IMCCA at infoComm 2014
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Real Travel vs. Virtual Travel - Videoconferencing, Telepresence and the Airline Industry

About a year ago a reporter that covers travel firms asked me if the emerging telepresence market was taking business away from the struggling air travel industry.  I answered, “No, the airline companies are taking business away from the air travel industry.  Telepresence is just what some people are using instead of having to deal with the hassles. ” 

Throughout the history of the videoconferencing industry people have always led ROI conversations with cost avoidance around air travel.  The marketing always sounded something like, “install [insert the video systems du-jour] and your travel costs will go way down.  It’ll pay for itself in no-time and then you’ll rack-up the annual savings.”  While I believe that there is some truth to the correlation that collaboration technologies help reduce travel costs it’s not quite as cut-and-dry as the marketing pitch.  But more than that, focusing on travel cost reduction entirely misses the point that properly selected collaboration tools can transform an organization in ways that are exponentially more valuable.

 

That’s a lot to take in.  Let me back-up a bit and explain. Let’s say an organization wants to cut travel spend by 50% annually.  Usually someone in their executive leadership will just cut the budget allocated to travel.  It might take the form of a crackdown on expenses or a freeze on travel, but whatever the method, simply saying no is usually a very effective cost reduction technique.  Now if I toss a few video systems at that organization - or some phones - or even some tin cans connected with strings - at the end of the year you can produce metrics that show how the tin cans led to a 50% travel reduction.  Are the metrics true?  That depends on your perspective.  People will certainly use tools to substitute for the loss of travel, but the tools didn’t cause the reduction.

Travel is a necessary evil of business.  It doesn’t go away.  To be successful people need to see clients, inspect facilities, spend quality time with colleagues and bridge cultures.  Investing in collaboration technologies just to reduce travel spend shows more naivety than savvy. The right reasons to add these technologies are far richer and more complex.  Here are just a few:

  • Being able to work with peers regardless of their location brings a powerful sense of community to an organization.  Human beings tend to demonize people they don’t see (“we have our act together, but those idiots over there can’t get it right.”)  Regularly seeing your colleagues increases the quality of your relationship with them and improves your ability to communicate effectively. 
  • Once you establish effective collaboration tools within your organization you gain the ability to assign the best person to each job regardless of geography.  Supervisors and employees no longer need to be in the same office, city or even country.  Subject matter experts can provide input from wherever they happen to be.  All of this is made possible because you can electronically connect individuals for rich, spontaneous communication that takes place as easily as it would if they were in the same office. 
  • Productivity increases can grow exponentially using effective collaboration tools.  Face to face conversations can take place immediately when they are needed – not after complex meeting arrangements are first made.  Time previously wasted on planning meetings, or going to another floor, or another building, or the other side of town all goes back into your schedule as available.

Do any of these produce metrics as clean, crisp and good looking as travel cost avoidance?  No.  They’re all very difficult to quantify, much less explain in a ten minute sales pitch.  That’s why we still hear about the least important factor most frequently.

So then, you might ask, why is the air travel industry struggling?  If you’re a business traveler like I am you’d know the answer.  Looking beyond the current cost of jet fuel, for the most part the airline industry has lost all concept of what good business and good customer service are.  Typically one finds an underpaid, overworked and underappreciated (and therefore surly) workforce being placed into customer facing roles with only poor tools to work with (such as outdated computer systems and failing equipment.)  A typically overpaid management continues to make short-sighted decisions (like charging for things that used to be free or reducing benefits to their best, “elite” customers.)  Fifteen years ago I’d consider flying somewhere on business to be somewhat of a “glamorous perk.”  Now it’s just literally a pain in the rear, with tiny uncomfortable planes that have tiny, uncomfortable seats being run by people who are either upset or powerless to help.  Add to that all the required security hassles and the time it takes to get to and through the airport and it adds up to a pretty unpleasant experience.  It’s in that context where videoconferencing can replace air travel.  If I can have a meeting over video instead of having to put up with all the pain, hassle and reduced service then that’s definitely my first choice.  If only my telepresence system gave frequent flyer miles…..

 

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This blog was written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions. David has over 30 years of experience providing problem solving leadership and innovation in media and unified communications technologies for various firms in the corporate, broadcasting and academic worlds including  AT&T, Bloomberg LP, FNN, Morgan Stanley, NYU, Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan Chase. He recently joined Dimension Data as their Principal Consultant for the collaboration, multimedia, video and AV disciplines.  He is also the  IMCCA’s Director of Emerging Technology. David can be reached at David.Danto@Dimensiondata.com or DDanto@imcca.org and his full bio and other blogs and articles can be seen at Danto.info.