Video meetings refresh the parts that planes drain away

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The Independent Online
It is for winning small international orders that video conferencing can be really attractive

British businesses are losing out to mainland European competitors because managers are too committed to face-to-face meetings, the Institute of Personnel and Development has been warned. Many managers waste up to 30 hours a week travelling between meetings, frittering away productive time.

"In the past, relatively few managers would have had to experience the complexity of managing across different time zones and national cultures," Kevan Hall, managing director of the Centre for International Business Studies, told a conference of the IPD. "However, the increasing globalisation of industry, coupled with fewer middle managers, has introduced many more managers to the difficulties of international management."

But managers are failing to recognise that modern communication systems can be used to overcome the problems of trying to meet business contacts across Europe.

This view is echoed by British Telecom, which is trying to persuade managers to spend less money on international air travel and more on phones, faxes and video conferences.

Multinationals are recognising the value of video conferencing in allowing managers to spend time managing, not travelling. It is common to see video conference suites inside corporations, used not only for face-to-face discussions, but also towork on documents through interactive data exchange. The result can be a considerable reduction in transport costs and increased managerial efficiency, say organisations such as Lucas Automotive.

While this is fine for corporations, it has, in the past, left the smaller companies out in the cold. But businesses that cannot afford to buy their own video conference equipment can now rent time from their local Business Links offices, the regional business advice centres run in large cities by a partnership of the Department of Trade and Industry, training and enterprise centres and chambers of commerce.

Ivor Seddon, managing director of Speedy Products, in Manchester, was pleased with his first experience. "I used the Business Links video conference to speak to a distributor in Singapore to achieve more without having to visit," he says. He spoke to his distributor through a second video conference link in the British High Commissioner's office in Singapore.

A single video conference exchange enabled Mr Seddon to win an order for pounds 5,000 - and it is perhaps in the winning of small international orders that video conferencing can be really attractive. While large orders might still warrant the personal visit, a small order might otherwise be lost.

Salford Networking International found video conferencing useful in keeping a sales team up to date with developments during the Telecom 95 exhibition in Geneva, where the DTI had a link set up. Staff from the office visited the Manchester Business Links office to demonstrate the latest software to buyers inquiring at the company's stand.

Eleven Business Links offices initially had Olivetti video conferencing equipment installed, primarily for communication with the DTI and other Business Links centres. The pilot went well, and the offices are now hiring out their equipment.

"We agreed it had been a good thing, and we will push it to local businesses for international use," says Chris Fisher, conference and venue manager of Hertfordshire Business Links. "Contacting overseas, you make a lot more impact using video conferencing."

Each Business Links office operates its own pricing policy. Hertfordshire charges pounds 30 an hour for the room hire, pounds 50 an hour if a technical expert is needed to supervise use of the equipment, plus the actual cost of the call - equivalent to the cost of two calls as video conferencing uses two phone lines. Regular users can negotiate a reduced price.

Users can arrange for customers and suppliers to receive the calls on video conference equipment in trade support offices in British embassies and High Commissions in Hong Kong, Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain, Singapore and five cities in the United States.