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The Next Best Thing To Being There: Virtual Meetings Earn Their Rightful Place In Strategic Meetings Management

December 27, 2008 | Chris Payatagool

no_plane.jpgby NBTA Groups and Meetings Committee

December 2008  -   Faced with an economic downturn and increased airfares, three-quarters of 230 U.S. travel buyers responding to a recent National Business Travel Association poll reported increased use of teleconferencing and Web-based meetings. Nearly 57 percent cited increased use of videoconferencing. More than 80 percent said the technology replaced actual trips.

Once considered a threat to traditional face-to-face meetings, virtual meetings increasingly are viewed as an invaluable component to strategic meetings management programs.

"Our policy is set up so that virtual media must be considered if business objectives can be achieved," said Diana Johantgen, service manager for Procter & Gamble's new meeting, event and convention management team, who helped incorporate a virtual meetings program into that company's strategic meetings management program. Johantgen also is a member of the NBTA and Meetings Committee.

"When a client begins to register for an offsite meeting via the meeting, event and convention management resource Web site, the first question asked is if this business need can be achieved via virtual media; if yes, the client is directed to P&G virtual meeting resources," Johantgen said. Video collaboration studios and other beta tools are used whenever possible for global meetings, she added. P&G's Global Business Services continues to identify ways to help employees reduce reliance on travel and to work more efficiently.

With more people and partners to connect with than ever before, this technology empowers P&G employees to build personal connections without the travel cost or personal sacrifice. The program also reiterates the company's renewed commitment to sustainability: Eliminating one traveler's economy-class, roundtrip overseas flight saves enough energy to light the Eiffel Tower for a week, according to P&G. The goal for next fiscal year is to save enough energy to light the Eiffel Tower into the 23rd century, Johantgen said.

How It Works

Telepresence is a next-generation videoconferencing technology that uses Internet Protocol and broadband connections to transmit high-definition video, studio-quality audio and data in real-time. In the telepresence experience, up to six participants sit in a designated room with specially designed furniture that features cameras and displays, lighting, speakers, microphones and projection capability. Several rooms can be connected at one time, enabling several dozen people to meet at once.

Telepresence creates virtual meetings that are as lifelike as possible, approximating real-life, face-to-face conversations--across a distance as if across the room. How real does it seem? Participants face life-size images of each other on multiple, giant video screens and are able to follow eye movements and notice such subtleties as facial expressions-the furrowed brow, a look of consternation--that are a critical part of communicating in live meetings. It's like being there without leaving here.

Many meeting managers also are using telepresence in combination with large, live meetings. For example, it can connect regional meetings, enabling a meeting assembled in Asia to view a speaker presenting in the United States, or vice versa.

Recognizing the growing interest in virtual meetings among its clients, technology provider StarCite is working on a number of fronts to incorporate telepresence options into its meeting technology platform. Like P&G, clients of StarCite can include a telepresence option in their meeting approval process. Several of its clients currently upload their telepresence meeting space into StarCite, so it is available for planners to source just as they would regular meeting space.

"Telepresence answers a growing need for companies that want to quickly plan a meeting for employees who may be located all over the world to reduce their impact on the environment, as well as pare the cost of meetings whenever possible," said Keith Forshew, StarCite COO.

In this day and age, meeting planners and managers must acquire the same expertise and knowledge of videoconferencing options as they have of room layouts and attrition penalties. Current technology and infrastructure costs may not always make it the most economically feasible solution. However, it will only be a matter of time before meeting managers will be able to compare the costs and benefits of selecting a full-scale hotel, catering and meeting space versus a virtual meeting connecting four telepresence centers-all with the click of a button.

[via Procurement]


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