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Advances in technology mean that videoconferencing is finally living up to its promise as a cost-effective meetings solution, says Catherine Chetwynd
ONE OF THE MANY AREAS in which technology has revolutionised communication is videoconferencing (VC). These days, with the higher-end equipment, it really can be like sitting in the room with those taking part and, as a result, many companies have installed VC technology across numerous locations.
But there is no point in investing thousands of pounds’ worth of equipment and expecting use to happen organically. The message needs to come from the top and communication, education and motivation are crucial – this includes writing use of VC into travel policy. In fact, it is increasingly the norm for companies to advise that, when someone considers booking travel, they should look at an alternative first.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH “Travellers understand [the need for alternatives] and use videoconferencing,” says telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent’s travel manager, Mike Butcher. “For one thing, it takes less toll on them and their families.”
Alcatel-Lucent has got spend down by between 30 and 50 per cent but, Butcher says, that’s not wholly attributable to using audio- and videoconferencing. “We issued a profit downgrade to the market in November and wanted to cut costs significantly before the end-of-year results,” he says “Since then, I estimate we have an average of 40 per cent less travel and the bulk will have been replaced by audio- or videoconferencing.”
Alcatel-Lucent has a VC suite in each of its offices but, Butcher says, the main limitation is that it works best when you know the people you are talking to and when talking one-to-one or two. “With big groups you have to adopt a very disciplined approach,” he says. Nonetheless, the equipment has been such a success that it is increasingly difficult to book the videoconferencing rooms.
Use of VC outside corporate offices is less common: the Meetings Industry Association (MIA) Pathfinder report for Q4 2011 shows only 20.4 per cent of venue respondents were experiencing greater demand for VC; and having installed Cisco Telepresence, London’s Grosvenor House hotel had it removed at the end of last year due to lack of demand – companies that used VC regularly had their own suites.
Radisson Blu Manchester Airport has £6,300 worth of Polycom HDX facilities, and IT manager James Holdsworth rates the quality. “It is high-definition and very clear,” he says. “You can pick and choose the bandwidth to improve picture quality and split the screen for half-laptop, half-video. It is ISDN and IP [internet protocol] capable and we have a 50-inch HD TV connected to it, or it can be linked to a projector for use with a larger screen.” Although it is generally used for interviews, one client did have a live feed from a hospital operating theatre, and a lawyer used it to allow a witness to be interviewed remotely during a court case.
FACE VALUE However, VC is not a panacea – human contact is still seen as vitally important, as is evidenced in a report produced by management magazine the Harvard Business Review and sponsored by British Airways, Managing Across Distance in Today’s Economic Climate: The Value of Face-to-Face Communication. In a global survey of 2,300 Harvard Business Review subscribers, participants said face-to-face is the most effective way to meet new clients to sell business (79 per cent), essential for “sealing the deal” (89 per cent) and a key factor in successfully building and maintaining long-term relationships (95 per cent). As a US executive of a retail company put it: “Face-to-face contact is the broadest bandwidth communication you can have in professional life.”
Given that the survey results were published mid-2009, in the midst of global recession, this underlines that human contact is not just an option, but a necessity. When dealing with people with notably different cultures, face-to-face helps break down barriers. In addition, it is information rich, allowing people to read body language and synchronisation with what they do and say.
And while 60 per cent of respondents reported very frequent use of teleconference calls, more than half (55 per cent) said they rarely or never used VC, even though the average travel budget of participating companies had declined by 17 per cent in the previous year.
VIRTUAL FUTURE Nonetheless, Zibrant sales boss Fay Sharpe believes use of technology to facilitate virtual meetings will rocket in 2012, replacing up to 20 per cent of ritual face-to-face get-togethers over the next two years. But she says the need for training participants in virtual meetings techniques is as important, as is investment in the kit because it is so different from that required for face-to-face meetings.
And despite the outcome of the Harvard Business Review research, there are plenty of appropriate uses of VC. It can increase the amount of times a group meet because they can catch up regularly on video and then meet once a quarter or twice a year. “In this situation the relatively low cost and high performance of videoconferencing can make a business more efficient, and it is only if the technology replaced face-to-face meetings altogether that a negative impact might be seen,” says Etc.venues head of marketing David Owen. “Videoconferencing is also great for ratifying a decision when to wait for a meeting would simply hold the project up.”
APP-TITUDE Not surprisingly, tablets and smartphones are also beginning to feature in VC, and both Cisco and Polycom have free apps for both types of device. “We have a significant European air industry manufacturer who has a large network infrastructure in the company and is looking at rolling out a mobile strategy for the manufacturing force and for remote employees,” says Polycom’s vice-president of marketing for EMEA, Daniel Weisbeck. “The majority of our customers are looking at or testing a mobile strategy for a unified communication solution.”
