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Hotel Guests Checking Into Public Cisco TelePresence Rooms

January 29, 2010 | Chris Payatagool
Thumbnail image for Marriott_Cisco.jpgBy James A. Martin

Hotels are in the business of bringing people together, not just giving them a place to sleep. With that in mind, hoteliers around the world are increasingly adding public Cisco TelePresence virtual meeting rooms to their list of business-class amenities.

"The attentive nature of a hotel environment, along with the Cisco TelePresence collaboration technology, makes holding virtual meetings at hotels a great experience," says Neil Clover, chief technology officer for the Americas for Arup, a global design and engineering firm. Over the past year, Arup has hosted 10-15 meetings using Tata Communications' public Cisco TelePresence meeting rooms at hotels and other locations and has additional meetings planned.

In July 2008, Tata Communications opened the first public Cisco TelePresence rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai and the Taj West End in Bangalore. The Taj Boston and 51 Buckingham Gate (another Taj property) in London followed in October 2008.

Tata_Telepresence_locations1.jpgAvailability of public Cisco TelePresence meeting rooms in hotels is expected to grow exponentially in 2010. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc., through their partnership with Tata Communications, is adding Cisco TelePresence rooms to properties in New York, Chicago, Sydney, Toronto, Los Angeles and Chicago, followed later by hotels in Brussels, Paris, Hong Kong, and other cities.

Marriott International plans to roll out Cisco TelePresence rooms in 25 international cities in 2010 and beyond, including New York, San Francisco, Washington, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Frankfurt and London. (For more details about current and future Cisco TelePresence hotel locations, see the Collaboration blog post "Cisco TelePresenceĀ—the Latest Must-Have Hotel Amenity" URL TK.)

"The attentive nature of a hotel environment, along with the Cisco TelePresence collaboration technology, makes holding virtual meetings at hotels a great experience."

Neil Clover, chief technology officer for the Americas, Arup.

In addition to hoteliers, travel service companies including American Express Business Travel and Carlson Wagonlit Travel are helping their clients locate and reserve public Cisco TelePresence rooms in hotels and other locations.

Being in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, All on the Same Day

In a public or private Cisco TelePresence room, meeting attendees appear to be seated around the same circular conference table, even though two or more groups of attendees may be physically located in different cities. Through ultra high-definition video cameras and displays and high-quality audio, participants appear in life-size and life-like.

Public Cisco TelePresence rooms, which rent for US$299 and up per hour per room, give businesses and organizations of all sizes an affordable alternative to wearisome, time-consuming travel. Indeed, the desire to reduce business travel often drives initial interest in telepresence technology, according to Abner Germanow, director of Enterprise Communications Infrastructure services for IDC.

But travel expense reductions are often secondary to the benefits businesses realize in terms of time saved and productivity increased by not traveling, Germanow says. For example, through telepresence, a person could virtually be in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, all within the same day. As a result, organizations can achieve "faster time to market, better customer satisfaction, and other business benefits," he adds.

Such results have helped spur the sales of telepresence systems worldwide, which jumped 90 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to IDC.

Currently, more than 3,500 Cisco TelePresence systems, including public systems in hotels and other locations as well as private systems, have been installed worldwide by more than 500 businesses, says Mark Weidick, vice president and general manager of the Cisco TelePresence Exchange Business Unit.

A World Apart, But Only a Short Elevator Ride Away

With over 80 global offices, Arup renowned for the Sydney Opera House's structural design among other high-profile projects was a prime candidate for renting public Cisco TelePresence rooms, says Clover.

In the past, strategic company meetings often required some high-level Arup executives to spend as much as 20 hours "just getting to the other side of the world," Clover explains. Not only was this a waste of their valuable time, it was physically and mentally taxing for them, as well as expensive for the company. So Arup began using public Cisco TelePresence rooms in February 2009.

In August 2009, Arup held a global strategy meeting via public Cisco TelePresence rooms. Twelve of the firm's top executives from the U.S., Europe, and Asia/Pacific convened to discuss the company's financial data, R&D, and worldwide marketing efforts.

For this meeting, Arup rented Cisco TelePresence rooms at two hotels, the Taj Boston and 51 Buckingham Gate in London, as well as the public Cisco TelePresence facilities at the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company in Manila.

