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Too Little Too Late: Airline Chases after TelePresence

- July 17, 2009 - 4 Comments

In a further sign of trouble for the airline industry, British Airways recently announced the “Face of Opportunity” contest to rescue the high-margin business trip. Entrants can win a free trip to London (presumably in business class, though this is not stated) and attend a “networking event” with captains of the industry if they can persuade the judges that what they could accomplish given the chance to have face-to-face meetings abroad is sufficiently compelling.Supporting their hypothesis is a soon-to-be-published report by the Harvard Business Review that notes that 95% of respondents in their survey agree that face-to-face meetings are key to success in building long-term building relationships, while 87% agree that face-to-face meetings are essential for “sealing the deal.” The report further notes that face-to-face meetings “were seen as the most effective method for conducting business with key stakeholders, compared with videoconferences, teleconferences, and webinars.”Aside from the fact that I’m dismayed that my alma mater is degrading its brand with such corporate-sponsored “research”, British Airways misses an important point: what if you CAN have face-to-face meetings without traveling? What if there’s a technology that makes you forget you’re not in the same time zone with the person across the table? What if that technology can save you oodles of money and let your employees enjoy real work-life balance? The Economist points out these neglected questions: little wonder the report failed to mention TelePresence.So, I agree with the report: face-to-face meetings are pivotal to successful business relationships. But wake up, British Airways: face-to-face without flying is already here.

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  1. TelePresence IS videoconferencing. And I think you missed the point of the Harvard study. Although TelePresence is enhanced videoconferencing (yes, most awesome videoconferencing tool out there), it cannot replace all the chemistry between two people sitting at the same table at the same time, and yes during the same time zone. Telepresence cannot replace the pheromones and human connection that can only occur in person. These biological and personal sociological factors are what your 'alma mater' was trying to prove that technology can never replace, even with highly advanced technology that enable highly life-LIKE images and sounds.

  2. Also, it's already pretty obvious to the public that the British Airways contest is a reflection of the decrease in sales from business travels- a huge part of their business- because more and more people are videoconferencing, telecommuting, etc. We already know this contest is a sad attempt at recovering some of their business- but don't go so far as to claim Telepresence makes business travel entirely mute. Calm down.

  3. Glad to read Rob's comment. I have to admit I was thinking Irene was over-reaching the significance of tele-presence, much the same way Rory pointed out, but reading what Rob had to say, changed my mind. I can see both points, but I think Rob hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that, though it's no substitute for a hearty handshake, he does travel less. Shouldn't that be what's most important, particularly in this day and age? I don't think face to face over fiber will ever replace being able to blow cigar smoke at each other, but not all of us are captains of industry who need to seal the deal. Simply put, tele-presence works. Just not in every instance. Sorry airlines, you're going to lose on this.

  4. There is clearly some emotion tied to a face to face experience and yes there is no technological replacement to all the nuance that comes with a handshake and a smile.Keeping in mind this is a blog that seeks to push the envelope a bit on the business norms we've become accustomed to. We try to do it in a non-confrontational way as well as mitigating the dire outlooks of global resource scarcity. We also try to keep our posts short and informative.As for the discussion on Telepresence and video conferencing in general; it comes down to this:1) It will NOT replace external meetings of a certain priority and/or where a level of trust is needed. For example; a companies boards of directors looking to merge or acquire WILL be a face to face meeting. On the other end it will not scale in the near term to address very large crowds. U2 will not be playing the Brandenburg Gate over Cisco Telepresence to 40,000 adoring fans.2) It CAN move people of the habit of assuming every meeting needs to be face to face. I mean think about how many countless times you've burned a full day of productivity on planes, trains and automobiles for a 1-2 hour meeting. So an enhanced videoconfrencing"" option like Telepresence helps you simply trim the fat in your organization, travel less (net - low level meetings) and be more productive.I can attest as a Cisco employee who has been very active in using it for the last 1.5 years that I absolutely travel less. The meetings I do travel for are usually preceded by Telepresence sessions meaning that we have already gone through much of the level setting prior to meeting in person. This makes the whole face to face engagement more productive.So we've discussed the nuance of this technology from a work-style preference standpoint. What about the other hand? Will we have much of a choice in the next 30-50 years? If you read up on peak oil will find that air travel in the not so distant future will be so expensive it will only be the realm of the truly rich. The fact oil is a finite resource and there is no fuel alternative for air travel that can serve the current fleet we have....these ""preference"" points may be irrelevant before too long. An interesting quote comes to mind when you think of resource scarcity related to air travel:""don't like change? Try irrelevance...""In the interim, remember how incredible jet travel really is, our grandkids might look at us with wonder for having ever done it, especially if the dirigible ride they take from NY to LA takes 2.5 weeks.Thanks for the comments, keep them coming!"