Virtual Business Meetings: Will most companies really choose online over airline?

Since Labor Day weekend 2008, Bill Geist has not been on a full airplane, despite his hectic travel schedule and the fact that he flies to most of his destinations. Before that, he said, he and other air travelers were crammed in like sardines. Now, many seats are empty.

Geist, the founder of Madison's Zeitgeist Consulting, travels around the country to assist destinations in attracting visitors and group travel business. The decline in air travel he attributes to current economic conditions, shrinking travel budgets, poor airline service, and political huffing and puffing about corporate travel spending.

However, even when the economy regains some traction, he concurs that many of those airline seats could remain empty due the real potential for web-based meeting solutions to permanently steal market share from the airlines.

Gartner, Inc., a Connecticut-based technology research firm, predicts that high-definition video meeting solutions will replace 2.1 million airline seats annually, costing the American travel and hospitality industry an estimated $3.5 billion per year. The trend would not bode well for job creation in either the airline or the hospitality industries, which are joined at the hip.

In the case of the airlines, they may have been their own worst enemy. While there is a learning curve with virtual technologies like Cisco's WebEx, IBM's Second Life, and Sonic Foundry's Mediasite, the growing hassles of air travel — security limitations, reductions in service, and now extra fees — have placed the industry near top of the aggravation scale.

Add to that a wired generation of young business professionals who are comfortable online. Also add concern about environmental footprints, and political criticism over allegedly excessive corporate travel spending (some of which is booked as incentive travel to reward employees in lieu of pay, and all of which creates hospitality jobs) — and there could be a real damper on business travel.

Geist has predicted that business travel will be down 7% to 10% in 2009, which would have ramifications for the collection of hotel room taxes and efforts to secure more Madison non-stop flights.

Similar predictions were made after Sept. 11, but the conferencing technology didn't work so well then. "That saved us last time," Geist said. "This time, the technology is significantly improved, broadband penetration is significantly greater, and I think we are going to see changes in the way that people meet."

In this look at virtual business meetings, IB also interviewed Paul Gibler, the Web Chef and principal consultant for the Madison-based marketing firm ConnectingDots; and Stephen Prentice, a U.K.-based Fellow with Gartner.

Conference 2.0

According to Geist, a recent Association Meetings magazine study of the association market found that 38 percent of respondents said they will replace some live meetings with virtual meetings this year. They now can make such plans because new technology tools, which some have dubbed "Conference 2.0," are changing the nature of presentations.

In Gibler's view, the traditional "linear event," which featured passive participation, is dead. Many of the same social computing tools that permit new channels of internal collaboration within organizations are being applied outwardly for professional development, conference promotions, and other business purposes.

"As people become more comfortable with remote meetings and enhanced video capability, you'll see that it will become integrated into their operations," Gibler predicted. "I think the thing we've clearly seen with other technology is that as the cost of adding that technology to your armamentarian of communication tools goes down, then the adoption increases even more."

The difference in this generation of conferencing tools is that they are Web-based; they have functions that help people interact. The combination of blogs, wikis, photo sharing, audio, video, document and slide sharing, and social networking site groups — combined with deft use of other social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook — have emerged to provide interactive options.

Whether it's polling in a Web seminar or the visualization of things like raising your hand or asking the speaker to speed up, Gibler said various platforms are trying to incorporate interactive features. "I think the presentations that require people to dial in or call in for the audio, that's the type of thing you're going to see — lots of video and presentations delivered simultaneously over the Web," he predicted.

Prentice noted that the systems work best when there are many channels for feedback, not just speaker-to-attendee interaction. "To me, the secret appears to be having multiple levels of messaging going on," he said, "so that individuals can, as they would in real meetings, have a brief conversation with someone sitting next to them — what I think of as private peer-to-peer."

The technology still isn't perfect, Geist admits, and there are going to be glitches, but it's significantly less expensive than air travel. For many employers, the cost of traveling is now prohibitive — not just the cost of an airline ticket, ground transportation, and possibly hotel and the per diem expenses, but also the loss of productive time while traveling.

Also, given today's culture of work-life blend and flex scheduling, employees are becoming less willing to give a night or weekend away from home without expecting comparable time off.

Face-to-Face a Saving Grace

In a recession, it's only natural for business organizations to re-evaluate the need for face-to-face meetings, but Geist does not predict that meeting solutions will ever completely replace the need for peer-to-peer contact.

"The good thing for corporate and meetings travel is that you still can't replace face-to-face meetings and shaking hands, and that kind of sales and networking that happens," Geist explained.

"But," he adds, "a lot of the professional development stuff, if you strip away the networking, that's where I think we're going to see the decrease [in air travel]."

Geist also thinks there are productive opportunities in sales, especially if sales associates have a great video presentation for initial sales contacts. "Frankly, I could do six sales call a day, in six different cities around the world; whereas if I'm actually traveling, I could only do one — or two if they are in the same city."

Prentice believes online tools will be more in vogue for routine, content-focused meetings involving project reports or going over financial figures. However, he said adjustments would have to be made, especially because attendees won't be present to pick up body-language cues.

When a meeting depends more on context, such as site visitation or employee recruiting, virtual collaboration tools will not work as well, Prentice said. [Contextual interaction is "anything that involves people-to-people interactions rather than people-to-content interpretation."]

Gibler said social computing tools can add new life to conferences and meetings, and actually provide a business travel incentive. "I think one of the interesting things I haven't seen done quite as much but certainly could be done, is creating social network groups associated with an event," Gibler said. "Maybe it's because these events are so much more transitory than if you go to a conference, but many live conferences now are creating LinkedIn groups or Facebook for their meeting.

"In a way, you're using electronic tools to tie back into whatever the conference is about, and you're trying to enhance the networking capability of the conference."

For conferencing, Prentice sees one limitation with the available technology — at this point, it does not scale well enough to cope with the number of people involved in a conference environment.

Meetings of a few tens of people are reasonably well accommodated, he said, but when you're talking about delivering content to several hundred people, organizers can only get away with what he calls "passive delivery".

"So it's streaming video, or a one-to-many type of address," Prentice said. "It doesn't work so well for the sort of peer-to-peer and peer-to-speaker type of interaction, which is such an essential part of a conference. Where you have smaller groups, what might typically be a seminar type of approach, then I think there is more potential."

Geist believes the people who put on conferences are seeing their '09 attendance drop, and they are adjusting to the different ways people are consuming information, meeting, and selling. He believes smart meeting planners will figure out ways to use technology to cut their costs, and one of those methods could be virtual speakers.

"You might be able to get significantly better speakers than your budget could normally accommodate — if you did it virtually," Geist said.

Prentice does not believe familiarity will breed technological contempt. He recently spoke to a senior executive in Sydney, Australia who had been traveling to Melbourne once a week for the past three years, but has curtailed that to once every couple of months, thanks to increased use of video conferencing tools.

The senior executive isn't particularly fond of it, Pretice reports, but the passage of time could change his mind: "I think in a couple of year's time, if you turn around to that individual and say, 'Should I book the airline to Melbourne again,' the probability is that he's going to answer, 'Why would I do something like that? Why would I want to spend a couple of days away from home and go through all the pain of air travel when I can have the meeting just as effectively by video conference?'"