Web conferencing connects with wary travelers

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As telecommunications companies in New York and Washington struggled to restore service and cope with network traffic in the wake of the Sept. 11 disaster, many businesses turned to Web and video conferencing to keep connected.

As businesses canceled meetings and banned travel, Web sites and online conferencing systems were embraced by companies across the country.

T. Rowe Price Investment Services Inc., Baltimore, canceled all company travel beginning Sept. 11, including a meeting with an international bank scheduled for 10 a.m. the day of the attacks.

As luck would have it, the investment company had already been a customer of Mountain View, Calif.-based PlaceWare Inc. for the past 18 months. T. Rowe Price used PlaceWare’s Web conferencing service to handle meetings with clients and employees.

PlaceWare facilitates online meetings through a variety of Web applications, including presentation content, audio conferencing and virtual office collaboration; its Meeting Center 2000 software starts at $5,000 a year.

Even though T. Rowe Price has eased its travel restrictions in recent weeks, "I think Web meetings will start replacing a larger percentage of our total meeting volume," said Marty Allenbaugh, employee meetings manager-retirement plan services communications at T. Rowe Price.

He said certain topics, such as asset allocation and retirement planning options, are well-suited for Web conferencing because clients have already signed up and are financially and technically savvy.

Still, Allenbaugh said face-to-face meetings are crucial to sign up participants in retirement plans and educate clients and prospects. He estimates that currently 90% of the firm’s meetings are done on-site and only 10% are done online.

Video vendors

Schlumberger Ltd., a Paris-based technology company specializing in oil and IT services, also turned to video conferencing to handle meetings following the attacks. Ironically, Schlumberger had a meeting in New York scheduled with its video conferencing vendor, V-Span Inc., King of Prussia, Pa., on Sept. 11. It canceled that meeting but scheduled another to discuss adding more video conferencing services.

"As a company as a whole, we’ve been doing a lot of video conferencing," said Joe Doucet, senior research associate at Schlumberger. He said a worldwide company like Schlumberger, with many projects spanning many sites, is attracted to video conferencing as a way to communicate among employees, clients and research partners.

"If people are going to travel less, they will in fact use video conferencing more," Doucet said, citing company travel restrictions put in place after the attacks that have now been lifted.

John Field, president of V-Span, said business has gone up dramatically since the Sept. 11 incidents. He said business from existing customers went up 35% during the week of the attacks, and rose another 50% the following week, as more businesses curtailed employee travel.

V-Span’s pricing ranges from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars for equipment, depending on the number of sites. Monthly fees start at $499 for a package that includes a high-speed line and network connections. Meetings can be paid for by the minute or by the hour, with average meeting costs ranging from $80 to $150 an hour.

Asked if the spike was a short-term result of the attacks, Field said: "When CEOs and controllers see cost savings, they don’t go back to business as usual."

Daniel Briere, CEO of telecommunications research firm TeleChoice Inc., Denver, agreed the recent demand will not be a short-term fad.

He pointed to the rise in video conferencing, e-mail and telecommunications services during and following the Persian Gulf War. "It became more acceptable to not meet in person, but to meet on the phone and over e-mail," Briere said.

TeleChoice itself had planned to install Lotus Sametime, a Web collaboration software package, sometime this year. On the day of the terrorist attacks, the research firm’s IT department installed the software. Just two days later, 50 employees were trained to use it.

Briere also said the disaster may spur use of cell phones, global positioning systems and so-called "presence systems," which determine where users are located.

But companies won’t necessarily spend a lot of money on these systems and devices, he said.

"People will do more with what they have," Briere said. That could be as simple as using instant messaging to track people down.

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