Up in the air...no more?
February 19, 2010 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Seeing Up in the Air makes me wonder - Is technology like Cisco WebEx, Skype, broadband connections, etc. causing your company and/or companies you know of to reduce the need for business travel?

Up in the Air's plot centers around business travel, and whether technology such as telepresence, Skype, email, and so on will eliminate or at least reduce the need for it.

I have a friend who works at a certain big-name company, and she told me that her company is using technology to cut way back on business travel for all except the sales associates. This is both for cost-saving and carbon footprint reasons.

My stake in this is for a couple of reasons - one, I am transitioning to a field with the downside, in many cases, of frequent travel (liking my field in general, I was pretty much in denial about this) and two, I don't really like business travel - IME, it's more a tedious slog than a sweet vacation in most cases, and I hate to fly. So I would jump for joy if I didn't have to travel very often for business.

So what is your experience? Is your company and/or companies you know of cutting back on travel? Or do clients still want to see your smiling face and press your warm flesh in person most of the time?
posted by Rosie M. Banks to Work & Money (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Decidedly cutting back on travel (I work in book publishing). Not just for our employees but for author tours as well. It's not so much about the technology as it is about the economy, though--the technology has been around for a while and has been used to supplment travel but it's the downturn that's cutting into the actual trips.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:07 AM on February 19, 2010

This is absolutely true for my company.

I work for an insurance company which currently writes business in about 40 states. We have one office, and it's in Indiana. Notwithstanding our almost exclusive use of independent agents, this would be--and was--impossible without heavy use of the Internet and other telecommunications technologies. Indeed, we have approximately doubled the number of states in which we write business, transforming ourselves from a small, regional, Midwestern company in a niche market into a national player in that niche in less than twenty years. We should be in all of the lower 48 by the middle of the decade, and we still don't really have boots on the ground in any of them.

As it is, we really only have two significant sources of travel. Some of our marketing guys are on the road with some regularity to network with the agent force, and those responsible for our reinsurance treaties--two or three executives--travel to Europe a couple of times a year. Neither of these things can be replaced by the Internet, and though multiple branch offices would lower the need for the marketing travel, even the biggest insurers in the country with offices nationwide travel to Europe for reinsurance. It's just the nature of the business.

If we did not have the Internet, we would need either a huge travel budget or multiple locations, if not both. As it is, we're doing just fine. So though we haven't really changed our practice of not traveling all that much, the Internet has enabled us to maintain that practice while expanding into a national company.

It would not at all surprise me if this is a more common occurrence than actively downsizing travel budgets, as most companies never made all that much use of business trips to begin with, and there's a fair amount of travel that represents things that really do need to be done in person.
posted by valkyryn at 9:09 AM on February 19, 2010

Business that needs to be conducted face to face such as high level sales deals, or high level M&A activity, or other such high stake deals, will continue to be done via business travel.

Most routine business transactions can be done from a remote distance.
posted by dfriedman at 9:13 AM on February 19, 2010

I think the important thing is the technologies are *friendly* enough now that there isn't much fear that the person on the far end is going to screw up and get annoyed at the process.

That wasn't the case even a couple of years back.
posted by Static Vagabond at 9:14 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The WSJ just ran an article about this the other day, discussing how business travelers make up a disproportionate segment of airlines' revenue streams, and how it's been dropping off lately.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:15 AM on February 19, 2010

My last job, aside from a couple of conferences I did zero work-related travel. Only the executives did any appreciable travel, since they were constantly shuttling between the four major offices for the company (with 200 employees, I still wonder why they needed four offices, but...).

My current job description has "about 10% travel" in it, and that was true up until last March when I switched projects and moved to an international program. Now it seems like I'm traveling every other month for weeks at a time. It worked out to somewhere between 15%-20% last year. Some of my coworkers on this project are in the "super elite" status on their airline of choice because of how much they travel.

We were asked this fiscal year to cut travel costs by 10% and to consider using technology instead of travel when appropriate. I've done my part by taking the subway to the airport and getting compact rental cars.

So, company as a whole? Reducing travel. Personally? Much more travel. Still don't get free access to the airport lounges, though.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:15 AM on February 19, 2010

From what I've seen if it involves dealing with customers then travel is still relatively common. Traveling for purposes internal to a company has dropped way off.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:31 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

What I've seen over the past few years is that while business travel overall has dropped, there has been a backlash and a re-recognition of the fact that there is no replacement for actual face time with your customer. As a product manager, I would regularly fly all over the place to meet with customers, either as part of a sales situation, or in a "customer save" situation, or just to go and talk about what's coming soon on the product roadmap. You just can't replicate that level of attention over the phone or Internet.

Most internal meetings, on the other hand, can be replaced with web/phone based meetings. Anything under 3 hours can almost certainly be replaced. I don't think companies are ramping non-customer travel back up the way customer facing travel has been.
posted by deadmessenger at 9:37 AM on February 19, 2010

My employer has drastically reduced our travel budget over the last couple of years. Employees who deal with external customers do still get to travel sometimes, but those of us who used to be sent to face-to-face meetings with colleagues around the world have to do basically all of that virtually now.

Yeah, it's great for a less disruptive life, but it was nice to piggyback vacations onto some of those trips back in the day.
posted by treblemaker at 9:44 AM on February 19, 2010

There's a ton of knee jerk business decisions happening right now because of "the state of the economy". Sometimes these are well warranted, but I have first-hand experience with corporations with tons and tons of money in the bank that have not significantly suffered during the downturn that are making these types of decisions, and cutting travel is a big one in that category. IMHO, they are doing it to please shareholders that they are taking charge in these troubled times, and are not particularly grounded in sound business decisions.

