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By Steve Lohr
As travel costs rise and airlines cut service, companies large and small are rethinking the face-to-face meeting — and business travel as well. At the same time, the technology has matured to the point where it is often practical, affordable and more productive to move digital bits instead of bodies.
The emerging trend, analysts say, goes well beyond a reaction to rising travel costs and a weakening economy. “These technology tools are going to change the way corporations think about travel and work in the long run,” an analyst at Forrester Research, Claire Schooley, said.
Past predictions that technology could replace travel have been frequent and premature. The main difference today, analysts say, is that the technology is finally catching up to its promise. No single breakthrough explains the progress, but rather a series of step-by-step advances — and steady investment — in telecommunications networks, software and computer processing.
Companies of all sizes are beginning to shift to Web-based meetings for training and sales presentations. “Only in the last two years has the technology gotten to point where it really makes sense to use it,” said Alan Minton, vice president for marketing at Cornerstone Information Systems, a 60-person business software company in Bloomington, Ind.
With his sales force doing many product demonstrations online, Mr. Minton estimates the group’s travel costs of have been cut by 60 percent and the average time to close a new sale has been reduced by 30 percent.
No one suggests that the face-to-face meeting is becoming obsolete, or that it is time for a requiem for the road warrior. Companies talk about using digital tools mainly as a way of making business travel more selective and more productive.
Still, the potential for digital displacement of business travel is substantial. A report last month by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, a group of technology companies, and the Climate Group, an environmental organization, estimated that up to 20 percent of business travel worldwide could be replaced by Web-based and conventional videoconferencing technology.
The most dedicated business travelers tend to be management consultants, investment bankers, accountants, lawyers and technology services consultants. Much of their work has to be done in person with clients. But these professionals are increasingly using online collaboration tools for work within their firms.
At I.B.M., Michael Littlejohn, a work force and technology expert in the company’s global services unit, said two years ago, he was on the road 13 to 15 days a month. These days, he says, he travels 8 or 10 days a month. “But my time spent with clients is not less,” he said. “To really understand a client’s problems or to close a deal, you need face to face.”
Corporate training and education is a field many companies are moving online, in part to trim travel costs. Darryl Draper, the national manager of customer service training for Subaru of America, used to travel four days a week, nine months of the year, presenting educational programs at dealers nationwide. Today, Ms. Draper rarely travels and nearly all of her training is done online.
Previously, Ms. Draper estimated, in six months she would reach about 220 people at a cost of $300 a person. She said she now reaches 2,500 people every six months at a cost of 75 cents a person.