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Remote Rendezvous, Worried Travelers Warm Up to Videoconferencing

The New York Times – Business Day, 9/24/01
By AMY HARMON

Mike Kolleth, a Dow Chemical executive in Zurich, should have been at a Web site design session in Midland, Mich. The sales representatives at Thomson Financial in Boston were supposed to be showing new products to customers in Chicago and San Francisco. Vince Engel, president of a San Francisco ad agency, was scheduled to fly to San Diego for a presentation to Adidas, his most important client.

Like hundreds of other business travelers grounded by caution and canceled flights, none of them actually appeared in person at their appointed rounds last week.

Instead, they sent avatars through the ether, as would characters from "Star Trek," or a country recovering from a terrorist attack and experimenting with alternative ways to do business.

Many companies turned to videoconferencing, teleconferencing and Internet-based collaboration tools right after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. That short-term surge in interest, analysts said, was probably behind the jump in the share prices last week of several providers of such technology, including Polycom, Picturetel and Webex.

But even as fears of flying began to recede and airline schedules returned to near normal, there were signs that the moment of crisis might be prompting a nation of road warriors to consider supplementing travel with teletechnology as a general practice.

"We said, `Dang, we should be doing this more often,' " said Mr. Engel, who held his San Diego Adidas meeting at a video conference center in San Francisco that was booked solid last week. "I was amazed at how there was no lag time."

No one expects a business culture that is filled with maxims like "you can't fax a handshake" to replace face-to-face meetings with videocameras and Internet chats. But executives across many industries say newly heightened concerns for safety are adding gravity to other factors that were already weighing against frequent business travel: technical advances, stretched schedules and an expanding universe of far-flung offices that are hard to get to.

The current enforced break from what is for many a long-ingrained travel habit may help, too. At Dow Chemical, where travel was severely curtailed last week, the company's internal videoconferencing "help desk" oversaw a doubling of activity on its 120 conferencing systems around the world, which had often lain idle in the past.

"This is one of those catastrophic events that will change the standard operating procedure," said Chris Duncan, Dow's global leader of e-communication technology. "Your human nature is going to say, `Is there any other way I can do this without going on a plane?' And once people are forced into using these tools because there's no other way, I think the comfort level will go up."

Still, if the history of virtual communications is any guide, the more business people communicate with high-technology tools, the more likely they are also to want to have a cup of coffee together or make small talk during a pause in a face-to-face conference.

"What we find, at least up until last week, is that people using these tools get excited and feel the need to meet in person," said James Katz, a professor of communications at Rutgers, whose research shows that millions of in-person meetings have been generated by people who first met online. "These kinds of technologies can stimulate as well as substitute for travel."

What seems probable is that the suddenly pressing need for tools like video conferencing and the Internet will speed their social acceptability. Without such an incentive, resistance to new technologies can otherwise stall their adoption for years. Professor Katz notes, for example, that it took about a decade for Americans to shift from finding an answering machine rude to finding it rude not to have one.

Particularly as a rocky economy places a premium on conveying timely information to employees and investors, dabbling with such technologies may induce executives to adopt them as part of an ever-expanding communications array — regardless of their travel schedules.

"The need to communicate is increasing every day," said Frank Bordonaro, who is chief learning officer for the insurer Prudential and who already "beams" executives to various sites with some frequency. "This recent spike may be a replacement for travel, but in the longer term it's just going to be another slice of an increasing stack of communication that has to be done."

Reservations at a Norwalk, Conn., video conferencing center that Prudential rents out for public use at $350 to $450 an hour doubled last week, Mr. Bordonaro said. One company scheduled an eight-hour conference, for example, and another convened a virtual meeting that linked 10 sites.

Many companies that were already urging customers and clients to accept virtual forms of communication found them more receptive last week. For more than a year, MFS Investment Management, a Boston- based financial services company, has offered video presentations for its clients to watch online. The online productions, which integrate slides, charts and graphs, are about a tenth the cost of a simple telephone conference call — and far less than sending analysts to meet individual clients.

But it was not until last week, when MFS canceled 40 face-to-face meetings, that it garnered its biggest Web audience ever, with about 1,000 clients logging in to hear the company's views on the state of the stock market and a range of other subjects.

"People used to say `Well, that's great that you have the video, but before I give you $100 million for this pension account I want that manager to fly across the country to see me,' " said Jerry Potts, MFS's director of corporate marketing and communications. "But there's a window now where it's kind of tough to demand that someone you know gets on a plane."

David B. Snow, president of Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, whose offices in 1 World Trade Center were destroyed, said the most useful virtual communications tool for him personally during the turmoil has been his cellular phone. But for the long term, Mr. Snow said, he is finding a silver lining in the quadrupling of customer use of the company's Web site to retrieve claims information after the disaster. Visits to a Web site, of course, are not the same as a person-to-person meeting, but as are teleconferences, the activity is a virtual stand- in for direct interpersonal communication.

"We've wanted to see that for some time, but we're hoping people will like it and stay with it," Mr. Snow said. "It's my belief that when people have the experience, they'll say this is a much better substitute for putting things in the mail or calling an `800' number. People don't do this, if they don't have a need. But it was a great way to drive adoption — not that I would ever want to do it this way."

Yet, political and military crises have long stimulated adoption of new telecommunications technologies. A chain of semaphore towers was built on hilltops across France to convey information to Napoleon's armies during their protracted campaign in Egypt. And the telegraph took off during the Civil War when it was needed to coordinate the movement of the North's armies.

More recently, the Persian Gulf war sparked a flurry of interest in videoconferencing, but in the early 90's the technology was so expensive and disheartening to use — calls were often dropped in the middle, and lip movements failed to synchronize with the sound — that many who tried it then still disdain it now. And some analysts believe the current interest in the technology will similarly subside, despite the significant decrease in cost of equipment.

For many, other kinds of virtual communication may make more sense. At Thomson Financial, sales representatives in the Boston office spent last week leading customers through a demonstration with technology from Webex, which allows several people in different sites to view the same presentation on a computer screen as well as see one another in a video window. There is usually also a regular telephone connection.

Several telephone teleconference companies said they, too, saw a marked increase in use of their services last week, including AT&T, one of the largest providers, which saw its teleconference business pick up 20 percent over usual levels.

For those intent on owning their own video conferencing systems, the set-up costs $5,000 to $15,000, plus the installation and monthly cost of a high-speed phone line and a monitor, which can range from a basic TV to a $20,000 flat-panel screen.

And even so, at a video conference last Thursday involving the New York, Boston and Washington offices of the law firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo, the people on the screen looked as if they were moving in slow motion, and it was difficult to discern individual faces around the large conference table in Boston.

But Joan G. Howland, the firm's director of human resources, said reading the body language of her colleagues during video calls had often helped her sense problems she could follow up on later, which she might not have flagged during phone calls. The firm plans to increase its use of the technology and to pay for a higher-speed connection, which should improve the video.

Don Western, a vice president at the heavy-equipment maker Caterpillar in Mossville, Ill., says the company has no such kinks in its system. It has invested heavily in video conferencing the last two years, and when Mr. Western was forced to cancel a trip to Europe last week, he was able to conduct the product review remotely. The trick, he said, is to have a moderator for the meetings and to instill a courteous protocol so that people do not interrupt each other.

"Selfishly, it's a very useful tool not just from a business standpoint but from a personal standpoint," Mr. Western said. "I like to see my wife. We've been together 32 years. But I like seeing her, and I'm still away half the time."

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