Will teleconferencing edge out business travel?

Technology has made many things easy. We record TV shows and fast-forward through commercials. We listen to far-flung radio broadcasts live on our telephones. And we meet face to face with clients and staff members from thousands of miles away.

That last leap has been boosted in recent years, particularly with the advent of TelePresence, a video-conferencing technology. The well-received product can generate life-size, high-definition images (and audio) of whoever is sitting opposite you, no matter how far away.

The benefits of teleconferencing are clear: cost, time saved and healthier, happier employees who aren't traveling so much.

"Two years ago I had to be in Bangalore (India) for three hours," said Dave Martella, director of retail operations and strategy for Cisco Systems, which owns TelePresence. "I spent 24 hours on travel in both directions. It was an absurd, ridiculous thing to do."

But when is it worth forsaking technology to actually make that trip? In a 2009 report sponsored in part by the U.S. Travel Association, Oxford Economics USA concluded that "curbing business travel can reduce a company's profits for years."

"The average business in the U.S. would forfeit 17 percent of its profits in the first year of eliminating business travel," the report says.

There are moments to stick to electronic communication, especially for in-house meetings, said Adam Sacks, director of Oxford Economics USA, in a phone interview. External meetings are another story, he said.

"With current clients, and even more so with prospects, there's just no substitute," Sacks said.

Based on aviation and hotel data, business travel is rebounding from its record lows of a year ago, a dip that was tied not just to the recession but also to bad business judgment, Sacks said.

"It was a failure to recognize business travel not as a cost but as an investment," he said.

Face-to-face business meetings always will be necessary, said Jonathan Copulsky, a management consultant at Deloitte Consulting LLP who nevertheless counts himself among TelePresence's admirers. For meetings with colleagues or employees, he said, in-person meetings can instill a more lasting motivation. That's a point reminiscent of the motivational "Second prize is a set of steak knives" speech made by Alec Baldwin's character in the movie "Glengarry Glen Ross."

As for clients, face-to-face meetings are about establishing and maintaining trust, Copulsky said.

"Once you initiate that trust-based relationship, conferences via something like TelePresence are much easier," he said.

Copulsky predicted that business travel will never rebound to its levels of five years ago, but that video conferencing won't be as ubiquitous as some might expect.

"There will still be a significant number of meetings in five years, but we'll take for granted that a lot of those meetings will be arranged by remote teleconference," he said.

Then he had to go. He was in California on business, trying to recruit new clients.

"These are people I've never met before," he said. "It's an early-stage meeting, and hopefully the first of many. Being willing to invest hours of travel and money sends the signal I'm serious."

Do you have ideas or suggestions about business travel? Write to Josh Noel at jbnoel@tribune.com. Include "Business Class" in the subject line.

Make the trip if you need to …

Impress prospective clients with your level of commitment

Keep current clients from feeling neglected

Make contacts at trade shows

Stay home if you need to ...

Save on cost of travel

Handle routine in-house matters

Set up meetings on short notice

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