Telecom travel is the new business class. The jet-setting of senior business people is being dramatically curtailed worldwide in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in the US, leaving organisations urgently seeking new-age alternatives. "The way in which we communicate with clients and colleagues abroad will change radically," says Angela Baron, adviser in employee resourcing at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
A sharp upturn in sales of video conferencing equipment confirms her forecast. Shares in the world's second-largest video conferencing equipment company, Norway's Tandberg ASA, have risen more than 25 per cent since the disaster. Ray McGroarty, director of product management and technical services at PictureTel, says: "Companies are well aware that without face-to-face conversations where you can discuss and convey ideas, productivity is reduced. Video conferencing is the next best thing to actually being there." Mr McGroarty's company markets video and audio conferencing systems and services to businesses, schools, hospitals and govern- ments. "It can also be used from home, certainly by employees concerned about working in vulnerable offices."
PictureTel had its first sudden rise in profits during the fuel crisis last year when travel was limited. "Since then, technology has improved further, allowing people a much more natural experience," says Mr McGroarty. "People can now get in contact with one another at a touch of a button without having to worry about which system each of them is using." In some ways, video conferencing is superior to being there, says PictureTel. There is, for instance, a multimedia calendar feature people can update with appointments so users know when they will be available. And if a user wants a certain group of staff to hear a certain part of the conference, they can distribute that message as audio, video or plain text.
BT Conferencing is reporting a 140 per cent increase in teleconferencing since the disaster. David Sales, the director, says: "Use of our worldwide services are most common in the UK and US and they started to pick up towards the latter end of last week, and this week they have risen enormously. We expect this to continue."
The World Bank hosted its annual development conference in cyberspace earlier this summer, and other businesses are increasingly hosting and attending online trade shows, exhibitions and seminars. The site, www.crm2001online.com (a customer-relations management conference), has had more than 16,000 visitors since its launch in January, and the Training Solutions and IT Training Show organised by Brintex last year was also online. Expocentric.com allows people to "e-tend" exhibitions without leaving the office. By integrating a number of technologies into one service, Expocentric.com claims it can replicate any exhibition as a 3D interactive display on the net. The organiser is charged a fee and exhibitors can have an electronic stand designed and constructed, or build one using the company's Stand Wizard.
The chief operating officer, Hugh Scrimgour, says: "The use of our services was already increasing largely due to the expense of space and time required for physical events. In the past 24 hours, we have noted a significant growth in the number of registrations for shows. By no means do our services claim to be a substitute for the real thing, they are aimed at being a complementary service. But in these troubled times, they can be highly supportive as a way of keeping business communities together."
Cary Cooper, organisational psychologist at UMIST, says: "What's different now is that there's not a single company in the country that isn't asking the question, 'Do we have to travel?' "