While many Americans have vowed not to let last month’s terrorist attacks on the U.S. change their ways of life, it’s clear that some things will never be the same. Business travel is likely to be one of them.

Many companies are looking harder than ever at alternatives to flying, as fewer flights are available, airport waits lengthen and security concerns increase. While video-, audio- and Web conferencing are not brand-new technologies, companies have started giving them a second look or beefing up their usage of them.

The National Business Travel Association found that more than half of the 60 travel managers it interviewed the week after the attacks said their companies were reducing travel and more than half of them have already done so (although the attacks were not the only reason cited for the travel cutbacks). Close to 90 per cent of those surveyed expect to deploy videoconferencing gear or services to keep communications strong while travel is down.

While conferencing technology is often cited as “the next big thing” whenever there is an airline strike or plane crash, the fact that the events of Sept. 11 happened in the U.S. and were so unprecedented in scope should result in a sustained increase in usage this time around, says Andrew Davis, managing partner at consulting firm Wainhouse Research LLC.

Conferencing at Xerox

Xerox Corp. is one company that has already seen a swell in conferencing usage among its employees since the attacks. Xerox, which uses video-, audio- and document-conferencing services from WorldCom Inc. in its offices around the world, went from approximately 10 to 15 videoconferences per month to about 20 to 30 in recent weeks, says Gary Foley, manager of global conferencing services. A week after the attacks, Xerox had to dust off some of its PictureTel Corp. videoconferencing systems that weren’t being used in order to meet increased demand.

Although Xerox does not have an official restriction on travel, employees are travelling at their own discretion, Foley says.

Employees are being asked to give more consideration about the locations where they may have to travel and whether it’s absolutely necessary for them to be there in person.

Earlier this year, Xerox began encouraging employees to use conferencing as a travel alternative, but also to use conferencing smarter, Foley says. Employees were asked to only use videoconferencing – the most expensive of the three conferencing services – when they really needed to see the other person. Whenever employees are planning a videoconference, they should ask if Web-based document- or audioconferencing might work just as well, he says.

Audio- and Web-based conferencing are more convenient for most employees because they can set them up from their desktops, Foley says. With video, they have to go to the room where the equipment is deployed.

In any given month, Xerox employees use 40,000 to 50,000 audio- and document-conferencing lines, Foley says. He does not have the exact numbers on increased usage but knows it’s significant. WorldCom told Foley that it has had customer service people working 12- to 16-hour days to handle the onslaught of calls for audio- and Web conferencing since Sept. 11.

On a Smaller Scale

While Xerox is pleased with WorldCom’s offerings, another organization has enjoyed the benefits of going with a smaller service provider.

Los Angeles law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker switched from using AT&T Corp.’s and WorldCom Inc.’s teleconferencing services to Latitude Communication Inc.’s MeetingPlace about 18 months ago. MeetingPlace is a Web-based service that provides audioconferencing, presentation viewing and document sharing. Built on Microsoft Corp.’s NetMeeting software, MeetingPlace lets attorneys schedule and cancel Web-based meetings through the group calendar built into Microsoft’s Exchange e-mail software.

“The return on our investment was very quick,” says CIO Mary Odson. “Now we’re just paying for an inbound toll call, which is under three cents per minute. We saved money really quickly just in using MeetingPlace for all our internal teleconferences, and it is providing benefits for our clients as well.”

Use of MeetingPlace been steady since the terrorist attacks, Odson says. The law firm used MeetingPlace to conduct an all-day meeting Wednesday, Sept. 12, that was originally scheduled for its New York City office.

“We are now promoting MeetingPlace again to people who may not have taken advantage of its capabilities in the past,” Odson says.

The law firm provides its workers with a VPN that lets them dial in to MeetingPlace from home or other remote locations. Currently, attorneys at the law firm’s seven locations in the U.S. can access MeetingPlace via a Web browser through a central server in Los Angeles.

Although the law firm plans to add access to MeetingPlace for its Tokyo and London offices, Odson doesn’t expect the software to replace business travel. “We anticipate as much travel as we had in the past,” Odson says. “The way our attorneys work, they practice globally, so travel is key.”

But the company may need to add another T-1 line to support increased demand, she says.

Another alternative for businesses is to use meeting space from a company such as HQ Global Workplaces. The Dallas company offers businesses professional meeting rooms that include video-, audio- or Web conferencing in 400 locations in the U.S. and overseas.

Users who anticipate difficulties in pulling off their next sales meetings can instead choose to team with a company that will set up meeting rooms in multiple cities and even cater food.

This may be a solid alternative for users who do not anticipate major changes in the way they travel in the long run. Instead of buying a Web conferencing service or a new PictureTel system, users can hook up with a company such as HQ to set up conferences from time to time.

HQ uses videoconferencing gear from Polycom Inc., PictureTel and Tandberg Data ASA, says Carla Clements, a product manager. The company connects its various sites via AT&T ISDN services, she says.

Call volumes at HQ have nearly quintupled since the terrorist attacks, Clements says. People called to ask about the company’s services and to book conferences across the regions where the company has offices. “Confirmation bookings have tripled,” she says.

One other point that existing or potential conferencing customers should consider as demand increases and more companies try to cash in on the demand: Prices for equipment and services are likely to drop. So just as airlines are gearing up to offer big ticket discounts, there could also be some conferencing bargains in the not-too-distant future.

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