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Is the Business Traveler a Dying Breed?

June 2014

Pros and Cons of Face-to-Face Versus Virtual Meetings

George Clooney may have given a face to the stereotypical frequent business traveler in the 2009 movie “Up in the Air,” but would he still have to fly around the country in 2014 to do his job?

Thanks to the advent of online meeting, desktop sharing and video conferencing software and apps, more and more business meetings are conducted online. Citrix’s popular GoToMeeting, which boasts more than 34 million online meetings were held in 2013, specifically targets business users with personal and corporate packages, while video call software including Skype and Facetime has become mainstream.

And a study by the Global Business Travel Association found that business trips have dropped by 22 percent since 2000. Those who do still travel for business face skyrocketing airfare and hotel costs, additional fees and record numbers of flight connections and delays, making it more costly than ever before.

Ideas6.14But according to the U.S. Travel Association and Travel Effects, business travel trips are on the rise after several years of decline. After a decline from 494.3 million trips in 2007 to 437.7 million in 2009, since 2010 those numbers have steadily climbed to 467.1 million in 2012. And in 2012, U.S. businesses spent $225 billion on domestic travel alone, supporting 3.7 million jobs and generating $35 billion in taxes. Additionally, a study commissioned by the World Travel and Tourism Council found business travel yields a return on investment as high as 10 to one. In fact, U.S. sales conversion rates of 49 percent associated with in-person meetings were significantly higher than without an in-person meeting at 32 percent.

Jennifer Burch Burke,
IT Problem Continuity Manager, Exelon
“I do every type of meeting at work because we are located in 40 states and by far the most gets accomplished face to face.”

Tim Elliott,
Principal, Sora Development
“Hard to digitize the solidity of a handshake to seal the deal. But you cannot deny the
efficiency of multi-city coordination on
GoToMeeting for working out some details.”

Tom Davidson,
Account Manager, RockTenn
“Face to face. Every time.”

So could it be that business travel is alive and well? And when it is important for your company to make the investment in time and money rather than opting for virtual meetings? I95 BUSINESS talked to members of the local business community to see where they stand.

Virtual Doesn’t Paint the Whole Picture
As president of HR Solutions, LLC and Strategic Solutions Coaching, Renée McNally is far from against technology, but she believes it’s important to recognize its limitations. “While technology is great most of the time, as an HR professional, there are definitely times when face to face is definitely preferred,” she says.

McNally cites interviewing for a new hire as an example. “Interviewing someone over the phone or even Skype is completely different than in person. I have interviewed people over the phone and then met them in person and they give a totally different interview.” Not only can Skype be “glitchy,” with delayed sound and images that go in and out, McNally points out you can’t always glean the non-verbal cues that she says tell most of the story. “In-person meetings allow you to check out eye contact, if they’re passionate about the job and if a candidate is being honest,” she says, something that also comes into play when gathering data for an investigation or other situations where she needs to get truthful information from an employee.

Finally, McNally says a face-to-face meeting can help you assess rapport and personality by establishing a more personal connection. “In person with an interview, you want to see and feel that personal connection and try to establish a relationship to make sure they would be a good fit for your organization.”

“This is a Relationship Business”
In the lumber industry, companies like Weyerhauser do hundreds of thousands of dollars in business sometimes in just a single phone transaction with people they have never met in person. But company product sales representative Matthew Barnes says it’s still very much a business based on relationships. “This is a relationship business,” he says, “and while I am conducting that business, I remember both as a buyer and a seller that someone took the time to fly out to meet me.” (See our companion article on how TSA Pre-Check can make flying easier.)  He says he also tends to remember people he has met at conventions, over a business dinner or on an industry outing. “I have dozens of vendors I can buy from and my customer has dozens of suppliers he or she can buy from. It’s that relationship you have built through the phone and in person that sometimes makes the difference. For example, when it’s down to the wire and my competition is either cheaper or at the same price, it can be that personal relationship you’ve established that sways them to give the business to me.”

The Other Side of the Coin – and the World!
In contrast to Barnes, Ksenia Emelyanova, marketing manager for Moscow-based X-Cart, a leading e-commerce platform, wholeheartedly embraces virtual solutions. She says, “X-Cart is located in Russia, while most of our customers and business partners are from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. We’re on opposite sides of the globe, yet we are able to interact with them. ClickMeeting and conference calls via Skype are life-savers for us; we use these services daily and even hourly sometimes.” While she and other members of the X-Cart team rely heavily on virtual tools, she concedes that nothing can substitute face-to-face contact. That’s why the company holds “Beer Meetings” in conjunction with its annual trade shows and invites its community of clients, merchants and developers to attend and interact face to face. “Networking, discussing ideas and concerns, making business acquaintances – the participants return home energized and inspired,” says Emelyanova.

Despite the abundance and benefits of virtual meeting solutions, there seems to be consensus that there truly is no substitute for in-person meetings, at least periodically. Or as Emelyanova says, “Definitely, people should meet more often – to see faces, emotions and character, not just work with emails, microphones and earphones.” So even with the latest technology available today, it seems the stereotypical business traveler Clooney portrayed isn’t going away anytime soon. I95