Telepresence catching on, but hold onto your wallet

Be prepared to fork over at least $100,000 for that in-the-same-room feeling

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"This is a billable-hour profession," notes Ben Weinberger, CIO at Lathrop & Gage, who adds that one attorney alone can save over $1,500 in travel expenses and productivity loss by not having to fly somewhere to attend a meeting. Because many lawyers travel monthly, the Polycom system could represent a savings of more than $30,000 in annual travel expenses and productivity loss for a single attorney, he estimates.

Weinberger differentiates between high-end videoconferencing and telepresence by the size of the screens. The rooms that have 50-plus-inch screens and run high-quality, high-definition cameras are utilizing telepresence, he says.

Rent a system

The Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces company, based in Mumbai, India, owns 77 hotels across five continents. Executives wanted a more efficient and affordable way to collaborate as rapid global expansion is underway.

The Taj began utilizing GlobalMeet, a high-performance audio and Web conferencing system from Tata Communications, its parent company, about a year ago for internal meetings, and also rents out its conference rooms to other companies in London, Mumbai, Delhi and Boston.

"It was a fantastic opportunity to be the first hotel group in the world to have a pioneering technology for our clients," says Araceli Rius-Perez, director of sales and marketing at the Taj Hotels, in London. "It is a real-time conversation; you can see every single sign from the other person, no delay, the colors are real and it makes you feel you are having a personal relationship."

Polycom's personal telepresence system
Polycom's personal telepresence system features a 20-inch screen and works with either a PC or a Mac.

The cost for renting a room that can hold up to six people is $400 U.S. for one hour, she says. "We're not limited to just the other Taj hotels; we can also connect to telepresence rooms at companies in India that share the same technology," with Tata acting as the managed service provider connecting the different systems together.

Rius-Perez says the rooms are being booked and have "created a level of interest," although she doesn't have usage figures yet. "But as more and more locations come in, we expect the reach will be much greater."

She says there is a Tata IT person on site at each hotel. According to Caesar Pereira, IT manager of Taj Hotels, international travel costs for hotel executives has decreased by 30%. Although Taj executives declined to be specific, a spokesman acknowledged that translates into "millions" of dollars saved.

Rius-Perez says use of the telepresence rooms so far has been steady, and customers have found the technology to be unique and easy to use, making for an enjoyable experience, whether for business or personal purposes.

"It is one of the few technologies on a global basis that are 'green,' which makes customers feel that we and they are 'doing their bit,'" she says.

Esther Shein is a freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at eshein@shein.net.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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