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The face-off between flying and phoning
Teleconferencing might be the rage, but it will never replace meeting business associates in person, says Jay Akasie.
April 13, 2010 1:53 by Jay Akasie
There are certain costs of doing business that continue to elude the finest managers among us.
Make no mistake about it: These are big costs. But they’re nearly impossible to nail down. At the end of the day, for example, how do you measure a marketing campaign’s ROI? Your marketing chief will present his own song and dance to answer that question, but rarely will it contain any sort of quantifiable measurement.
The same goes for the inherent value of a face-to-face meeting. One of the challenges to the airline industry over the past couple years was how quickly business travel dried up as companies attempted to deal with post-recession realities. Out of this lean, mean environment arose a preponderance of plug-and-play office suites.
For those who are unfamiliar with these office suites, they instantly enable a businessman to set up an office headquarters with receptionist, internet connectivity, boardroom, mailing address, and office furniture – all for a monthly rent. Depending on how much you’re willing to pay, you might score an office in a building with a prestigious address and top-notch firms sharing your facilities.
Plug-and-play providers have been touting their business value with extra verve since the onset of the recession. Whatever the rent, the idea is that a businessman nevertheless avoids airfare and lodging because his suite includes all the video conferencing bells and whistles.
It’s a claim worth testing. Which is why we wondered if, as this new crop of office landlords is saying, business travel is a vestige of another era. More specifically, we wanted to know if a trip from Dubai to New York and back for business is a better value than the benefits that come with staying put and video conferencing instead.
The networking started on the flight itself – and proved invaluable. I met two bankers involved with top firms from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, who gave me tips on the Gulf’s evolving financial scene. The unbroken stretch of 12 hours on board was also ideal for preparing presentations, finishing reports, and reading up on the competition. When we were nearing our destination, we received shaving kits so that we could run to our meetings in New York looking like new.
In New York City I faced no less than five grueling meetings in a row on my first day there. I had another three meetings that took up most of the second day. With every meeting, my presence in each room, in front of each person, was key. After a few face-to-face meetings, you soon realize that a lot of subtlety is lost in emails and on speakerphones.
Chief financial officers have no way of putting a price on business relationships. True, they’ve devised catch-all accounting categories like “goodwill” in their desire to place quantitative value on something only your gut can measure. Yet what became clear to us after our unscientific travel study is that staying put and relying on videoconferencing technology puts businessmen at a distinct disadvantage. In the rush to save a quick buck, companies have cut back on travel budgets, operating under the belief that there’s no difference between being there and communicating electronically.
How wrong they are. It’s clear to us that travelling to a meeting – even if it’s in New York – provides a better networking and business tool than any “plug and play” office rental, and for less money, too. Which is why we remain bullish on business air travel. There’s no substitute for a handshake.