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We’ll come to you.

Much in the way social media has acquired quite the blemished patina from passersby touching it, curiously, like a golden knickknack, the so-called 'virtual alternative' to business travel is a concept everyone has been, quote-unquote, "touching" for some time now. Everyone brings it up in meetings and committees, so I wonder how many are doing it or using it? I also wonder if maybe they shouldn't?

I work on the technology end of the travel biz; naturally, I'm an advocate of hopping planes and meeting folks in the flesh. This inclination, however, puts me at odds with telecom and video gear champions who believe that the gee-whiz glories of audio- and video-type conferencing will replace at least some portion of old-fashioned business travel. Granted, I've also worked in the enterprise telecom space, and pitched my fair share of video conferencing to prospects and existing clients. Given my experience, my take is that yes, there's a time and a place for video and virtual conferencing technology. But methinks it is a narrow time and a small place. Let me explain.

Perhaps my favorite cultural reference to video-conferencing is the oddball prognostication contained in David Foster Wallace's highly recommended postmodern novel "Infinite Jest." Just for fun, what follows is a summary from a literary criticism blog by Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading.

Wallace spends about 10 pages describing the rise and fall of the video-phone industry. Basically it works like this: First consumers flock to the technology. However, they soon notice the drawback — now the person you are talking to on the phone can see you. Consumers realize too late that the phone's best illusion, that the person you are speaking with is paying attention to you, and vice versa, is shattered. Even worse, consumers develop horrible complexes about appearing ugly on their video phones. Soon new technology enables users to "upgrade" their appearance, and this idea runs away until eventually there is an entire industry built around providing fake appearances to hardwire into video-phones. At this point people realize that for all intents and purposes they're right back where they started, voice-only phone communication, and the bottom drops out of the video-phone market.

Of course, what actually transpires in the novel is hilarious — but not altogether impossible — involving a brisk new business on high-priced "masks" used by callers to optimize their video appearance.

Back here in reality, most of us with day jobs have experienced how virtual sessions using WebEx or video conferencing systems from such vendors as Tandberg or Genesys have not done what quite we expected them to do. At the street level, these tools didn't become cheaper alternatives to in-person meetings; instead, they became cumbersome and expensive conferencing sessions. Why? How? Here's how and why; and since I'm on a literary kick, I'll opt for the second person, singular, famously utilized by Jay McInerney in "Bright Lights, Big City":

  • You're on your best-and-final presentation with the sales team and subject matter experts. It's between you guys and your meanest, fiercest competitor. The prospect has given great buying signals since about two-thirds of the way through the sales cycle. You've collected what you believe to be a critical mass of good relationships and endorsers at the prospect company through a diverse cross-section of influencers. You're coming to the close. At dinner after the meeting you expect a verbal confirmation that they'll be awarding you the business. This is not a video conference. This is in-person. 
  • You're participating on a task force with other senior leadership to decide on an acquisition after a cycle of due diligence. Although this is strictly internal, it is highly political and could decide the outcome of some business units — due to the strategic nature of the decision to acquire or not. It is imperative that you are sensitive to the flow of discussion and power structure in the meeting. This is not a video conference. This is in-person. 
  • You're a project manager working an internal process optimization project with colleagues from different areas of the organization. You are in a biweekly status meeting to ensure proper progress and provide updates to the group. You know what these people look like, they know what this is about, and relationships are fine … and actually not the most important thing here. This is not a video conference. This is a conference call. 
  • Your global business unit is having a bi-annual internal briefing and results update. Attendees include people from Bangkok, London, Paris, Chicago, Miami, Sydney, Frankfurt, Dubai, and Johannesburg. It is internal. Costs on long-haul flights to bring this group together would be exorbitant. This is a video conference. The Sydney and Bangkok teams drew the short straw (again) and are staying at the office late after an already long day. The Chicago guys are obviously doing emails on their BlackBerries during the meeting. It took 25 minutes at the top of the meeting to have the operator in Germany get everyone on board. The Johannesburg team finally gave up and just dialed into the audio part while following along in the PowerPoint on their local projector (presumably). Congratulations. 

Now, here's where it gets ugly, and I don't mean ugly like you're tempted to wear a mask for some of your colleagues. Video conferencing gear runs up to $60,000 USD or more per each location (up-front, install, maintenance, upgrades, etc.). Video is bandwidth-intensive, so you're gonna need to up your on-site bandwidth to at least a fractional DS3 if you want to use that stuff convincingly — and when you're not using your video stuff, of course you're still paying for the circuit monthly. Add to that your internal IT infrastructure costs of staffing, training, and so, to operate and maintain this stuff and you'd better take a good hard look at the comparative costs of your managed travel program. You also need to look at the types of work scenarios (like those described above) and their frequency of occurrence to justify this kind of investment.

This is not to say there isn't a place for virtual and video meetings — of course there is. Demonstrating the user interface of a new tool to an existing customer is a great opportunity to use webinar-type sessions, and this happens a lot. In the academic and research space there are many occasions for an important live presenter to reach a broader audience via video and interact with participants who have important and challenging questions. But my claim still stands: this marketplace is smaller than the hype would have you believe. That special space between "not important enough to travel for" and "too important for over the phone" is just not that big, and really not all that special.

Now stop playing with that gold thing. It's actually only brass.

Meaning the closer you get, the worse it looks.



Road Warrior • Miami •