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Skip the trip - meet virtually

November 2, 2010 | Chris Payatagool
General_services_administration.jpgBy Nicole Blake Johnson via Federal Times

The General Services Administration aims to reduce your business travel by building 15 virtual meeting centers across the country.

GSA Administrator Martha Johnson announced the $18 million project last week to get feds to "move off airplanes and get on technology." The centers will reduce federal travel spending and shrink the government's carbon footprint, she said.

GSA has contracted with AT&T to create the centers at its 11 regional headquarters offices -- in Boston; New York City; Philadelphia; Atlanta; Chicago; Kansas City, Mo.; Fort Worth, Texas; Denver; San Francisco; Seattle; and Washington, D.C. -- including four national headquarters offices.

Each center will have high-definition television screens, advanced audio equipment and collaboration tools. AT&T projects that its technology will reduce carbon emissions by 112,000 metric tons this year and 155,000 metric tons in 2011, according to its website.

"People appear much more lifelike," Johnson said of the new technology. "You feel as if you're sitting at the same table, even though you're sitting virtually."

But the technology won't come cheap.

Mark Barounos, CEO for Colorado-based Telepresence World, said public telepresence rooms exist around the world and typically cost between $400 and $450 an hour.

GSA has so far not discussed what it will charge customers to use the centers, open to all federal agencies through a web-based scheduling system, but Johnson said pricing would be competitive with airline rates.

The centers will also be open for military families to meet virtually with service members overseas, but GSA has not said how much that will cost, who will pay for it, and how the families will schedule the facilities.

Also, it is unknown how much interest there will be among feds once the centers start becoming operational in February.

"Until the telepresence centers are up and running, the actual numbers of federal employees that will use the centers is unknown," Karl Krumbholz, director of GSA's Network Services program, said in an e-mail. "We anticipate the centers will be widely used, and agencies will see virtual meetings as a desirable alternative to travel."

Most face-to-face meetings can be replaced or supplemented with a virtual meeting but the technology will not eliminate the need for occasional federal travel, he said.

When asked how the new centers might affect the government's City Pairs program, which provides feds with specially discounted airfares negotiated by GSA, Krumbholz said GSA projects a shift in the number of flights being scheduled, but it has not estimated the total savings.

It's not clear if GSA has mapped out which federal buildings will house the centers or if it has communicated with federal employees in the regional offices.

Dianna Louie, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area Federal Executive Board, said she wasn't aware of GSA's plans to build telepresence centers, but she agrees there will be a cost benefit. Louie said she didn't know if a federal building has been chosen to house the center or if development has been completed.

A likely location in San Francisco will be the Philip Burton Federal Building, which is located near most of the city's local, state and federal buildings.

"A lot of people want more information" about the center, Louie said, after contacting other regional offices. "One of the questions that came up is whether it can be used for classified meetings."

The centers will make federal employees more efficient because meetings will require less planning and feds can avoid spending hours or even a day on travel, said Barounos of Telepresence World.

Security and interoperability will be the key issues, he added, but more systems are becoming interoperable.

GSA will use a minimum of 30 hours at its locations each month, and any additional hours will be available for other agencies, according to a GSA official. Costs are expected to be "significantly less than $500 per hour," the official said.

But that may not be enough to entice the frequent traveler.

"I think there is going to be a little bit of resistance," said Queenie Cox, co-founder of WO-MEN Travel Professional, which provides a forum for professional travelers. Cox, a former travel and transportation management officer for the International Trade Commission, said there may be limited use of the centers, especially in the beginning, unless there is an incentive or mandate to use them. Washington-area feds are big on meeting in person for the networking opportunities, and they need to feel connected to their agencies, she said.

Monthly meetings between agencies or meetings that involve a small group of people could be ideal for the meeting center, said Heather Poff, director of the government travel group at the National Business Travel Association. Face-to-face meetings, however, are ideal for educational events or when there is a lot of dialogue.

"It's a matter of determining when using a center is the best fit for what your initiative is," Poff said.

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