If United Airlines’ new animated ads are anything to go by, communications technology has airline bosses worried. One shows a female executive struggling to get her presentation across during a teleconference. She decides to fly across the US to see her colleagues and, during the meeting, the executives – initially depicted as threatening creatures such as a snake, a wolf and a shark – gradually morph into friendly human beings.

The message is clear – virtual communications don’t always work that well. Sometimes you just need to get on that plane and eyeball the people with whom you are doing business. Fortunately for the airlines, most business travellers seem to agree.

“I’m a big fan of technology and you can do a lot with it,” says Stacy Palestrant, senior associate at Katzenbach Partners, a New York consulting firm. “But there’s no substitute for meeting someone in person first, and that’s not rocket science – you just gain a lot from shaking someone’s hand and seeing their facial expressions.”

Raghu Das, managing director of Cambridge-based IDTechEx, agrees. His company, part of whose business is organising trade conferences, has looked into holding web seminars as a means of attracting participants who want to save money on airfares.

“But actually we’ve found that people like the personal touch,” he explains. “It really comes down to networking and, even though we put on really good programmes, people sometimes come simply because they know that all their clients will be there.”

Technology has certainly allowed executives to reduce the amount of time that they spend in planes, as Ms Palestrant points out. “The fact that you can have e-mails at your fingertips definitely makes a difference,” she says. “And conference calls make it easy to not travel as much.”

Even relatively low-tech systems have advantages when it comes to collaborating virtually. When groups of people doing business together are not all native English speakers, for example, communicating across e-mail can eliminate the interactive imbalances that might exist were the group to be working face to face since the technology allows more time and thought to be put into responses.

At the high-tech end, the array of communication tools available now is astonishing. While use of e-mails, instant messaging and conference calls are commonplace, the ability to view colleagues and clients at virtual meetings alongside data, text and graphics or photographic presentations is becoming easier.

Expensive and cumbersome video-conferencing is being superceded by desktop versions using webcams. Internet Protocol (IP) telecommunications services are making desktop meetings involving groups of participants cheaper and more efficient. And the technology has improved in recent years, eliminating the frustratingly jerky nature of the live images delivered via webcam.

At the same time, new ways of working remotely over the web have been emerging. Microsoft’s Live Meeting, for example, allows executives to hold videoconferences from computers and has interactive features such as the ability to conduct real-time polls from among the participants, who can also forward questions in the form of text to the presenter during the session.

Despite the dazzling range of virtual communication weapons in the executive’s armoury, most believe that the new gizmos will never allow executives to give up entirely their face-to-face meetings.

“Technology cuts down on the cost and can be used for some things, but you also have to recognise that communicating with someone effectively takes effort,” says Binna Kandola, co-founder of Pearn Kandola, one of Europe’s leading firms of occupational psychologists. “You need that humour and the bit of banter – those exchanges that are personal rather than business oriented – to get a social relationship working, and once you’ve got that going, the virtual communications are a lot easier.”

Mr Kandola’s comment is supported by the findings of Martha Maznevski, professor of organisational behaviour and international management at IMD, the Swiss business school. Prof Maznevski argues that business travel should be used judiciously alongside communications technology.

“One of the most important ways that technology can reduce travel is if travel is used strategically,” she explains. The strategy should be not to travel frequently but to travel regularly, every few months, and to plan the visits well in advance.

The idea is that, by building relationships with people in person, technology can fill the gaps in between the visits. Trips should also be used to become familiar with factories or offices in different locations, so that when hitches arise, those helping to solve the problem remotely have a clearer idea of the lay out on the ground.

“If you already have a relationship with the people you’re communicating with and you share knowledge, you can eliminate the feeling, when a big problem occurs, that you need to go there next week,” she says. “And when it comes to building relationships that develop trust and commitment, that is still much better done face-to-face.”

However, if Prof Maznevski’s words may provide comfort to the airline industry, there is also evidence that technology is having an impact on business travel. In a survey published last year in the US*, 45 per cent of those whose trips were organised through a corporate travel programme reported that they had used teleconferencing, videoconferencing and webcasting in the previous 12 months instead of making a business trip.

* Published by the National Business Travel Association, formerly the Institute of Business Travel Management, and the Travel Industry Association of America.

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