by Christopher Freeburn.
As fuel prices shot through the roof over the last several years, airfares quickly followed, adding more woes to beleaguered frequent fliers, already harried by invasive and time consuming security checks. Worse still, as flight delays multiply, many airlines have all but eliminated traditionally free perks like meals, pillows, and drinks, and are now increasing charges for carry-on luggage and numerous other amenities.
Facing this maelstrom of rising costs and increasing inconvenience, businesses of all sizes are beginning to question whether or not specific business trips are necessary, or whether technology can bridge the gap instead of actual travel. As always, small businesses face even greater challenges from increasing travel expenses, since their budgets leave much less room to absorb higher costs.
Fortunately for small businesses, telecommunications technology and the Internet make it possible to reach out to distant places like never before. There is now a wide range of communication options available, which if not quite the equivalent of physically being there, at least provide more robust long-distance communication than has ever been achievable before. These technologies don’t completely end the need for business travel, but in a time of escalating travel prices, they provide a low-cost alternative that can allow you to accomplish much of what you could have done had you traveled yourself.
“There will always be situations that demand real physical contact,” says New Jersey-based communications consultant Kevin Freeman. “And in many parts of the world being able to look your counterpart in the eye and share a real handshake is still needed to seal a deal, but for a lot of the other reasons we travel—meeting mid-level staff, giving in-company presentations, having detailed discussions of budgets and marketing plans—there is technology already available that can connect businesspeople without running up frequent flier miles.”
Early attempts at videoconferencing left a bitter taste in many participants’ mouths due to scratchy or out-of-sync audio and poor video quality or connections that failed in mid-conversation. But these issues have largely been resolved due to the advent of high-speed fiber optic cables.
Today’s high-end videoconference systems use high-fidelity audio and high-definition video, displayed on large video screens, to provide a vibrant and convincing simulation of a real face-to-face meeting. Videoconferencing facilities are available for rental by most major telephone, satellite, and cable companies in many cities, capable of communicating with your counterparts in similar venues hundreds or thousands of miles away.
If renting such a facility isn’t something you plan to do on a frequent basis, a number of commercial business products exist that can provide your small business with similar capabilities, provided that you also have a high-speed Internet connection. Cisco’s Webex is one such provider, offering both online meeting and videoconferencing capabilities. (Click here for a demo of WebEx, which offers new customers a complimentary 14-day trial.)
Web conferencing takes the traditional videoconference and sends it zipping across the Internet. Typically, in a web conference individual participants sit at their own computers, which are connected via the Internet (as opposed to videoconferencing in which participants on both ends usually sit in groups around a single set of screens). But increasingly, web conferencing lets participants join in via their mobile devices. There is a variety of web conferencing software available, some of which requires installation on each participating computer, whereas other programs simply require participants to direct their browsers to a particular website to access the web conference.
Most web conferencing applications, like Microsoft Office’s Live Meeting, require the use of an external server to host the conference—a Microsoft-owned server, in Live Meeting’s case. (Click here for a free demo of Live Meeting.) A benefit of web conferencing over videoconferencing is the ability to share applications and data among individual participants, with access and control of the application or data shifting back and forth among the participants as the conference progresses.
Reducing budget strain from high fuel and airfare costs isn’t the only reason some companies are beginning to reconsider extensive business travel. “There is a growing recognition even in the business community of the impact that fossil fuel-burning modes of transportation like cars and airplanes have on the environment we all share,” says Freeman. “This is a particular concern amongst Europeans, but it is becoming very common in the U.S., too.” (To calculate your share of carbon emissions produced by taking a business trip, check out this Carbon Footprint Calculator.)
The more we travel via automobiles and airplanes, the more carbon dioxide we produce as a result, which contributes to global warming and the greenhouse effect. “There is a growing school of environmentally conscious thinking that says we should trim back wide-ranging travel in order to prevent damaging the environment,” Freeman adds.
In the end, whether you are motivated by concern for the environment or concern for your bottom line, video or web conferencing is a capability you should consider adding to your business toolkit.
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