David J. Danto
Business travel thoughts in my own, personal opinion
Videoconferencing, Telepresence and the Airline Industry
The blog below was originally published in March 2013. I’ve updated it with this introduction (in September 2020) because recently the CEO of American Airlines, Doug Parker, trashed the collaboration platform Zoom, saying he, ‘sees Zoom meetings, which he thinks are awful, adding to business travel demand rather than detracting from it.’ Mr. Parker couldn’t be more incorrect. He is one of the holdovers of the old airline school of thought that believes they can reduce service and raise prices as much as they want and people will still fly. A deadly pandemic was only the latest inevitable reason that people have shunned flying, and have no trust in their relationship with airlines. Loyalty (as I wrote about here in 2018 in an explanation to the industry) has to be a two way street, and airlines have not held-up their part of the bargain for a large number of years. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and the rest of the videoconferencing and collaboration services are not begging for a handout from the government like the airlines are, and are enjoying record usage, specifically because people enjoy using them. As a contrast, one would be hard pressed to find a typical coach traveler that would say they enjoyed the treatment they received from their US airline – even before the pandemic hit. The blog below explained in detail that videoconferencing was never going to be the death of the airline industry, it is only a viable option that people turned to when the airline industry made using their services nearly unbearable. The airline industry’s lack of customer service will inevitably be the reason that some airline firms won’t survive.
About a year ago a reporter that covers travel firms asked me if the emerging telepresence market was taking business away from the struggling air travel industry. I answered, “No, the airline companies are taking business away from the air travel industry. Telepresence is just what some people are using instead of having to deal with the hassles.”
Throughout the history of the videoconferencing industry people have always led ROI conversations with cost avoidance around air travel. The marketing always sounded something like, “install [insert the video systems du-jour] and your travel costs will go way down. It’ll pay for itself in no-time and then you’ll rack-up the annual savings.” While I believe that there is some truth to the correlation that collaboration technologies help reduce travel costs it’s not quite as cut-and-dry as the marketing pitch. But more than that, focusing on travel cost reduction entirely misses the point that properly selected collaboration tools can transform an organization in ways that are exponentially more valuable.
That’s a lot to take in. Let me back-up a bit and explain. Let’s say an organization wants to cut travel spend by 50% annually. Usually someone in their executive leadership will just cut the budget allocated to travel. It might take the form of a crackdown on expenses or a freeze on travel, but whatever the method, simply saying no is usually a very effective cost reduction technique. Now if I toss a few video systems at that organization - or some phones - or even some tin cans connected with strings - at the end of the year you can produce metrics that show how the tin cans led to a 50% travel reduction. Are the metrics true? That depends on your perspective. People will certainly use tools to substitute for the loss of travel, but the tools didn’t cause the reduction.
Travel is a necessary evil of business. It doesn’t go away. To be successful people need to see clients, inspect facilities, spend quality time with colleagues and bridge cultures. Investing in collaboration technologies just to reduce travel spend shows more naivety than savvy. The right reasons to add these technologies are far richer and more complex. Here are just a few:
Do any of these produce metrics as clean, crisp and good looking as travel cost avoidance? No. They’re all very difficult to quantify, much less explain in a ten minute sales pitch. That’s why we still hear about the least important factor of videoconferencing and telepresence most frequently.
So then, you might ask, why is the air travel industry struggling? If you’re a business traveler like I am you’d know the answer. Looking beyond the current cost of jet fuel, for the most part the airline industry has lost all concept of what good business and good customer service are. Typically one finds an underpaid, overworked and underappreciated (and therefore surly) workforce being placed into customer facing roles with only poor tools to work with (such as outdated computer systems and failing equipment.) A typically overpaid management continues to make short-sighted decisions (like charging for things that used to be free or reducing benefits to their best, “elite” customers.) Fifteen years ago I’d consider flying somewhere on business to be somewhat of a “glamorous perk.” Now it’s just literally a pain in the rear, with tiny uncomfortable planes that have tiny, uncomfortable seats being run by people who are either upset or powerless to help. Add to that all the required security hassles and the time it takes to get to and through the airport and it adds up to a pretty unpleasant experience. It’s in that context where videoconferencing can replace air travel. If I can have a meeting over video instead of having to put up with all the pain, hassle and reduced service then that’s definitely my first choice. If only my telepresence system gave frequent flyer miles…..
This article was written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions.
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