While I think remote collaboration tools are assisting a great deal in the ability to do work remotely (I am a full-time telecommuter), there are many situations where there is absolutely no substitute for face time. I think Up in the Air actually highlighted that quite well.

In summary: I think business travel is very down right now and it's been cut actively by most corporations, but expect it to uptick again as the economy improves.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:45 AM on February 19, 2010

Response by poster: Great, enlightening answers, everyone. Thanks! (Keep them coming!)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:48 AM on February 19, 2010

There was an article directly on this earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal. Article gives specific company examples and budget numbers/changes; also references use of Webex, etc.. technologies. It's behind the paywall, but here's the preview link.
posted by webhund at 10:22 AM on February 19, 2010

My employer is making active steps towards video conferencing for most high level meetings to reduce travel budgets, but most of the higher level management is still too "old fashioned" to really embrace this technology even if it is available. I would think that as that generation of management retires, it will become more prominent amongst new leadership.
posted by citywolf at 10:41 AM on February 19, 2010

This really only works well for business that requires internal travel. Video streaming is bandwidth intensive and requires upwards of 10Mb/s dedicated for the TelePresence installations I've seen. Until fiber becomes cheap and ubiquitous you're always be restricted by the least capable parties. For a large company that already has the bandwidth in place between its offices and the infrastructure to make this happen easily, the cost savings are huge.

If you figure two 10/10 lines at both offices, that's $3,000 mo. The further the offices are away from each other, the more sense it makes.

I would think that as that generation of management retires, it will become more prominent amongst new leadership.

I agree. I think there's going to be a lot of changes in the upcoming years, not from straight technological progress but from a generational embrace of technology.
posted by geoff. at 10:57 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

My last couple of jobs have been involved in performing system implementations for enterprise and hosted applications. In the first job, I spent a fair amount of time onsite for kickoff, design and installation, but was home during the build and initial test phase. The reasons for the travel time was to be face-to-face with the client, shake hands with their IT guys and DBAs and basically put email addresses to levers of influence or action. It's not just getting them to recognize your face and making them smile when you crack a joke, but also observing who's politicking against whom during the meetings and who's tossing the other person meaningful glances across the table -- something you will hardly ever be able to replicate on a WebEx or phone conference. We were onsite for installation because it was always better and more efficient to be sitting with a sysadmin when something in the software got cranky, rather than engaging in a lengthy, frustrating round of troubleshooting-by-email or remote VNC.

This need for travel during installation, however, vanishes when one is working with hosted software, since the folks who are doing the installation are the Ops guys in your company's data center, and they're usually just down the hall instead of in another city. So nowadays, I just travel to shake hands, run through design choices and everything else happens at home. The next time that I'll see a client is when our next release comes out and we need to see how they want to configure the new version of the app. Given that release cycles in hosted software is a lot more compressed than client/server, this means that I have more design sessions in a given year for a given client, but it's still not as much as if I had to do design and installation.

Also, it is sometimes still necessary to travel to a client site to grovel and be yelled at in the event that your company screws up something royally and you draw the short straw for a ritual disembowling, but fortunately that has not yet been my lot. However, that's also something where I don't think WebEx would provide sufficient satisfaction.
posted by bl1nk at 11:00 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

While I was busy screwing up an interview at DreamWorks Animation once, I got to see their Halo suite. Seems to work very well for them, although I gather that most of their conferencing is done between their main campus in Glendale, CA and their Northern California location. The overall effect is like a very utilitarian Jedi Council setup-- the other end of the room you're in looks like extends into the remote location's setup.

A lot of VFX meetings are done via CineSync, since directors and their production-side VFX supervisors don't always have time or opportunity to come to the VFX facilities they work with (they may be working with 8-12 geographically separate vendors-- say, ILM in San Rafael, MPC in London, WETA in New Zealand-- as well as handling other production needs).
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 11:19 AM on February 19, 2010

Yes, travelling for company internal purposes has dropped off.
Just this month, I have given 2 presentations via Webex. Last year, I flew to both events.
posted by theKik at 12:00 PM on February 19, 2010

Related: This classic 1989 spot for United. Just so you don't think this is a recent phenomenon.
posted by dhartung at 2:39 PM on February 19, 2010

I'll also echo that we've cut back travel extensively in favor of remote training/conferencing, but I'll also add a caveat: if you're HOSTING webex conferences (not attending as a participant) your travel savings are SEVERELY reduced due to the cost of the service.

Once Cisco bought Webex the brakes fell off in terms of pricing . . .
posted by datacenter refugee at 3:30 PM on February 19, 2010

My company hasn't cut back at all. Its a sales/consultant business for the automotive industry. We have a headquarters in Detroit where the upper level execs and the lower level grunts work - but a lot of our mid-level people (myself included in Virginia) are on-site with the client. There are 7 people on site with my client's company, all doing different projects. Our boss is down from Detroit at least twice a month. If he has to come down short notice, often he'll get an expensive flight in to a nearby airport with the departing flight sometime in the future, and then pay for a cheaper one-way flight out from an airport that is further away. Then he uses the departing flight next time he's down here. Cuts the cost a little, but not a whole lot.

Last year with the woes that GM and Chrysler had, I think those teams had their travel cut a bit - but with our HQ in Detroit there wasn't a lot of travel to begin with.

Nthing that nothing beats face-time in a sales environment.
posted by ish__ at 3:55 PM on February 19, 2010

Like Tell Me No Lies, I work for an organization that has dramatically cut back on travel for internal meetings, but continue to fund travel for clients and training events.

FWIW, we started setting up teleconference suites and using webcams years ago - the shift wasn't driven by the current economy.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:39 PM on February 19, 2010

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