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Virtual Meetings Get A 2nd Life

Forget the days of companies flying employees to exotic locales to rally the troops and strategize.

Who has the money to sustain that the corporate conference excesses of the past — and big remote gatherings just simply look bad. With companies cancelling Las Vegas meetings and Pebble Beach golf outings, some are finding a new, inexpensive way to gather far-flung employees — virtually, in Second Life. Linden Lab's virtual world, which is home to 1.3 million regular residents, or avatars, has become the new hot spot for corporate gatherings.

Hundreds of companies have held meetings in the virtual world of second life — From Cisco and Dell , to Xerox and Intel, to Unilver and BT. Accenture even has hosted virtual recruiting events in Second Life. A virtual meeting is far more sophisticated than a conference call. Companies can hold speeches, seminars, breakout sessions and high tech demonstrations-- even a virtual walk-through through a virtual building. You can do many of the things in the virtual world that you can in real life — from showing slides for a presentation to the equivalent of water cooler talk after a meeting.

Employees build avatars that look like themselves, even dressing in their style, then participate via instant messaging or speakerphone. If a dozen employees are sitting around a table in Second Life, participating in a breakout session, you can see who's speaking, avatars can raise their hands, or lean over to their colleagues to whisper something just to them.

Today IBM is hosting a Second Life meeting for 250 employees in its custom conference center, built behind a privacy firewall. IBM invested $80,000 to build a virtual conference center and firewall to keep events private, for a big meeting in October. That first conference saved the company $350,000 on travel and productivity alone, so needless to say the return on investment was impressive. And IBM says it's found some surprising benefits -- saying that the virtual world encourages collaboration between people who would be unlikely to interact in a real-world environment. The company is so pleased with the results from its virtual conferences it plans to continue them regardless of the economic environment.

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There are disadvantages, like time zones, and the fact that virtual meetings don't really work with larger groups of say 1,000 people. But Second Life is working with companies to make sure its environment is as conducive to business as possible. The recession has helped Second Life's traffic and it's economy. User transactions — of which the company get's a cut — have grown 30 percent since September. People are spending more time at home and online and companies are spending less time on money on travel.

Linden Lab is hoping that its virtual world can become a real option for companies in these tighter times.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

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  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.