Has business travel reached its end
In September, a study conducted by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association reported that more businesses are moving to wireless. The study claimed that 55% of US businesses encourage their employees to bring their mobile devices to work, and more than 2/3 are investing in mobile strategies for their workers.
There are also low-cost and zero-cost solutions, such as hanging around on Google or meeting via Skype. These range from inexpensive telepresence devices to more expensive full-blown products. Flying or taking a train, which can be more costly in the UK than flying, becomes less appealing.
You had to be present. Jeff Hester, CC BY
You would be amazed by the latest innovations if you were in a workplace ten years ago and tried to do video conferencing with laggy, grainy images. Virtual meetings are now able to deliver breathtaking realism. This is called Telepresencing.
It is possible to share and edit documents and images in real-time. The ability to access expertise without having to travel could benefit the public in terms of quicker and more responsive decisions, as well as offer benefits for the general public, such as health.
In the Flesh
Some airports have been among the first to take advantage of the technology. They see the growth of virtual meetings as both an opportunity and a threat. Gatwick Airport has recently introduced virtual meeting facilities in its airport. This allows a video conference before flying to the physical meeting. The future may not be an either-or situation.
Human beings still place a high value on face-to-face meetings. This is illustrated by the recent appointment of world leaders in Paris and the powerful picture showing prime ministers and Presidents joining arms in solidarity in response to terrorist attacks. It would have been less impactful if they had linked arms via Twitter or video link.
Hollande and Merkel attend rally in Paris to mark Paris murders Olivier Hoslet/EPA
Timothy Leary predicted that physical meetings would be increasingly sacred in the future. Yolande Strengers writes in her book Meeting In The Global Workplace: Telepresence, Air Travel and the Body:
Telepresence allows for a different way of meeting and working than face-to-face meetings.
According to her research, we sometimes need to “meet in the flesh”. She claims:
The physical presence of the body during in-person meetings conveys messages of respect and worth, provides sensory competency and gestures and allows for physical mobility by carrying people between and inside different material environments.
There are many places to go.
It will be interesting to see whether further advances in “virtual presence” and the development of holographic projectors render the physical requirement for presence obsolete. Currently, people still fly in large numbers for socially important meetings, or those that are high-risk, and even “sacred”. The days of flying by default could be over.
Face-to-face meeting. svenwerk, CC BY-ND
It isn’t easy to imagine that this trend will reverse itself. Travel security concerns are high and growing. In the aftermath of the banking crisis, there has been an increased focus on transparency and scrutiny in regard to business expenses and benefits. These issues will force the business travel industry to reinvent itself.
Airports of the future could be about virtual communication as they are about physical transportation. The train station, and even the train itself, will become ( – as it has already been for some ) a smart place to meet virtually when traveling to a meeting. You get two sessions for the cost of one, and you don’t waste any time.
It isn’t easy to find research in this area. There is no firm process that guides us in deciding when to fly and when not to, whether to choose virtual or physical flight, etc. However, there are some anecdotal hints.
We share information in the digital world when companies discuss strategic documents, product design, or progressing projects. We still meet in person when the business risks are higher and social connections are important. For example, winning a contract fo,rming a partner, or agreeing on a high-level strategy.
As technology advances, these reasons for flying and meeting are under increasing pressure. Cisco and Microsoft, for example, claim to have saved hundreds or millions even though smaller companies adopt more slowly.
The business travel industry is changing dramatically, and it is clear that virtual meetings will leave more hotel rooms and business-class seats vacant. The business travel industry faces both a challenge and an opportunity. It is a danger if it relies on the traditional boom-and-bust cycles, but an opportunity if it can harness the power of the “sacred”, physical meeting.