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Turning to Teleconferencing as Air Travel Stalls
By JOE SHARKEY
WITH air service still hobbled in Europe, government transport officials scrambled on Monday to hold an emergency meeting. But as anyone stranded in this mess knows well, it's difficult to travel to, from or very far within Europe.
So some of the ministers did what a lot of business people are doing to cope. They used videoconferencing technology to participate in the meeting.
Sorry, but I cannot resist an urge to cite the usually dubious claim that every cloud has a silver lining. For the rapidly growing teleconferencing industry, that volcanic ash cloud over Europe has brought unanticipated opportunities -- though for three of the major global players in teleconferencing, it may have been a little too close to home.
But first, here's an example of how one restaurant chain in Norway used video technology to replace air travel. Arna Smistad is the general manager of Dolly Dimple's, a pizza chain based in Sandnes, Norway, about 200 miles from the headquarters of its parent company in Oslo. Last week, just as air travel shut down, Dolly Dimple's was supposed to have a board meeting in Sandnes. Knowing that a nearby company has a videoconferencing system from one of the big suppliers, Tandberg, Ms. Smistad arranged to borrow it to allow board members in Oslo and elsewhere to join the meeting.
"It was almost like actually sitting across the table" from those in remote locations, she said. The air travel crisis, she said, was a sharp reminder of "how vulnerable we are" to sudden disruptions. It was also, she said, a strong suggestion to consider other options.
Tandberg, based in Oslo, has products that range from high-end so-called telepresencing systems that create virtual links between conference rooms in remote locations to lower-cost desktop and personal mobile video systems.
Now, consider what Cisco Systems and Teliris, the two other big players, encountered.
On Monday, Cisco completed a $3.3 billion acquisition of Tandberg. That deal, of course, required many months of business travel between San Jose, Calif., where Cisco is based, and Tandberg's headquarters in Norway.
Last week, it was a hectic time for Charles Stucki, the vice president of the TelePresence group at Cisco, as the acquisition announcement approached. Wednesday morning, he left San Jose for Oslo. By the time he arrived in Newark for his connection, Scandinavian air space was closed. He got to London on one of the last flights out before British airspace also closed.
Cisco and Tandberg employees "were strewn all over, trying to catch planes," he said on Friday from London, where he had set up a base at Cisco offices.
"Right away, I began using TelePresence to work with my teams in San Jose, as well as colleagues who live in Europe but were unable to get out the day after I left," he said. Using the videoconference systems and even more basic personal, Web-based alternatives, he remained connected.
Teliris, which has headquarters in New York and London, also had big plans in Europe when the air travel system abruptly shut down. Teliris planned to open a new sales center on Tuesday in central London to demonstrate a new telepresencing product for prospective customers, said Marc Trachtenberg, the chief executive.
"I was supposed to be in London today," Mr. Trachtenberg said on Friday from New York. "Of course, I got blown out of my flight yesterday. I can't find any flights out tomorrow, on Sunday or Monday, so it was very clear I was going to miss the grand opening of our new office on Tuesday." So Mr. Trachtenberg used Teliris telepresencing systems in New York to meet with prospective customers in London.
No one in the teleconferencing industry claims that virtual meetings can replace all business travel, where genuine person-to-person contact is often crucial. Even in a crisis, where virtual meetings are the sole answer, the physical realm looms.
Mr. Stucki of Cisco, for example, found himself in London on Friday without the baggage he had checked through to Oslo. "I spent some unplanned time shopping for replacement clothes Friday night," he said. You can simulate a meeting, but not a suit and tie.
At Teliris, the planned opening of the sale center was affected because the equipment that was to have been introduced had not arrived.
"We were supposed to be showing off a really unique new product," Mr. Trachtenberg said. "Guess what? It's stalled in transit."
A fancy teleconferencing system cannot conjure up physical hardware, obviously. "Should this continue in Europe for a longer period of time, we will have to ship things overseas," he said. "On freighters. Which is a very interesting concept."
[via New York Times]
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