Face value

1 Jun 2006 by business traveller

It wasn't so long ago that experts were predicting the end of business travel. Advances in video conferencing would mean that colleagues and clients could meet and do business without leaving the comfort of their office. A decade or so later this technology has improved, but air travel continues to thrive — more people than ever are travelling on business. So why is it that in this age of long queues and delays, many people still prefer to meet in person rather than via a TV screen?

Firstly, because the costs of travel have dropped. As the evolution in video and web conferencing occurred, so did a revolution in the low-cost airline market, reducing the cost incentive of meeting virtually.

Norman Gage, director of business travel at Advantage Travel Centres, the national network of travel agents, says: "The price of air tickets has tumbled in recent years and, just as importantly, the increased availability of flights means travellers can do roundtrips to much of Europe, including a meeting, without the need for an overnight stay."

But while the literal cost of travel may have fallen, the overall cost to a company of an employee being away from the office remains a concern. You may be able to keep in touch via your Blackberry, or fire off emails in wifi hotspots around the globe (or even above it), but there is still no substitute for being in the office. A trip from the UK to Hong Kong for a meeting is a two-day affair, which needs to be justified both to the employer and the employee themselves.

"Travelling overseas for work is no longer as exciting a concept as it used to be — getting on a plane is just like boarding a train these days," admits Gage. "But there are advantages: the employee has time to prepare for the meeting in-flight, and of course, in many cases they can collect their air miles."

Time and costs aside though, one of the main reasons video conferencing has not taken off as originally envisaged seems to be that many simply don't feel comfortable making critical business decisions in a virtual world.

Philip Carlisle, CEO of The Guild of Travel Management Companies, says: "In my opinion, video conferencing can be used to maintain relationships, but not to establish them in the first place. For meetings involving direct negotiation, and for critical issues, people still prefer to have a face to face meeting."

Gage agrees, saying it's "human nature" to want to look someone in the eye when doing business. Indeed, even the video conferencing providers themselves are not advocating a wholesale switch away from face to face meetings.

Says Tom Jones, EMEA video sales manager for ACT Teleconferencing: "Video conferencing is not an exact replica of real life — we would still meet clients face to face for the first meeting, as it is no substitute for the real thing. But for follow-up and regular meetings it makes far more sense to do it from your own office.

It is with the emphasis on the regular that ACT have launched "Ready Connect", a self-service product designed for companies that use video conferencing as an everyday tool. Users pay a set fee, and then, providing they have their own equipment, they can log in and use their account as often as they like.

"It's not for everyone, but for those people who are confident with the technology and are looking to make at least three or four conferences calls per week, the unreserved service is worth their while," Jones explains.

For the more occasional user, ACT can intervene as much or as little as necessary, from providing an operator to sit in and referee the conference, to simply hosting it remotely. Says Jones: "We regularly host audio calls of over 1,000 participants, and currently hold the world record for a video conferencing event of over 10,000 separate end users [a mixture of audio and video]."

One of the challenges that video conferencing providers have had to face is persuading potential customers that the technology is good enough to use for meetings, says Jones. "We are trying to get over the misconception about the quality of the technology. Video reports from the war in Iraq were not good for video conferencing, as the picture quality was terrible, but that's not what it is like in reality. We are not saying that it is like Captain Kirk having one of his video links on the Starship Enterprise, but it is perfectly useable as a meeting tool."

Video conferencing may combine the benefits of audio and visual capabilities, but for a complete solution, web conferencing has appeared as an option in recent years. Increased bandwidth means that companies like Webex can offer services including video (via webcam), audio (either traditional or VOIP) and, most significantly, the live sharing of documents and applications online.

Says Ewan Cameron, sales manager for web conferencing provider Webex: "With web conferencing you are creating a complete virtual meeting service. Documents, applications and even desktops can be shared in real time online, and what's more the users don't have to own the licences to the applications [providing the host does], because essentially the user is just remotely accessing the host's mouse and keyboard."

Cameron adds that one of the main advantages from an employee's point of view is the ability to improve the work-life balance by making travel on business the exception rather than the rule — and at the same time the employer gains brownie points by being seen to be environmentally friendly by reducing air travel.

As far as reliability and availability of the service goes, Webex claims to have a "five 9s" policy, meaning the service is available 99.999 per cent of the time. The service allows up to four video streams to be on screen at any one time, while others can join in the conference with an audio only link, or partake in the document sharing via their PC.

Tom Jones admits that the concept of users seeing themselves and others on screen remains an issue, although this is gradually becoming less of a problem as consumers are exposed to video conferencing from a younger age. "More and more colleges and universities are using the technology, particularly for distance learning, so we are finding that many are no longer fearful or self-conscious about the technology — it is important that the user is able to concentrate on the meeting rather than treating the experience as a novelty."

All this talk of video and web conferencing does not mean teleconferences have bitten the dust — the audio dial-in method remains the most used, and indeed most reliable, form of virtual group meetings. Relatively little has changed since the concept was first introduced, but recent announcements such as Ring2's Conference Controller have combined the traditional teleconference with a Blackberry functionality, allowing users to view and control conference participants. The call leader is able to invite participants from their address book, monitor in real time a list of connected callers, drop or mute participants, and record the calls for future use.

Such services are already available via a laptop, but adapting the service for Blackberry users (with other PDA handsets to follow) means the user can now control the conference whether they are in the office or on the move. As Carlisle points out, mobility is an issue that video conferencing has still to overcome: "With telephone conferencing, one or more of the participants can be mobile, where as this is virtually impossible with video or web conferencing, even with the latest technology. It also provides a degree of privacy which of course is not possible with video conferencing."

Carlisle believes there is space in the market for both conferencing and business travel, and that the virtual option provides an invaluable alternative where face to face meetings are not possible.

"Video conferencing is very useful as a back-up in cases where participants cannot travel to meet in person. If a pandemic were to occur it is likely most business travel would grind to a halt, so in this instance the technology would prove very useful, as it does in cases where companies are reluctant to send employees to troubled areas of the world."

It appears unlikely that video conferencing will ever replace travel as a method of conducting meetings and negotiations. But as multinational business becomes ever more important, the two concepts seem to have found a balance that allows companies to effectively manage their resources.

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