With large parts of the world still reeling from the global banking crisis and the cost of doing business sky rocketing, it's not surprising to find companies reining in spending and setting ever tighter budgets. Which begs the question why, against this backdrop, business travel appears to be on the rise.
A few figures
According to ABTA, the UK saw a 6% growth in inbound and outbound business journeys in the second half of 2010. And it's not just happening over here, other reports show a wider bounce-back in business travel.
Moreover, according to a survey conducted for Polycom by Coleman Parkes Research, just over half of all short-haul flights in Europe are taken for regular, scheduled, meetings. A particularly surprising figure, given the availability, maturity and relative affordability of teleconferencing and video collaboration products which not only help slash the cost of such trips but can save huge amounts of time and ease executive frustration in the process.
So why aren't conferencing, telepresence and other collaboration tools more widely employed? Let's examine some of the reasons, and the arguments for using the latest conferencing technologies instead.
Perks of the job
One clear message thrown up by the majority of surveys is that business travellers are starting to believe that at least some trips could be avoided and associated meetings conducted over the Internet. That aside, jetting around the globe, racking up air miles and hopping from one executive lounge to another is still widely seen as a perk or bonus which few want to lose.
That's partly because travel confers status and makes work more interesting, but equally because it can deliver other, less obvious, benefits. A recent US survey, for example, showed nearly two thirds of travellers taking advantage of business flights to either go sightseeing or meet up with family abroad.
More than that, with the rise of mobile computing and collaboration technology, business travellers can justifiably claim to get work done while travelling. More, in some cases, than back in the office, with all the distractions that can involve.
From a company perspective travel also continues to be seen as an essential part of doing business, enabling executives to meet with colleagues in other areas of the organisation as well as partners and customers. Indeed for many there's simply no alternative to face to face meetings, going to conferences, entertaining customers and so on.
That doesn't mean they haven't tried alternatives. However, where older, first generation, audio and video conferencing solutions have been trialled they have often been found wanting, with the complaints, typically, centred around complexity, performance and cost. So much so that many companies perceive it as involving costly dedicated rooms full of equipment run by equally expensive staff.
Some of those concerns may have been justified in the past, but technology has come on leaps and bounds both in functionality and ease of use. Video calling, for example, is now commonplace even in consumer services such as Facebook and Skype making it possible to have one-to-one video meetings over the Internet at minimal cost.
Higher up the scale multi-user video conferencing and telepresence solutions have also been made more accessible with automated camera technology that doesn't require specialist setup or operators.
Another major advance is the introduction of cloud-based audio and video conferencing services, from leading communication vendors and their partners. Services that make it possible to take advantage of high-end conferencing and collaboration tools without a major investment in supporting infrastructure.
Quality is similarly improving, with HD video conferencing, for example, an everyday reality even over the Internet.
So what can you expect to get in terms of payback? Here are just a few positives to think about:
Reduced travel - OK, conferencing and collaboration tools aren't a universal panacea. They can't, for example, replace attendance at industry conferences, hands-on workshops or large scale meetings. For general management planning and progress meetings, project workshops and the like, however, they're a workable substitute and can really slash travel expenses. Plus there are other benefits such as avoiding the disruption and productivity loss travel delays often cause (volcanic ash anyone?) as well as improving the quality of life for those doing the travelling.
Better meetings - although they can't fully replicate face-to-face meetings video conferencing and collaboration solutions can be very effective. Moreover, because they involve minimal cost and disruption to work schedules, online meetings can be held more regularly with impromptu get-togethers a lot easier when done electronically. Staff can even have one-to-one meetings at their desktops without having to get management sign-off.
Better communication - by integrating conferencing and collaboration tools into a wider Unified Communications (UC) strategy, they become as commonplace and easy to use as the business phone and email. Communication is improved both internally and externally and productivity enhanced as a result.
And lastly there are the wider implications, such as reducing your carbon footprint and helping to save the planet for future generations. It's all coming together and companies that haven't investigated alternatives to business travel really should go back and see what the communications industry now has to offer.
This article is written by Alan Stevens and sponsored by Avaya. The opinions reflected in this piece are solely those of Alan Stevens and may not reflect those of Avaya management