Simultaneously the bane of those who swear to the
irreplaceability of an actual handshake and the savior for those who can't
fathom one more flight across time zones, videoconferencing and other forms of
remote collaboration occupy a unique position in the consciousness of corporate
travelers and those who manage them. These technologies undeniably can save
travelers time, but few would say they are the preferred method to close a
major sale. They undeniably can cut travel costs, but few companies take the
step of mandating their use. The result, generally, is a pastiche of
videoconferencing uses and users—primarily younger frequent travelers and primarily
for internal meetings. Remote conferencing these days is used more frequently
than it was before the financial downturn but perhaps less so than some once
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But the technology is being purchased, and it's being used.
According to BTN's survey of 400
travelers, 13 percent of respondents don't use any sort of remote conferencing
in lieu of travel to internal meetings. And though 2012 thus far has been a
rough year for the videoconferencing market, with two straight quarters of
declining year-over-year global revenue, "we view the current revenue
slowdown as temporary rather than a fundamental decline in demand,"
according to a September report from Matthias Machowinski, an analyst at market
research firm Infonetics Research. "Overall shipments of hardware
endpoints are still up by double digits year-over-year, signaling ongoing
strong demand for videoconferencing capabilities."
Machowinski in June predicted the videoconferencing market
would see "double-digit annual revenue growth through at least 2014, with
revenue hitting $5 billion per year by 2016." Though in September he
blamed 2012's dismal first-half results on "economic woes in Europe,
declines in public sector spending and a shift toward lower-priced
videoconferencing products," corporate demand for collaborative technology
appears to remain healthy.
Seventy-two percent of travel buyers surveyed by BTN indicated that their companies have
a policy to offer videoconferencing or other forms of remote collaboration in
lieu of travel for internal meetings as a method to reduce wear and tear on
frequent travelers. That was about three times as many as those who indicated
their organizations offer measures like increased perks for frequent travelers
or the elimination of one-day trips.
Consumer goods conglomerate Unilever, for one, has brought
to its employees immersive telepresence technology as well as desktop
videoconferencing, according to procurement manager for global travel services
Yvonne Moya. "We've invested a lot of money in having facilities in our
locations, and we're looking into opening up corporate Skype for
videoconferencing," Moya said. "We do promote it as a time-saver."
That's an attractive proposition for many frequent
travelers. About 47 percent of the survey's traveler respondents who use
videoconferencing indicated they did so to improve productivity, with 45
percent noting as their rationale improved work-life balance, two issues tied
closely to saving time on travel. (Traveler respondents were permitted to
select more than one answer.)
"People are finding that [remote conferencing] is a
very nice way to meet with people, see them and avoid having to get on a plane
and deal with all the fun parts of travel," quipped Agilent Technologies
director of worldwide travel Cindy Message. "People actually are thinking
about it as an alternative, and it isn't just the cost piece of it. They are really
thinking, 'What do I really need to get done in the meeting, and can I do it by
telepresence as opposed to going to a hotel and catching a flight?' "
Such an embrace of remote collaboration technology isn't
shared by all travelers, though, and the survey found a correlation between age
and how often it is used. For example, 39 percent of surveyed travelers under
35 years of age "very frequently" use the technology in lieu of
travel for internal meetings while 18 percent of those older than 35 do so. Conversely,
43 percent of respondents over 35 use the technologies "not very often"
or not at all, compared with 23 percent of younger travelers.
At Google, where a 2011 Payscale study pegged the average
employee age at 31, videoconferencing has permeated the workday experience. "Google
has an awful lot of videoconferencing in their offices all over the world,"
according to Google global travel and expense manager Michael Tangney, speaking
at a Global Business Travel Association Europe conference in September in
Budapest. "There are 100 people on my floor and six videoconference rooms.
We also use Google Hangouts. You can do it from your phone, laptop or wherever.
In the last couple of years, nobody calls each other at Google anymore. They
always videoconference each other. That's just how they talk. It's become
completely integrated with the way everybody does business, certainly
Many younger travelers at Google and elsewhere have entered
the workforce from a world where video communication is commonplace. In their
personal lives, they Skype, they instant message, they video chat. Perhaps most
importantly, they don't have the experiences of their older counterparts who
for well over a decade heard that videoconferencing was the next big thing,
only to find buggy technology that required a great deal of management from IT
even when it did work. While today's remote collaboration suppliers would note
the progress the industry has made in this area, some perceptions change slowly,
and some of those attitudes have hindered corporate acceptance of the
Steve Cline, COO of travel management company Adelman Travel
Group, which offers videoconferencing services to corporate clients, termed the
technology's growth as "relatively slow right now." He attributed the
slow pickup not only to the fact that responsibility for videoconferencing
services and travel management typically fall in two distinct places—IT, and
procurement or financial services, respectively—but also some skepticism and
unfamiliarity with its potential.
