by Michael J. Shapiro | August 19, 2008


The newest generation of telepresence systems, like this one from Cisco, create a quality meeting experience — no travel required.

Meetings among international colleagues at Shell Oil Co. got a lot easier this year, and it isn't due entirely to the high demand for their principal product. In fact, far-flung employees have the opportunity to burn through less of that valuable resource while getting together more, thanks to telepresence.

Telepresence is at the high end of videoconferencing technology, and it typically requires a custom-built studio to make the most of the experience. In such a studio, participants in one location sit on one side of a conference table, facing large, high-definition displays positioned at eye-level on the other side of the table. Ideally, each studio has an identical setup -- with an identical conference table, lighting, even wall color -- to bolster the illusion that the life-size talking heads across the table really are in the same room. 

Shell employees are "really excited" about the HP Halo telepresence system the company deployed at the beginning of this year, says U.S. travel manager Debra Reid. "Use has definitely increased," she adds. "The calendar [to book the room] used to be wide open in January, and now you really have to hunt for a time."

Shell built Halo studios at its headquarters in Houston as well as at its offices in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Singapore -- "the four major areas" of its business, according to Reid. The company was calculating its first-quarter travel spend at press time, but Reid expects the system has saved Shell a significant amount in travel costs.

"Our travel budgets are substantial, so any reduction is going to be a big figure," Reid explains. "Because we're flying in the premium classes internationally, one airline ticket to Europe is going to be at least four figures. And then you put on the cost of the hotel -- especially in the U.K., where the dollar is so weak. So the avoidance of one trip for one or two or three people definitely can add up."

Costs aren't the only reason videoconferencing has become a desirable way to meet. "There is a benefit to work-life balance that Shell is interested in for its employees," notes Reid. "International travel to those four cities can be very tiring on an individual, and it usually does spill over into your personal time."

And, of course, there are ecological benefits -- "not as in an offsetting program, where we're planting trees or something," says Reid. "This is a direct reduction in our carbon footprint."

Growing demand
A growing number of companies are meeting virtually -- and not necessarily to replace in-person meetings, according to M&C’s biennial Meetings Market Report, released last month. According to the survey of 684 planners, 40 percent of corporate planner respondents used video- or webconferencing in 2007, up from 32 percent in 2005. On the association side, 22 percent made use of the technology, up from 20 percent two years earlier. But only 24 percent of corporate planners and 9 percent of association planners said these events replaced in-person meetings.

In another recent survey by M&C Research, 45 percent of the 255 planners who responded expect to be using more videoconferencing and/or webconferencing by next summer (see Newsline Research, M&C, August).

The demand for these technologies is huge, confirms Andrew Davis, senior analyst and managing partner with Wainhouse Research, a Duxbury, Mass., firm that analyzes rich-media conferencing markets. In terms of videoconferencing, he says, “the industry is absolutely in a boom phase right now, with explosive growth rates that are more than twice the long-term industry average for growth.”

Factors like high-definition video and the widespread availability of broadband have made the videoconferencing experience better than in years past. “You put all this together,” says Davis. “A bad economy, terrible airfare conditions, people wanting to cut back, new solutions coming to the market that exactly address these concerns -- and you have a perfect storm driving people to look for good solutions to travel.”

But whether the event is replacing travel or augmenting in-person meetings, the key is the quality of the communication. “It’s truly an outstanding experience,” Davis continues. “It’s far superior to what we would have seen five or 10 years ago. Herky-jerky motion, bad audio quality -- those are really things of the past.”