Video conferencing may be more affordable and reliable in this global political and economic battle than during the Gulf War recession, but British executives still do not view it as a viable alternative to face-to-face meetings.
Even those in the business admit demand for the technology is not meeting expectations. “You`d think they`d be selling like hot cakes at the moment,” says Steve Barker, director of Ipswich-based supplier Videocom.
“But they`re not. We`ve been banging our heads against the wall about this for the last six years. We are getting more enquiries but whether they translate to sales is a different matter.”
At drugs company Alpharma, video conferencing is used for internal meetings between various European offices.
“But face-to-face contact is still important when it comes to team-building or selling an idea, and obviously we don`t use it for disciplinary discussions,” says purchasing manager Chris Game.
The bottom line is that although the technology has been widely adopted in the US, particularly in hi-tech industries, many European companies remain unconvinced. “Significant organisations in the UK still don`t have it,” says Alistair Stewart, managing director of Video Highway UK in Reading.
Thanks to the the introduction of international standards, the quality has improved 10-fold since its debut in the early 1990s.
“Back then you needed an army of white coats to look after it, it was unreliable and there were sound and picture delays. It was like talking to someone on the dark side of the moon,” says Stewart. “Now it`s easier to use than a photocopier and the quality is 90 percent -95 percent as good as a face-to-face meeting.”
Users can connect to up to three other sites simultaneously, use special cameras to show paper documents and objects, and incorporate powerpoint slides and videos into their presentations.
But all this cannot replace seeing someone in the flesh. “Ultimately, nothing can replace personal contact,” says John Melchior, managing director of Radius, The Global Travel Group, a consortium of 100 travel management companies.
“How many times do you go to a meeting and it`s only afterwards, after a glass of wine over lunch, when you`ve heard about their kids and the dog, that the deal is struck?”
In regions such as Asia, South America and southern Europe, where personal relationships are particularly vital, it is not surprising to learn video conferencing is even less effective.
“In some cultures, it might be even be considered rude,” says Andrew Solum, director of travel management outsourcer, the Travel Industry Association.
Those that have tried the technology complain that it over-formalises meetings and stifles communication. “Suddenly you`re on and the meter is running,” says Solum.
But Video Highway`s Stewart believes that sometimes this is a good thing. “It`s a slightly more formal style but you don`t waste time with lots of conversations going on at once. It demands that everyone is polite, nobody butts in, you stick to the points and actually get the work done,” he says.
Despite the improvements, users complain there is often still a delay in sound transmission, while picture quality is more like a home video than a TV broadcast.
“It`s still not really good enough to see facial expressions,” says Patrick Lodge, a freelance internet consultant. “And you never know quite where to look. We once did a video conference in Hong Kong, connecting to a factory in China, and throughout the whole thing we were looking at the backs of their heads!”
Even fans of video conferencing admit it has limitations. “It`s good for simple meetings or discussions, or when you just need to see a drawing, but it`s not good as a sales tool,” says Colin Brain, director of travel consultancy firm Management Solutions.
And, despite claims to the contrary, many executives are simply reluctant to give up their trips abroad.
“The fact is, people like travelling,” says Videocom`s Barker. “We once had a guy say to us “Twice a year I go over to the States, stay at my boss`s house, swim in his pool and use his company car. Why would I want to try video conferencing?”`