Thanks to video and tele-conferencing, business meetings can now be held by way of a desktop PC and can include virtually anyone, anywhere in the world. It is cheaper, quicker and less stressful than getting on an aeroplane. So why do executives still travel so much?
Air travel has risen by more than 14% in the last year and business trips account for a high proportion of that, says British Airways. Many executives make long-haul flights two or three times a week. They have to develop a battery of techniques to help them combat jet lag and arrive with some semblance of freshness for their many international meetings. As the initial glamour of jet-setting wears off, a heavy toll is exerted on health and personal relationships.
Some meetings are unavoidable. Executives may need to view specific locations or prototypes, says David Taylor, project manager at Cambridge-based PI Developments, who works on Formula 1 car designs and makes frequent visits to racing tracks in the US, Japan, Australia and South America. Even when meetings are just to chat, face-to-face is better, he says. 'You get a sixth sense as to what the other person is thinking, which you don't get with video-conferencing.' His view is shared by Paul Gordon, managing director of Banner, the London-based marketing communications company. 'There is just no substitute for pressing the flesh,' says Gordon. 'Two-thirds of communication is non-verbal. When you do it electronically, you miss out on that.' In service industries, this can be crucial. Hans van der Linden, managing director of TMA, the training company, travels frequently to the US, Asia and across Europe to cultivate key accounts. 'When you are working with clients, you have got to build relationships and you can't do that over the phone,' he says.
That's why it is not just the formal meeting that matters, says John Burnham, a director of the project finance division at Schroders, the investment bank. 'You get so much more from seeing people at the meal beforehand, encountering them in a corridor, or pulling them out to have a quiet word.' The technology is improving but he is not convinced it has become a serious alternative. Video-conferencing is more revealing than other systems - 'You can see the gut reaction, how people are taking your proposals,' says Burnham - but it is still intrusive and unfamiliar, forcing people to behave unnaturally. 'When people speak into a microphone, they are not so relaxed as if they were talking to someone in the same room,' he says. 'If the technology were better, people would feel more relaxed with it.' Tele-conferencing has had more success at Schroders. It was virtu-ally unheard of a couple of years ago but now teleconferences occur every day.
It is also cheaper than video-conferencing, which can cost several hundred pounds an hour, even for companies such as Schroders and PI that have their own facilities. 'The cost is such that if the meeting is going to take four hours, you might as well go there,' says PI's Taylor.
Poor quality images and sound are also common complaints about video-conferencing. 'It's acceptable for an hour or so but no good for meetings of longer than half a day,' says Burnham. Most business people would be happy to spend less time travelling if electronic communications were better but that still doesn't overcome the timezone problem. Linking Europe, the US and the Far East tends to involve someone getting up very early and someone else going to bed very late. Bankers, lawyers and high-tech companies are making a tentative start, but, as with fax machines, it only becomes worthwhile once there is a critical mass of users. The rest of the world could take a long time to catch up. Only when laptop computers come with built-in cameras will video-conferencing become widespread, says van der Linden. Even then, it will never completely replace business travel.
'You will still need to make occasional visits to your contacts to reconfirm the relationship,' says Gordon.