Ask the Experts: Meeting of the minds

How do virtual meetings alter business practice and travel policy?

There was a time when video-conferencing technology was of such poor quality that you could spend hours having a virtual meeting with somebody and not even be able to recognise them in the street minutes later. Thankfully technology has moved on, with both audio and visual quality usually excellent these days. There are also plenty of platforms on the market ranging from basic free services, such as Skype and Facetime, to more high-end, expensive systems, offered by the likes of Cisco.

BBT’s experts explain how they integrate virtual meetings into their wider travel policies and which platforms are suitable for different types of meetings.

The buyer – Jef Robinson, global category manager, meetings & events, US software company
For most virtual meetings we have used Go To Meeting and Go To Webinar. It’s useful for everything from team calls to training sessions and virtual events. There has also been a massive uptake in Skype because it is accessible on a mobile and laptop.

Go To Meeting allows up to 100 people on the call and you can dial in via a phone or VoIP [voice over internet protocol]. You can see a presentation, share the screen, mark up what’s on it with notes and hand over ownership of the screen to somebody else. It is much more collaborative than Go To Webinar, which only allows limited interaction.

We very rarely ring each other; we use Go To Meeting and then anybody can jump on to the call. Many partners use Cisco Webex, particularly for third-party virtual meetings, and occasionally for larger events and conferences, we may use professional high-end media streaming services.

Our travel policy says we always try to prioritise online communication, rather than travel, but we don’t mention a specific application.

For a lot of run-of-the-mill meetings, especially internally, it makes sense and it is integrated with video streaming, so you can have a presentation on one part of the screen and video streaming on another. If we are using technology rather than travelling then that bypasses our TMC, but I still speak to them two or three times a week and their first inclination is to use Webex.

Striking the balance between virtual meetings and face to face depends on the culture of an organisation, the locations of staff and the type of meetings under consideration.

For general virtual meetings for internal staff and business partners the functionality of Skype may be sufficient. For more complex needs, possibly communicating with a larger audience, Go To Webinar or Webex may be more appropriate. Once licences are available, the latter can easily be used to replace internal meetings, which may otherwise involve travel.

Nothing beats face to face for the personal touch, which could be business development, negotiation or networking events. But virtual meetings can readily replace that in many circumstances, as the ability to share screens, collaborate, have colleagues join at the last minute, etc, is extremely efficient.

The TMC – Andrew Perolls, executive director, Business Travel Direct
It has long been predicted that virtual meetings would replace traditional business trips but even though virtual meetings have become much easier and more affordable, they still cannot replace getting to know clients or colleagues socially.

However, virtual meetings can be particularly effective for internal meetings, follow-up to actual meetings and ad hoc meetings with customers or sales prospects. They can certainly help companies save time and money.

While many organisations know who travels and how much it costs, they don’t necessarily know why. A TMC can step in here to analyse data and suggest which trips could be replaced with virtual meetings and advise on the options.

When travellers are making an online booking they are shown the cost of a virtual meeting compared with the cost of a trip to make them think about the potential savings.

TMCs can also help with programmes to get staff to embrace the new technology and see how it benefits them. With buy-in from senior management, it can bring about a cultural shift from “we always do things this way” to “this technology helps us to be more productive”.

For one-to-one conversations we recommend using the video option on Whats App (especially as communication is encrypted), Facetime or Skype. Skype for Business is great for a handful of participants and we like the file-sharing facility. Go To Meeting is easy to use and screen sharing makes it perfect for presentations and training.

Cisco’s Telepresence has people appearing on screens as though they are on the other side of the table, and there is even a whiteboard-sharing facility. Products such as iVent enable companies to hold hybrid meetings combining live events with streamed content or virtual product launches, training and conferences.

For a real wow factor we like NH Hotel Group’s 3D holographic technology. It enables conference organisers to project information in 3D and have someone appear virtually on stage.

The consultant – Lesley O’Bryan, vice-president and principal, Advito
The most important thing is to define the objective. A travel manager could be looking for better work-life balance, having better quality meetings, safety and security, or cutting down on travel cost, whereas IT may only be focused on functionality or equipment.

But if they all sit down and talk about how they can use each other’s information to make a great programme, they will have a common goal.

One of our largest clients had work-life balance and quality of experience as their top goals. By looking at reason-for-travel codes within the TMC report, we could see that 70 per cent of travel was internal and with the help of their marketing, IT and HR teams, we went live with virtual meetings on 1 February 2017. Since then, they have averaged US$1 million internal savings per month.

Executive buy-in was also important and the chief financial officer has had a lot of say because he had a large investment in IT tools and real estate.

For external travel, face to face is not always replaceable. You need to look at the reasons why you should be meeting in person: does it mean more sales and revenue for the company? Does it mean better relationships? It could be about supplementing some face-to-face trips with virtual meetings and getting a happy balance, so that you still maintain the value in the relationship.

Virtual meetings are also productive. On average there is a 20 per cent increase in productivity if you turn on the cameras when using Skype or Webex because people are not multitasking, they are engaged in the meeting and you cut down on a lot of wasted time.

People can be scared to turn on the camera because they are still in their pyjamas and the senior executive has not shaved and is wearing a baseball cap.

Most of us work from home or at least have the option, so having a virtual meetings tool, such as Skype for Business, Webex or Amazon Chime, is a great way to personalise how you do your work, which makes it easier to get things done. Even smaller systems, such as Zoom or Blue Jeans, are just as capable.

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