Polycom is now working with service providers to offer video software on a hosted or cloud platform, reducing companies’ capital expenditure. In fact, massive investment is not necessary. You can download Powwownow free and pay only the cost of an 0844 phone call; GoToMeeting costs £29 per month or £276 a year; and Skype Premium will set you back US$9.99 (approximately £6.25) a month.
“It is all about the size and capacity of the data feed in and out of the venue,” says David Owen. “If you have 100mb fibre, as is the standard at our venues, then internet-based solutions can compete with the traditional in-situ screen and base units.”
Director and internet strategist of social media marketing company ZiiRii, Shilpa Panchmatia, uses Skype and GoToMeeting. “The good thing about Skype is that if you have got wifi, you can bring it up on your iPhone. The quality is not brilliant but for internal stuff it is perfect,” she says. “We have a development team in India and have reduced costs radically by using VOIP [voice over internet protocol].” Skype Premium includes group video-calling and group screen-sharing.
For larger numbers of people, Panchmatia uses GoToMeeting. “It is a bit more robust and we use it for technical reasons rather than face-to-face – for sharing software or going to a competitor’s site. Skype is brilliant for face-to-face,” she says.
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has long had VC technology in its 35 offices across the UK and, although sustainability is embedded in the partnership, the firm still needs to see clients to pitch for and execute business. Ironically, as business has picked up and travel has increased, so has use of VC.
“If we can travel sensibly, we can keep costs down for clients and also for the business,” says the firm’s business travel manager, Will Hasler. PwC set environmental targets in 2007 to cover five years to June 2012, which included air travel. Sustainability is written into travel policy and the organisation’s travel champions network – largely secretaries, who do the lion’s share of bookings – challenge unnecessary travel.
PwC’s VC hours increased by 27 per cent over the financial year 2010/11 – with 900 hours in February alone – but so did air miles travelled (22 per cent). However, by the June target date, the firm will have reduced CO2 emissions by at least 38 per cent per head for non-chargeable travel, with chargeable travel “impacted favourably”.
One obstacle to VC is that the offices containing the equipment are often taken up with other meetings. However, says Hasler: “We continue to increase the number of rooms available for VC – our More London office [near Tower Bridge] has 24 rooms that permit it, and several offices have mobile equipment, which can be used in a number of rooms. In addition, there is increasing use of other collaborative tools such as Microsoft Live Meeting to share documents or presentations.”
Hasler recently did a presentation via Live Meeting from Leeds, to the travel-champion community. He had around 20 people in the room with him and the rest joined online. “We all know each other very well and there was no client involved, so it was less of a risk,” he says. “Live Meeting allows you to show anything on your desktop via the internet, so you can walk through a project plan with a client, for example. People need to choose the appropriate medium for the level of engagement.”
The last word goes to managing director of business travel service ABT UK, Cilla Goldberger. “We know that the majority of corporates have stipulations in their policies about ensuring that videoconferencing is an option before approving any sort of travel,” she says. “I don’t see it as a danger to our industry – at the end of the day, you still need that face-to-face meeting and handshake to close the deal.”
CASE STUDY: Global law firm Linklaters has installed Polycom Real Presence immersive video equipment in 27 offices, including London, in 19 countries, resulting in savings of tens of thousands of dollars on the firm’s travel budgets and reductions of 1,900 tons of CO2 emissions in 12 months – the equivalent of taking 365 family cars off the road in a year.
For its 5,000 employees worldwide, sharing and discussing information immediately and making decisions quickly is vital to its business success and client satisfaction, and use of videoconferencing enables this.
“We support clients in achieving their objectives wherever they do business. Communicating and collaborating effectively with each other, regardless of location, is crucial to our ability to deliver,” says chief operating officer in London for Linklaters, Alastair Mitchell. “Polycom videoconferencing makes it possible to collaborate in real time, face-to-face, without needing to get on a flight, where valuable time and productivity is lost.”
In addition, the firm’s travel desk now encourages employees to use the video suites instead of travelling to meetings. They are used for a range of activities, from senior executive board meetings to training sessions, global case reviews and client meetings.
“The increase in employee demand for video collaboration is proof of the facility’s success,” says Mitchell. “Through the Polycom video suites we are able to hold virtual meetings that promote faster communications across key locations, with the added benefits of reducing travel costs and our impact on the environment.”
The equipment is such a success that Linklaters plans to install Polycom Real Presence in offices in emerging markets.