Business travel is the oil that lubricates the wheels of business. I've always felt that companies that cut back on travel for business are cutting back on their business's prospects. Now several surveys say that while technology can help, nothing really can take the place of face-to-face meetings.
The first survey was recently issued by HSMAI in advance of its Affordable Meetings National and Event Technology Expo. One of the main findings of the survey is that technology cannot replace a host of critical roles, including: 1) socializing and networking spontaneously, 2) helping attendees best put names with faces, 3) allowing more free and open dialogue between attendees and vendors/presenters, 4) training effectively via live and personal interaction, 5) paying greater attention to others when face-to-face, and 6) engaging in real-time conversation that is not interrupted by technical glitches.
A just-released Forbes Insight study reinforced those findings with its own finding that business executives prefer face-to-face meetings, mainly because personal meetings enable people to build stronger relationships. Not only that, but face-to-face sessions allow people to "read" the other person.
Despite the value of getting together in person, teleconferencing, videoconferencing, and Web conferencing are increasingly taking the place of meeting face to face. That's more than unfortunate. Why? It suggests that businesses are losing money long term to save money in the short term.
People are social creatures, and the bottom line is that face-to-face meetings are where people make personal connections that are necessary for business to flourish. No video, Web, or audio conference can take the place of pressing the flesh. People need to get up close and personal for those indefinable interactions to occurs. These are the interactions which are the nexus where new business happens.
There was a lot of chatter at the recent NBTA convention in San Diego at our "The CFO Agenda & Travel" session hosted by my colleague Vic Pynn about the unavoidable cost-savings imperative and how it has reshaped travel management programs. That reflects the fact that finance departments still view travel as a highly discretionary expense —indeed, one that can (or should) be cut.
The NBTA session reinforced the finding that there are few quality measurements which provide a clean and clear ROI for business travel. Perhaps it is for that very reason so many companies have significantly cut back on travel. Not surprisingly, each company has adjusted its business travel policy according to widely divergent criteria. Among these are shortened sales cycles, higher quality sales, more frequent engagements. Many companies have made pre-trip approval mandatory, or require executive approval.
What companies are beginning to recognize is that they have to find a better way to measure the impact that face-to-face visits have on their business. If some objective methodology could be developed to measure the ROI delivered by business travel, the conventional wisdom that business travel is a discretionary budget item would change. Until then, business travel probably won't pick up until business picks up — which is a chicken-and-egg situation if there ever was one.
Road Warrior • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com