Modern Life

The benefits of business travel, without the flight

Beyond video conferencing, here’s how companies are using technology in creative ways to keep business moving while everyone stays put.

By Jared Lindzon — January 7, 2021

Business travel ground to a halt last year, with major airlines reporting sharp declines of up to 90% less traffic compared with pre-pandemic levels, and hotels and conference center bookings and reservations dropping by more than 80%. The outlook isn’t much better for this year. According to the Institute of Travel Management, 36% of corporate travel managers expect to reduce corporate travel by 50% to 70% in 2021. 

“The landscape has permanently been altered,” says Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, and author of The Future of Work: Robots, AI, and Automation.

But the needs of businesses haven’t changed: Salespeople still need to showcase products to customers, global organizations still need to facilitate face time between colleagues in different parts of the world, and professionals still need to hear from industry thought leaders. 

To adapt to a world without frequent travel, international conferences and events, such as the World Economic Forum and CES, have moved to online formats, meetings happen over video conferencing platforms, and businesses are tapping into new tools and technologies to stay connected. A Wall Street Journal report predicts tech alternatives adopted during the pandemic — and their associated cost savings — could end up cutting business travel by up to 36% for the long term. 

”People have discovered they’re cheaper and more convenient,” says West. “A lot of people are not going to go back to the previous way of doing things.”

Anuj Shrestha

Staying connected to headquarters remotely 

As the New York-based director of brand and digital marketing for Fiverr, the online freelance marketplace headquartered in Tel Aviv, Matt Clunan and his team typically traveled to Israel at least once per quarter to collaborate with their larger team. When the pandemic hit, Clunan says he initially feared his office of about 30 would feel cut off from their roughly 500 colleagues seven time zones away.

“Not seeing someone face-to-face changes how you communicate,” he says.

At first Clunan’s team resorted to video-based communication, but before long he noticed that staff members in both cities were overwhelmed by constant video meetings. An avid podcast listener, Clunan decided to try the pre-recorded, audio-only format to improve internal communications.

With the help of independent podcast publishing company Wonder Media, he and his team began producing internal podcasts in early April. The format offered a respite from video calls, allowed team members to consume the roughly half-hour long updates at their own convenience, arrive at meetings already briefed, and make better use of those limited hours when staff members on both sides of the planet are available.

“It allows us to stay connected on a more personal level, and I think that’s what was missing,” says Clunan. “Whether there are travel restrictions or not, [internal podcasts] will continue to be part of our [team’s] culture.”

In-person demos from a distance

While its virtual care practice has exploded in popularity since the start of the pandemic, Manhattan-based primary care provider Eden Health still needed to find ways to show its clinics to potential landlords or employers considering building out an Eden Health clinic for employees.

The company offers its digital services in 48 states, and in-person healthcare solutions throughout the New York tri-state area, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston.  “Normally we’d invite folks out, give them a tour of the office, sit down, and talk through what it might look like in their space,” says Jonathan Stevens, head of growth for Eden Health.

But this year the company turned to a new, travel-free approach: 360-degree virtual tours.

“In some ways it’s better, because we can not only show them one location, we can actually show them many of our clinics, and the different configurations, layouts, and aesthetics,” says Stevens. 

Stevens adds that it’s a lot easier for his sales team to send a link via email than it is to get a prospect to schedule an in-person tour. 

“The virtual tours are hosted on URLs that you can share with the prospects,” he says. “You give them the tour together, and say ‘as you’re thinking through this, you can take yourselves through the tour again.”

A sales floor without a floor

Prior to the pandemic, HP hosted guests at its Customer Welcome Centers all over the world to demonstrate its latest innovations for clients, media, analysts, and technology partners.

But when the CWCs were closed in February of 2020 because of the pandemic, Ester Chiachio, HP’s head of CWC experiences, and her team began exploring digital and virtual alternatives.

At first they used video presentation tools to host meetings online. Then they brought in telepresence robots that would allow visitors to explore the physical space remotely from their laptops or PCs. Then, they created a 3D rendering of the flagship CWC location in Palo Alto for customers to explore in virtual reality (VR).

How businesses are managing to still meet without traveling.

Anuj Shrestha

Businesses were forced to explore new ways of meeting without traveling by diving deep into advanced technology.

“We realized that our imagination is the limit,” says Chiachio, explaining that CWCs in VR aren’t limited to just re-creating existing spaces. “We’ve created a lot of spaces that are brand new." 

HP has also incorporated augmented reality that lets customers place digital products in real-world environments like home offices, hospitals, and other workplace settings. They can also integrate 3D applications from customer blueprints for a true hybrid experience. 

Chiachio says the shift to providing digital experiences presented unexpected benefits. For example, presentations can be live translated into the audience’s native language, and they can be delivered to larger groups — not just people able to travel to a CWC.

“The reach we’re having with our events has increased to 800% more participants,” Chiachio says. “From every angle there is added value.”

Virtual reality: The next best thing to being there 

Helsinki-based VR and animation studio FAKE Production Oy helps global companies, including Air France-KLM, the Boston Consulting Group, and Toyota, stay connected via secure, remote meetings in virtual environments with their flagship VR product, Glue. Available on HP Reverb VR Headset and other VR headsets, or on PCs with more limited functionality, Glue’s interface is designed to mimic real-world conversations, giving attendees the personal touch that comes with face-to-face interactions and that video conferences lack.

“We realized our imagination is the limit.”

—Ester Chiachio, head of experiences at HP’s Customer Welcome Centers

FAKE Production Oy moved from developing graphics and animations for TV shows, movies, and ads into the VR space five years ago as headsets became more widely available. Since the pandemic, the company has seen a huge spike in demand for Glue and its virtual meeting capabilities. 

Glue features an avatar system that builds 3D characters that actually look like its users. It then uses artificial intelligence to give the avatars facial expressions that change based on the speaker’s volume, tone of voice, and word choices. Glue also incorporates audio feedback that mimics real-world environments, so a speaker on the other end of the virtual room sounds farther away than someone seated next to the listener. 

“The feeling of presence is one of our cornerstones,” says Matti Pouhakka, sales director for FAKE Production Oy. “You have all the tools that you have in a physical meeting room: You can share your PowerPoints, share your videos on a big presentation wall … there’s even a whiteboard that you can use like a physical whiteboard.”

The huge uptick in adoption of such tools in recent months leads West of the Brookings Institution to believe there won’t be much of an appetite to return to business travel as usual once the pandemic is finally over. 

“Now that people have been forced to deploy digital products, they know how to do it, they have the right pieces in place, their staff is trained on using these techniques — there’s really no reason to go back,” he says.


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