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Winging It: Telepresence technology helping businesses cut back on travel

June 28, 2010 | Chris Payatagool
By Tom Belden via The Philadelphia Inquirer

tanberg.jpgThe recession has forced many companies to change their approach to business travel. Compared with a few years ago, companies are holding fewer out-of-town meetings, and travelers are staying in lower-priced hotels - or forgoing trips altogether.

So what happens if a sales executive for a company with travel restrictions fervently believes the only way to close a deal is to meet face-to-face with a prospective customer?

The answer increasingly can be a technology called telepresence, the most advanced and sophisticated form of what has been known over the last two decades as videoconferencing. The technology, using broadband hookups, links people in different locations so they can look at one another on large TV or computer screens as they talk.

And when I say advanced and sophisticated, it's hard to overstate how much better the telepresence technology has become.

The current economy and the technological advances make telepresence appealing to companies with workers in scattered locations, and to major hotel chains, which are installing telepresence suites in meeting rooms that can be rented by the hour or day.

"It's absolutely one of the hot topics right now, as people are looking to drive more value out of spending on travel and meetings," said Issa Jouaneh, a vice president in American Express' business-travel division.

Telepresence suites typically have a set of three 65-inch HD screens facing curved conference tables that enable dozens to hundreds of people to hold "virtual meetings," talking with others sitting in similar rooms anywhere else in the world.

The suites cost in the neighborhood of $300,000, including installation in an office or hotel. There are hundreds of these suites worldwide, operated by an array of companies.

Teliris Inc., a New York company that was one of the early developers of the technology and operates suites in more than 50 countries, recently introduced a $5,000 version of its equipment designed for people who work from their homes.

Among the lodging companies, Marriott Hotels & Resorts Inc. in January started opening the first of 25 planned telepresence rooms in its hotels in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. also plans to put the technology in several of its properties.

Cisco Systems Inc., another major seller of telepresence technology, gave me a demonstration at an Association of Corporate Travel Executives conference in Chicago last month. The suite was set up in a large meeting room, where I spoke to two Cisco employees who were sitting in a similar suite at one of the company's offices in California.

"Tom, meet Jason and Bret," said Astrid Gintz, a Cisco senior marketing manager, introducing me to her colleagues 2,000 miles away. "This is what we call an immersive experience. You focus on the people, not the technology."

Unlike some older teleconferencing technology I had used, there was no delay in the sound or images. The experience could not have been more lifelike.

"It's definitely high definition. If you have a pimple on your face, you're going to see that pimple," said Chris Hosmer, general manager of the New York Marriott Eastside, one of the first hotels in the chain to get a telepresence suite.

Hosmer, a Main Line native and longtime manager of Marriott hotels in Philadelphia, explained why lodging companies want a technology that could potentially reduce the number of live meetings they host.

Marriott uses the suite for internal company meetings and interviews with prospective employees, connecting with them at other hotels with telepresence technology, Hosmer said. Marriott rents the suite for $500 an hour. Clients usually order meals and refreshments from the hotel, and some stay overnight, he said.

StarCite Inc., the Philadelphia company that operates the nation's leading online marketplace for hotels and conference centers to connect with meeting planners, is another fan of using telepresence.

While it may never replace all face-to-face meetings, "it's almost as good as being there," said StarCite vice president Kevin Iwamoto. "The beauty is you don't have to get on a plane and suffer jet lag."

More on TSA rules
Last week, I asked readers to tell me about their experiences carrying small bottles of liquid through airport checkpoints. Transportation Security Administration rules still say the bottles need to be in a separate plastic bag and removed from carry-on luggage, but I was not stopped when I failed to do that on several recent trips.

I received more than 30 e-mails and phone calls, and virtually everyone reported having the same experience I did. So sooner or later, the TSA needs to clarify what it wants us to do.
On my vow to not fly Spirit Airlines in the future, I heard from several disgusted customers whose flights were canceled because of the pilots' strike. Among them was a man who waited 6½ hours on hold to speak to an agent about a refund and then was told it would take two months to get it.

Need I say more?

Contact Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or [email protected]

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