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Videoconference vs. being there: No contest - Business - International Herald Tribune


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Remember the good old days, when all you had to do to get on an airplane was empty the metal out of your pockets, take off your shoes and maybe submit to a pat-down?

Since Aug. 10, travelers in the United States have also faced checkpoint screeners who search for cosmetics and toothpaste and then, often, a second rank of screeners at the boarding gates.

As travel has gotten harder, however, Web conferencing has gotten easier. All it takes is a broadband connection, an $800 laptop and perhaps a $30 Webcam. A subscription for unlimited conferencing is another $40 a month.

So why does anybody go anywhere any more?

Because customers and clients expect it; because competitors still travel; because the march of technology has not managed to produce an equal to pressing the flesh. In fact, Web conferencing is a completely different way of being there.


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"We've seen a couple of times throughout the last 10 years the idea that with videoconferencing, Web conferencing, nobody's going to need to travel any more, but it really hasn't panned out that way," said Caleb Tiller, a spokesman for the National Business Travel Association, a trade group. "Right now we're seeing corporate budgets for travel as high as in 2000, planes more full than ever in history and hotels more full."

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An index of success for the travel business (but not specifically business travelers) is that at many airports, you need to reserve not only for a seat on the plane but also a parking place for the car.

Web conferencing is driven partly by the difficulties of travel; at WebEx, a company in Santa Clara, California, that provides "Web meeting applications," Colin Smith, a spokesman, said the company saw ripples when there was news like the British authorities' arrest of suspects accused of trying to bomb trans-Atlantic planes. "But it's a ripple in a tidal wave," he said.

WebEx's product, like that of its competitors, can allow participants to see each other's talking heads over Webcams. It can also allow colleagues in different cities to manipulate the same spreadsheet, annotate the same PDF, edit the same document or rearrange the same PowerPoint document. It is somewhat like one worker hanging over the shoulder of another while the other sits at a computer. But in this case, the number of participants is almost unlimited.

A Web meeting can include features like instant messaging, in which one person can send a message to all the others or to one of the others. It can be recorded, archived and replayed.

WebEx offers various possibilities to show how its product can be used. Sales calls or other consultations with potential customers are one option, but others involve consultations within a company, especially a global company.

For example, Company A's could send a representative to visit Company B, and A's representative could communicate back to A's headquarters for assistance, via laptop and cellphone. Another use could involve a design team, a manager and executives at a manufacturing plant - each in a different location - going over specifications and other information that live in a computer.

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The airlines are worried about the problems involved in travel but not really about the Web as competition. James May, president of the Air Travel Association, the trade group of the big airlines, said basic needs had not changed since his grandfather used cars and trains to sell thread, buttons and sewing equipment.

"The personal touch, the face-to-face interactions, that will always come into play," he said. "Based on absolutely no empirical data whatsoever, there's nothing that can ever replace a face-to- face meeting." He added, "If you and I are talking and I can look at your face and read you, that's a very important piece of the human interaction."


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His association's members tend to talk to one another at least three times a day by conference call, he said, but the group prefers personal meetings. His members often fly free on one another's airlines, but they still encounter the same travel difficulties, he said.

In fact, there is a countertheory that air travel, Web communications and phone calls drive one another.

"As technology has advanced, it increases the need for face-to-face travel," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a group that advocates lower fares and better conditions for passengers. "In 1990, you and I might have managed 100 relationships, and that was a lot," he said. "Now with e-mail and instant messaging, you and I may manage 1,000."

Still, not every meeting has to be face to face. People who collaborate often, and people within the same company, may consult over the Web in between face-to-face gatherings, sometimes holding Web conferences far more often than they would ever have traveled to each others' locations.

Describing corporate strategy, Tiller, the spokesman for the National Business Travel Association, said: "We all know each other, we've all met each other, we don't have to do it face to face. Save that money for much more important, lucrative trips; have that sales guy make two more trips."

This reliance on face-to-face meetings continues even though the Internet is the thing you can't leave home without. Why else do all those hotels advertise free high-speed connections?

Business travel blogs: A related article, Page 19

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