x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Is that you or your avatar?

The Life Business travel is still a necessary evil, but have no fear. Teleconferencing is catching up.

Experts estimate that virtual meetings will lead to savings in costs for business travel and other expenses. Alexander F Yuan / AP Photo
Experts estimate that virtual meetings will lead to savings in costs for business travel and other expenses. Alexander F Yuan / AP Photo

Business travel is often viewed as a necessary evil for operating in the global economy.

But surely the shaky economic recovery combined with the need to cut carbon emissions would lead companies to question the necessity of business trips? Apparently not.

A survey of 400 European executives reveals that while a third question whether they get the best value from travel, a quarter plan to increase business trips this year.

A third believe that many of the meetings they attend could be conducted by videoconferencing, and 45 per cent surveyed by Coleman Parkes Research - on behalf of Polycom - believed they could save a lot of money using the technology. But 40 per cent of the companies surveyed have not yet introduced it. Organisations in the Middle East are even less keen, according to Dr Eesa Bastaki, the chief executive of the ICT Fund in Dubai, which provides financial support and advice to information technology companies.

"There is a lot of teleconferencing happening, especially in education and with private companies but generally speaking people like to travel. Videoconferencing is not utilised in the Middle East as much as other places," he says.

Compare that to India, where an estimated 98 per cent of workplaces use the technology for everyday affairs, according to research by Cable&Wireless Worldwide. After face-to-face meetings and e-mail, videoconferencing is the third most preferred method of communicating with clients.

So why have companies in the Middle East not embraced the technology with the same enthusiasm?

It is partly down to the weather, as executives seize the opportunity to travel abroad during the hot summer months, says Dr Bastaki.

"Business travel always increases in the summer. One of the things is to go for business plus a change of weather. It's like killing two birds with one stone," he says.

Videoconferencing, or telepresence as it is also known, is effective for meetings that last a short time and involve few people, but less successful for larger gatherings, he says.

"It's good if you're talking to people for a short time, but if meetings last hours, it is more difficult," he says. "If a meeting lasts more than an hour it's good to have personal contact."

However, he is excited about the future of videoconferencing: virtual meetings.

With a click of a button, delegates - or rather their avatars - will be able to enter a virtual building and sit alongside colleagues thousands of kilometres away.

Some experts estimate that the technology will lead to 50 to 80 per cent savings in costs for business travel and venue bookings.

"You will feel like you are sitting beside the person even if you are far away because (the technology) will make you feel you are actually there. There will be no need to travel," says Dr Bastaki.

Virtual meetings technology is still five to 10 years away, but many companies are investing heavily in videoconferencing now.

PRTM, an international management consultancy, which advises companies on innovation, is one of them.

The lead director of PRTM's Middle East region, Dr Anil Khurana, says the company has not yet made a targeted effort to reduce travel, but it has invested in technology that could lead to that.

"We're doing a lot to invest in technology, like videoconferencing, to make things more efficient," he says. The potential savings are less in costs than in time - an equally valuable resource.

"Videoconferencing is a tool that we're going to use more of," he says.