Though some Arup offices are equipped with video conferencing technology, those systems don't have nearly the same quality or impact as Cisco TelePresence systems, says Clover.

Plus, renting Cisco TelePresence rooms in a hotel is actually more conducive to successful global virtual conferences than using a video conferencing system in Arup's own offices, he adds.

For example, the six-hour summit in August began at 5 a.m. in Boston, 10 a.m. in London, and 6 p.m. in Manila. Halfway through, everyone broke at the same time for food. Hosting the meeting primarily in hotels made it easy to have food available for all participants. "Serving food at all hours is a no-brainer for hotel staff," Clover says.

Most participants traveled within their region to attend the meeting, so they didn't have to travel great distances and across multiple time zones. And when it came time to meet, most attendees only had to ride a hotel elevator to the hotel's Cisco TelePresence room, Clover says. This reduced stress and helped ensure the meeting started on time and participants were more focused. And by staying at hotels, executives could easily meet informally before or after the conference.

"This was the first exposure these folks had to telepresence," says Clover. "After a few minutes, they forgot they weren't in the same room together physically. That made a big difference" in making the meeting a success, he adds.

Total Time Required for Meetings Reduced by 50 Percent

Arup's use of public Cisco TelePresence rooms has helped the company in many ways, according to Clover:

* The firm's travel expenses have dropped by 45 percent since the first use of public Cisco TelePresence rooms;

* The total time required to participate in meetings, including the travel as well as the meetings themselves, has been cut in half;

* Mileage traveled by plane, car, or train for meetings is down 80 percent, helping Arup reduce its carbon footprint.

Above all, the ease of global collaboration has been the biggest benefit Arup has realized from its use of public Cisco TelePresence rooms. While Arup has only employed public Cisco TelePresence rooms thus far for internal meetings, the company plans to use the service in the future for meetings with partners and clients, too, according to Clover.

Interoperability is Key to Connecting Public, Private Telepresence Rooms

Arup isn't the only business moving toward conferencing with people outside its own organization via telepresence.

In fact, organizations with in-house telepresence systems are increasingly renting public telepresence rooms in hotels and other locations specifically to collaborate with partners, suppliers, or customers who need local access to a telepresence room, says Germanow. Organizations are also interested in conferencing with colleagues in branch offices that are too small to justify their own telepresence or other video systems, he adds.

"Over the next two years, we expect to see a lot more telepresence meetings conducted between two or more companies and delivered by two or more service providers," Germanow says. The ability to easily conduct secure inter-company telepresence conferences makes an organization's investment in its own telepresence system all the more valuable, because it can be used in so many more ways, says Germanow.

Support for multipoint calls and inter-carrier connections make business-to-business virtual collaboration possible via Cisco TelePresence, says Weidick. Inter-carrier connections enable Cisco TelePresence users to call one another across participating networks, reliably and with high levels of security.

For example, Cisco partner Tata Communications, a leading global communications provider, offers its fully managed Cisco TelePresence service to Taj and Starwood hotel properties (among other customers). The service includes meeting scheduling, management, and support.

Similarly, Cisco partner AT&T's fully managed AT&T Telepresence Solution offers the Cisco TelePresence experience to Marriott International properties (and other customers).

Intercompany Cisco TelePresence services provide the ability to connect a customer's private Cisco TelePresence room to a public Cisco TelePresence room at a Taj or Starwood hotel managed by Tata Communciations in one city, and/or to a public Cisco TelePresence room at a Marriott managed by AT&T in another city.

The interoperability built into Cisco TelePresence also connects Cisco TelePresence rooms to standard-definition and high-definition video systems offered by other conferencing system vendors, Weidick adds.

"Interoperability is the number one thing customers ask for," he says. "It's key to our comprehensive approach. We've worked hard on interoperability to make this experience as compelling and immersive as it can possibly be."

Interoperability between service providers and conferencing vendors will be key to successful, stress-free collaboration in the future for companies like Arup.

"A lot of what we do are one-time projects, such as our work on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and collaboration on all levels with multiple people in and out of our organization is essential to these projects," Clover explains. "We could fly around the world to accomplish this, and to some extent, we still do. But renting public Cisco TelePresence rooms is just so much easier."

James A. Martin is a writer based in San Francisco.

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