the natural complement to business travel

European Teleconferencing Federation

The travel industry has seen videoconferencing as a threat to the lucrative revenue earned from the business community. But videoconferencing is a natural complement to frequent journeys and will never replace the face-to-face meeting altogether, says The European Teleconferencing Federation (ETF).

Teleconferencing is about much more than cutting travel budgets - although this is still the primary benefit quoted by many when they make their initial investment. Soon after they start using it, however, users become keen advocates of a much more complex list of key benefits: videoconferencing, they say, increases executive productivity dramatically; cuts product development times significantly; allows a raft of flexible working practices and means better customer service. However, nearly all videoconferencing users agree: videoconferencing will never completely replace the face-to-face meeting.

Instead, they are likely to claim that they have more meetings with key colleagues, suppliers and customers now that they can conduct these conferences from their offices. Monthly face-to-face meetings, for example, will be complemented by weekly video sessions. These conferences, they are also likely to claim, will be more structured and more focused than their face-to-face sessions, where social interaction helps to seal the relationship. Users also claim that they will use video for ad hoc sessions where ordinarily they would have been forced to use fax and phone: to make emergency decisions for example, or access an expert who is located at a distance.

However, for a first point of contact with a client or a colleague or for an important session, they are still likely to jump on a plane or train; and conferencing is just as likely to replace telephone and fax communications as actual travel.

While many in the business travel community have been resistant to videoconferencing, it is now time to recognise that this revolutionary technology is the natural complement to their own activities. Both traditional meetings and their video counterparts have a place in the business environment of the future. So while multinational companies like SmithKline Beecham, Ford or Unilever claim that teleconferencing enables them to cut travel budgets, they also recognise that more significant benefits come from increased executive productivity and the ability to disseminate information quickly around the world.

Financial institutions such as Baring Asset Management talk of global fund management teams brought together through videoconferencing; pharmaceutical companies like Zeneca suggest that this technology allows them to deliver to market ahead of the competition by reducing product development times; manufacturers such as GDE, a leading supplier of machine tools, talk of remote fault diagnosis and reduced downtime through dataconferencing; banks like NatWest claim cost-efficient access to their remote experts from high street branches - increasing the standards of customer service and making better use of resources. Teleworkers feel less isolated; students who rarely set foot on a campus gain degrees and MBAs can be gained from 'distance teaching universities'.

For those who use videoconferencing, considerable commercial advantage is available. Businesses achieve 'step change benefits': substantial improvements in their usual business practices and processes through a technology which soon becomes part of their everyday working lives, allowing individuals and teams to work together without actually being together.

The cost and quality factors

Much of the criticism of videoconferencing in the past has centred around a perceived lack of picture and audio quality, together with comments about the costs of conferencing. However, videoconferencing has, in the last few years, matured as a technology, offering vastly increased quality along with major cost reductions.

There are many reasons behind this 'coming of age'. The early 1990s saw videoconferencing suppliers agree to a standard that would make different systems interoperable - to talk to each other regardless of manufacturer. A surge in the market occurred and bigger volumes led to price cuts. Alongside this, ISDN - the pay-as-you-use-it digital network, with sufficient bandwidth to carry compressed video images - became increasingly available. Next, systems for the PC were unveiled - at first with low picture quality, but now with a perfectly acceptable frame rate of ten to 15 images a second. Sold as bolt-ons to existing PCs, these systems are now available for less than £1,000.

Lastly, videoconferencing systems - from the boardroom system through mid-range group rollabouts to the PC versions - are now able, through the latest standard to be agreed, to offer true collaborative working between systems from different manufacturers, alongside the ability to see and talk to the person on the other end. As you talk with your colleague in another office, or in another country, you can discuss documents or graphics and work on them together.

It is this element - the ability to work collaboratively over distance - that ensures that videoconferencing will become probably the most significant business productivity tool of our age.

As the teleconferencing industry matures, videoconferencing systems will be an inevitable part of the business environment, like the fax machine. Those who choose to ignore this technology will not be serving their customer base at optimum levels, since they will not be recognising the role that teleconferencing plays within organisations. Travel agencies and the videoconferencing industry should work hand in hand. Only then will the business traveller be able to choose the face to face meeting where appropriate and the videoconference where it truly offers complementary communications.

For more information, contact ETF, The Business Design Centre, 52 Upper Street, London N1 0QH. Tel: 0171 704 0123