Avoiding travel, users turn to communications technology

Videoconferencing, Web collaboration use increasing in aftermath of attacks

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted spice maker McCormick & Co. to suspend travel for all of its 8,100 workers worldwide. But by chance, McCormick had launched a global videoconferencing system just one week earlier.

By last week, all 14 videoconferencing locations were "booked full with one meeting after another," said Joe Callaway, director of telecommunications at the Sparks, Md.-based company. "People are turning to videoconferencing to meet their business needs."

The travel ban is due to last at least through next Sunday, and Callaway said McCormick will take advantage of it to encourage workers to use the new technology.

With similar travel prohibitions or restrictions in place at many companies, analysts are seeing a big uptick in video- and audioconferencing by users, as well as an increase in the use of Web collaboration tools.

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Staying Grounded

Air travel concerns are boosting virtual meetings:

58% of corporate travel managers say their companies will reduce travel.
88% say they will increase their use of videoconferencing.

Source: National Business Travel Association., Alexandria, Va.; Survey of 57 companies

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Conferencing traffic "is way up, by 20% to 40%, no question," said Elliot Gold, a videoconferencing analyst and president of Telespan Publishing Corp. in Altadena, Calif. Gold surveyed 12 service providers and three conferencing equipment vendors in the aftermath of the attacks.

The sluggish economy had already pushed more companies to use conferencing technology, Gold said. But now, he added, the increase could be sustained for months. He said videoconferencing costs have come down steadily while video quality and synchronization with audio and data—once weak points for the technology—have improved.

Analysts said PC-based Web collaboration tools have also made advances, although users sometimes bolster their two-way video and document-sharing capabilities with phone lines for better audio quality.

At McCormick, about six people can videoconference in a room at one time. After initial troubleshooting, Callaway said, the videoconferencing systems from Vtel Corp. in Austin, Texas, are "working as one...and I'm not pulling my hair out."

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How to Get Started

Here are some tips for companies trying videoconferencing for the first time:

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Consider hiring a service provider to avoid an internal tech-support burden.
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Make sure video feeds won’t compete for network bandwidth with other apps.
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Make sure videoconferencing systems are secure and private through the use of a virtual private network.
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Inform users about conferencing etiquette, such as not shuffling papers or talking over one another, and detail the limits of the technology.
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Provide the required video production basics: good lighting and consistent sound quality without echoes.

Source: IT users and Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn.

Callaway also said the rollout has been "very affordable," with the 14 videoconferencing systems costing an average of about $20,000 each. A pilot project involving desktop Web collaboration tools is now under way as well, he added.

Eric Entwistle, an IT infrastructure analyst at Deere & Co. in Moline, Ill., said traffic on a collaboration server at the company spiked 300% on Sept. 11 and the next day. A corporate travel ban was in effect for several days that week, he noted.

Deere uses Microsoft Corp.'s NetMeeting collaboration software for most of its users and similar applications on its Unix systems. Users can perform tasks ranging from chatting to sharing engineering documents stored in computer-aided design systems, Entwistle said.

WorldCom Inc.'s Chicago-based conferencing and collaboration services division last week said it had its busiest day ever on Sept. 13. And Doug Kreitz, vice president of professional services at Texas-based systems integrator Nsync Services Inc., said he's seeing a big increase in user demand for collaboration and application-sharing technology.

Officials at accounting firm Ernst & Young LLP and technology services provider Schlumberger Ltd., both based in New York, said they expect an increased reliance on existing conferencing and collaboration systems as an alternative to travel at their companies.

"We're suggesting phone conferencing or videoconferencing whenever possible," said an Ernst & Young spokesman.

Reporter Jennifer DiSabatino contributed to this article.

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