Monday, March 16, 2009

Fly to conferences? Now, it's via video

AS BUSINESSES curb air travel expenses during the economic downturn, companies in Singapore are switching to videoconferencing to conduct business meetings across the miles.

Telcos and software companies offering the service report that business has surged. SingTel, for example, has seen a 20 per cent rise in the number of customers requiring videoconferencing services in the past 12 months.

Local sales of Cisco's Telepresence - an upscale videoconferencing solution launched here in 2006 - have gone up by 100 per cent in the same period.

Microsoft's Unified Communications Server, which combines video, voice and text messaging in one platform, has also seen a higher take-up. Microsoft has declined to give figures for Singapore, but said that within the Asia-Pacific region, 100 more companies have signed up with it.

Smaller firms operating on more limited budgets, meanwhile, are turning to cheap - or free - alternatives, such as Google video chat and Windows Live Messenger, which has chalked up a year-on-year increase in usage of about 25 per cent.

The shift in Singapore reflects global trends. Last month, research firm Gartner predicted that high-definition video meeting solutions would replace 2.1 million airline seats annually by 2012.

Firms here said using such services can save them a pretty penny.

Local thermal solutions manufacturer Opulent Group, for example, has cut its travel expenses by half after switching to video meetings from September last year. It declined to give its travel budget, but said about a third of its 100-strong staff used to travel to Asian or European destinations at least three or four times a week.

It recently decided to purchase a Microsoft system and has since enjoyed savings. The system uses the firm's existing broadband connection to run.

In addition to a cut in travel bills, Opulent also saves on monthly IDD phone charges, which used to hit $5,000.

Tech advances add to the attraction of videoconferencing.

Said Mr Nagi Kasinadhuni, 46, a general manager at Datacraft, a global information technology consultancy: 'There are more choices. It is getting cheaper, and gives a richer, immersive experience.'

Another plus: Videoconferencing makes it easy to set up meetings between customers in more than one country. Datacraft said, for instance, that organising a three-way conference between Singapore, London and Bangalore is a snap.

'Doing this face to face would have taken a month to set up,' Mr Kasinadhuni said.

Datacraft has cut back on travelling by a third as a result, saving a bundle in the process.

Six other companies The Straits Times spoke to also said they managed to cut back on travelling and have switched to videoconferencing. They said cutting costs was a major factor, but doing away with the hassle of travelling was also a boon.

For smaller local outfits, spending tens of thousands on videoconferencing equipment is out of the question, so they have turned to cheaper options.

Point-Star, a Web solutions company, uses free applications such as Google video chat and Skype to conduct business discussions with its partners and clients overseas. It said it can save up to $5,000 a month on travel expenses using these services.

Mr Justin Lee, 28, Point-Star's founder, said: 'The tools are getting more 'integrated'. It often doesn't feel like we're in a different country or time zone any more.'

There are also benefits for those who have to travel, he added, as jet lag is now a thing of the past.

Mr Lee said travelling can get very disruptive. 'I have to adjust to the time difference, language and culture. Initially the jet-setting can feel very exciting, but in the end it is just not worth it.'

Good as it is, firms polled said videoconferencing was not always the answer. When sealing a big deal or getting a foot in the door, meeting clients face to face is still the best option, they said.

'Socialising with clients in person is important too. You can't do that over video,' said Mr Kasinadhuni.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.
by Tan Weizhen

No comments:

Post a Comment