"There seems to be a lot of heightened interest, but
very few want to move ahead," Cline said. "They're still looking for
more information. Individuals on the travel side aren't familiar enough with it
yet. They need to become more familiar, and they want to be sure the specific
business transaction can be successfully fulfilled without worrying about
That, Cline said, causes corporations typically to restrict
videoconferencing's utility to internal meetings, but he noted that other
business activities, particularly hiring and sales, could be served by using
the technology early in the process. "Most of our customers have invested
in some type of videoconferencing, but it might not be used effectively,"
he said. "What's the best way to change behavior and get return on that
investment? That's what we've been working on so that the decision-making
process can be made at the point of sale."
The decision whether to use videoconferencing in lieu of
travel today often lies with travelers themselves, and it's a decision that
involves many factors, not all of them to the company's benefit. "If you
have a frequent traveler who has an alternative once in a while and it's
seamless, then they're accepting," Cline said. "The traveler who
doesn't travel that often and wants the pseudo-boondoggle, even if it's to meet
another employee, is going to be resistant."
In corporations where the traveler has the final say when
considering remote collaboration instead of travel, evolving technologies may
impact that decision. Will the 47 percent of travel respondents who see
videoconferencing as a productivity enhancement feel the same in light of the
expansion of services like inflight Wi-Fi, enabling them to maintain a higher
level of productivity while traveling? Hard to say, and there likely will be no
Traveler productivity is a concern of the survey's buyer
respondents too. More than a quarter of them cited it as the primary reason
their travelers use remote collaboration in place of travel. But even that
figure is dwarfed by the 62 percent of buyers who noted as the primary reason
the eternal impetus for continued corporate interest in videoconferencing: cost
Managing Demand, To A
A number of studies have attempted to develop ROI metrics
for videoconferencing. For example, suppliers often suggest potential travel
savings of 30 percent or more, and a 2010 study by the Carbon Disclosure
Project projected that companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenue
would generate enough savings to pay for immersive telepresence within 15
months of deployment.
Many companies have inserted language encouraging the use of
videoconferencing, especially in lieu of internal meetings. But even considering
the potential savings, very few companies are willing to mandate that use: less
than 5 percent, according to a February 2011 BTN survey of 177 North American business travel buyers.
"As far as the travel policy perspective, there is not
a mandate" to use remote collaboration technologies, said Unilever's Moya.
"We have to promote it to the traveler as, 'what's in it for me?' It is
more about open communication and about the advantages than telling people that
they must do it. But if your line manager tells you, 'You may not travel, you
must use telepresence,' then that's a given, of course."
About 28 percent of traveler respondents cited company
policy as a primary reason to favor videoconferencing for internal meetings.
Typical policies, though, only highlight the availability of the technology,
said Mark Williams, principal of BCD Travel consultancy Advito.
"Videoconferencing policy discussions center around how
many people need to be involved, how critical [the purpose of the would-be
trip] is. If you're signing a big deal, that's one thing; if you're in the
investigatory phase, that's quite another. So clients are picking and choosing
where videoconferencing makes sense for them and where they have to be there
face to face. I haven't seen any policies that say, 'You will do this.' We see
things like, 'Consider videoconferencing, the facility is readily available and
it saves money if you believe you can do the meeting effectively through that
method.' There are suggestions and guidelines for how and when to use the
videoconferencing facility, versus language like, 'You must use it unless [the
trip] is to close a deal for $1 million or more.' "
Some companies, though, prompt would-be travelers at the
point of sale—be that an agent or an online booking tool—to consider remote
technologies if the proposed booking meets certain criteria like availability
of videoconferencing equipment in both the departure and arrival point and if
the travel would be for an internal meeting. "Based on those prompts, the
traveler is going to accept or deny," Adelman's Cline said. "It'll be
either recorded as an exception or a cost avoidance, and all that info can flow
into travel data."
Proving that such avoidance of travel saves money for the
corporation and time for users seems like it would be a simple equation, but
Williams said it isn't necessarily so. "If you had a face-to-face meeting,
you would send two people but in a videoconferencing you might have six,
because there's no marginal cost other than the person's time to bring other
people in," he said. "The numbers get skewed."
And even among those corporations whose travelers use remote
collaboration technologies extensively, unexpected side effects can arise.
Google's Tangney noted that even though his company realized a decline in air
travel and associated cost reductions through heavy use of videoconferencing,
the longer view is more complex.
"Initially, it had an impact where people were
traveling less because they didn't have to travel because they can talk to each
other," Tangney said. "But now that they can talk to each more often,
more easily and in a more interactive way, it's had a secondary effect: [They're]
more inclined to visit the person they were talking to so often and so easily.
So, there are two sides to videoconferencing. One of them is when you adopt it
initially, you see this benefit of cost reduction in air travel. But four or
five years down the line, does it have a compound effect or is it replaced by
new types of travel or more travel to particular destinations?"
originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 2012, edition of Business Travel News.