefit from a conference -- -- whether in the natural or virtual worlds -- have adequate access to make the encounter meaningful.

Ideally, of course, we are seeking events that take place in both the natural and virtual worlds. Conference organizers hip to the new paradigm will understand how placement of presentations, photos and discussion groups on the Web complement what takes place on the ground.

Many institutions operate in-house forums, but rarely are they able to touch on controversial topics. Consultant John Shores suggests that to make institutions and individuals more comfortable, particularly "in finding the solutions to unsustainable development," controversial discussions be conducted on a neutral third party server.

"My favored format in these cases is a prolonged series of focused interactions. Over several months if necessary, each question gets chewed for a week at a time in a leisurely e-mail format. There might be some live chats at the start and at the end," he writes in the essay Take Your Time: Organizing Online Discussion.

Moving the discussion to a neutral space allows and encourages a more complete airing of all the issues and from multiple viewpoints, and permits the individuals from specific organizations to participate without appearing to sponsor or condone particular viewpoints that may appear in the discussion.


On top of the wishlist ... please, no more closed door meetings that do not include opportunities for virtual dialogue among interested parties before, during and after the event. Interested constituencies without the money or time to attend in person should have the opportunity to participate.

Conference Organizers: 1) Publish the event agenda online the institutional website. Let readers know whether the information will change before or during the event. 2) Provide registration information. 3) Participate in relevant forums. 4) After the event, provide a summary and links to relevant documents or proceedings and maintain the site for at least a year, if not indefinitely.

Conference Sponsors: 1) Insist that conference organizers put as much information about the event online the Web in advance of the event. 2) Request acknowledgement (logos and links) on the conference website. 3) Participate in relevant forums.

Conference Participants: 1) Consult the conference website for information and contacts. 2) Provide feedback to the organizers of what has been useful. 3) Participate in relevant forums.

TIP -- In the forums, don't lurk! Introduce yourself and your professional interests.


Index of Online Conferences
How Green is Your Conference?