The use of virtual conferencing technology within shareholder and investor meetings and conferences is increasing, in some cases reducing the size of physical meetings or completely replacing them. Technology advances and the ability to reach a greater audience have spurred its adoption.
Private equity firm The Blackstone Group has been ramping up its virtual events as in-person internal meetings are being cut back. Recently, the company completed its first Webinar with investors.
"Senior management walked into the room and they were really surprised at the whole thing and the whole technology," said David Landgraf, Blackstone vice president of events and conference planning, at this month's Financial and Insurance Meeting Planning Conference in New York. "It was a virtual conference. People could talk to each other globally. We were answering their questions live. From a technology perspective, it opened the door to have one-on-one meetings to follow up. I look at that as the next road for the firm. It is a door, not a blockade."
The company also hosted a Webinar for its portfolio group, which 588 people attended—far higher than attendance at the company's limited partner conferences. On top of achieving savings in travel time and hotel costs, "it opened up other doors and relationships for them and the sales force to make their impact," said Landgraf, who manages a department of three that plans about 175 events annually.
Fortune 500 transportation services holding company YRC Worldwide has been aggressively moving meetings and events to virtual environments and is considering implementing such technology for shareholder and investor relations events after initiating an employee stock equity plan in January.
"Part of the reason we want to explore that is because now we have all of our employees as owners," said executive vice president of enterprise solutions group and chief marketing officer Greg Reid. "How are you going to connect with them and let them know how the company is doing on an annual shareholder-meeting basis? It creates a great opportunity for us to consider other ways to connect with those employee owners."
While corporations can now reach broader audiences through remote electronic means either entirely or as a supplement to their in-person meetings, planners need to understand their audiences and how to adapt the technology for certain types of meetings, including shareholder events, where all stock owners require access, no matter how large or small.
In these cases, balancing audience needs outweighs the benefits of cost savings because the company does not pay much of the shareholder attendee travel expenses.
"The challenges becomes: Is it fully virtual with no physical gathering, and everything goes to individual's desktops or wherever they are? Or, do you have a physical gathering, but instead of expecting 2,000 shareholders, you have 400, and anyone else who wants to join virtually can join virtually?" said Bruce Morgan, BCD Meetings & Incentives senior vice president of marketing and business development.
Some opt for virtual broadcasting instead of in-person meetings because of a new level of interaction from shareholders. In new virtual environments, it is important for corporations and their planners to be aware of their industry and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regulations regarding privacy and information.
While the practice has only been able to legally take place for companies incorporated in Delaware since earlier this decade, public companies implementing a fully technology-based shareholder meeting are few and far between.
In 2001, Delaware, incorporated home of most U.S. publicly traded companies, amended its corporate law so that shareholder meetings no longer had to be held in a physical location and could be held electronically. According to the Delaware General Corporation Law statute, "The board of directors may, in its sole discretion, determine that the meeting shall not be held at any place, but may instead be held solely by means of remote communication."
The statute allows for any stock or proxy holders to participate in a stockholder meeting remotely, but the corporation has to provide means to verify the authenticity of the individual and provide the technology means for them to participate. In addition, all of those communications and votes conducted by remote means must be recorded and archived by the company.