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Telepresence: A Better Way to Spend Your Travel Budget?

If you work with distributed teams, you'll
know how easy it can be for communication to falter and how important
technology is to keeping those lines open.

Video conferencing is one of the tech tools
businesses have used to communicate with colleagues, suppliers and customers –
often with unsatisfactory results. But two business trends are growing to make
its latest incarnation, telepresence conferencing, a compelling proposition:
the rising cost of business travel and the growth in remote working.

Why go for telepresence?

Tech providers argue that telepresence
allows users to develop a closer rapport with each other, because everyone can
see who is talking, see their facial expression and have eye-contact -- things
previous video conferencing systems couldn’t provide.

The global telepresence market is still
relatively small, with suppliers emerging from the hardware sector Avaya,
Cisco, HP and Teliris. In a 2008 report, industry analyst house Ovum estimated
the number of units in operation to be 1,300 but forecasted the market to grow
to 5,000 by the end of this year. The report predicted the worldwide customer
base would double to 550 companies in the same time frame. Clearly, we are
still at the beginning of the life-cycle of the product and many organisations
are still piloting telepresence systems, including HSBC and the

But the potential for saving money on
travel alone is compelling, and it has also helped British & American
Tobacco move towards an environmental target. Using telepresence over the last
year to eliminate over 5,500 flights, BAT has saved £9m on travel expenses and
sees the technology as helping it achieve its goal of reducing CO2 emissions by
11,000 tonnes in the next five years.

But it remains a significant investment. So
how do you know whether it’s right for your business? Here’s
a quick guide.

Assess the business need

If the nature of your business requires a
lot of travel and collaboration among different locations and time zones, then
telepresence can offer a more cost-effective alternative to bringing people
together in the same room. But it shouldn’t replace those regular
get-togethers — BT Conferencing’s chief executive, Aaron
McCormack, tells customers to reallocate half their travel budgets to tech

Even then, investing in telepresence will
be more worthwhile only if you have a large travel budget, a large distributed
workforce or mobile workers who need to communicate with each other and HQ
pretty regularly.

If your business regularly works on
business problems or develops new propositions across geographical boundaries,
email and instant messaging may not be formal enough for ad-hoc meetings.

There’s an added benefit to the
technologies. If your organisation has made a commitment to reducing its
environmental impact, telepresence can help to remove a reliance on business
travel and its associated carbon emissions.

Choosing the right technology

Telepresence systems come in three basic
formats which each have benefits and drawbacks in terms of suitability for
different sizes of business.

  • Desktop models are best suited to smaller
    offices, ad-hoc use and one-to-many communication. But they can fall down when
    trying to replicate a formal meeting scenario because they aren’t
    located in a purpose-built meeting room. This limits their ability to create
    the conditions of a live meeting such as the illusion of eye-to-eye

  • Meeting-room systems are better suited to
    companies with a large, distributed network of sites that need to hold regular,
    formal meetings that involve a number of people. On the downside, users may find
    the numbers of people these systems can accommodate at each location somewhat

  • Boardroom suites have the biggest high
    definition screens, in purpose-built suites that are designed to replicate the
    look, feel and even sound of a live meeting. Specialist surround audio and
    life-sized screen technology is most likely to impress the chief executive but,
    as such, may be the most expensive option, perhaps prohibitively so.

Getting the buy-in

Getting executive buy-in is essential. As
with any technology, the budget-holders will have to be persuaded telepresence
actually helps the business prosper.

“Collaboration must happen very
naturally, with the technology disappearing into the background,”
says Laurie Heltsley, director of strategic initiatives at Procter &

At P&G, 50 per cent of innovation
and new development comes from partner and customer collaboration. So it needed
to install a communications system that allowed for an immersive, collaborative
interaction across company and geographical boundaries to accelerate product
development and speed to market, while reducing travel requirements.

It has some 40 telepresence studios, where
employee use is at around 70 per cent in some situations.

Says Heltsley: “With
telepresence, you can be in Rome in the morning and Sao Paolo in the afternoon,
and still be home for dinner. That’s priceless.”

Keeping the installation simple will also
be a compelling reason for giving a telepresence investment the greenlight.
Darren Podrabsky, HP marketing manager for its HALO telepresence offering, says
you should ensure there’s only “one neck to choke”.

Where video conferencing systems fell down
in the past was that they were technically difficult to set up. The biggest
suppliers of the technology have learned from their mistakes and tried to
design systems that can be operated without a computing science degree. So now
it’s just a question of cost.