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Fear of flying?

You're not alone. Videoconferencing is hip again, but it's no substitute for many face-to-face meetings
Written by Laton McCartney, Contributor

It's not unusual for people in the technology business, especially consultants and sales types, to log 100,000 or more miles a year on airplanes. But given the recent disasters in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., a number of IT vendors and consultancies report that some of their people are unwilling to fly. Meanwhile, a number of companies are restricting air travel or are not allowing employees to fly at all, at least for the present.

Corporate air travel across the board is down, and according to a recent survey by the Business Travel Coalition, it will only return to about 80 percent of its usual level by the beginning of 2002.

In the meantime, we're using trains—Amtrak travel is up 20 percent or so—and automobiles for relatively short hops. IT solutions providers and consultants also are relying far more on teleconferencing, video and Web conferencing in lieu of face-to-face meetings. As an example, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young (CGE&Y) plans to utilize more Webcasting to bring its people together virtually.

CGE&Y—much like Accenture, Cisco Systems and Siebel Systems—uses PlaceWare, a Mountain View, Calif.-based Web-conferencing company that has been providing free online meeting services for companies affected by the terrorist attacks. "Our phones have been ringing off the hooks with calls about pricing and our services," a PlaceWare spokesperson notes.

Teleconferencing and videoconferencing also have taken off in the wake of the attacks. The stock of videoconferencing companies such as ACT Teleconferencing (symbol: ACTT), Polycom (PLCM), and WebEx (WEBX), a provider of video services for online collaboration and document sharing, soared over the past few weeks while the airline and online travel stocks have suffered dramatically.

That isn't strictly a U.S. phenomenon. France's Genesys has experienced a 40 percent jumped in demand for its video services since Sept. 11. ICU Technologies Inc., a Canadian videoconferencing concern, has seen product inquiries increase by about 50 percent.

Of course, video and teleconferencing have benefited from the fear-of-flying factor before—after the Gulf War, for instance—but have yet to achieve wide acceptance. And eventually, business travel will return more or less to normal. After all, even the most sophisticated conferencing and interactive collaboration tools are not a substitute for meeting face-to-face with a prospect.

Today, however, some strong players, such as Polycom with a $2 billion market cap, are on the scene. And picture quality and network reliability have improved markedly. This time around these technologies may prove to be more than just an interim alternative for troubled times.

Laton McCartney (laton_mccartney@ziffdavis. com) is editor, special projects, of Smart Partner.

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