The Videoconference: Friend to the Travel-Weary - TheStreet

The Videoconference: Friend to the Travel-Weary

Match your budget to the appropriate software and save a bundle on travel.
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The age of business trips is taking its last beleaguered breath! Leisure travelers will soon roam the in-flight domain once occupied by laptops and briefcases! Nobody will ever have to leave the comfort of their ergonomic office chair again, so kiss your travel budgets goodbye!

Well, not really, says Caleb Tiller of the National Business Travel Association in response to the hasty prophesying of technology companies since the first camera was clamped to a PC.

Yes, video, Web and phone conferencing wizards have made remarkable strides, but these technologies are only replacing certain kinds of travel. Picture the G8 Summit by Web cam -- frightening, isn't it?

A business that sends its sales force all over the country, for example, could never even dream of closing a multimillion dollar sale via a Web conference. A semiannual meeting, however, done by video, can save a company thousands in travel and lodging expenses.

Tiller sees a parallel upward trend in both Web and video conferencing and business travel because new technologies allow a company's travel budget to be used more strategically for trips that really count.

While only a handful of companies are making the serious investment of a quarter million dollars or more for the most sophisticated technology, less-pricey solutions abound, especially as broadband gets cheaper worldwide and allows for affordable, high-quality video in any location.

In addition, in the last 12 years the

International Telecommunication Union put down standards for all major and minor video communication that let 98% of all systems share content, says Bob Knauf, video product and marketing manager of

Polycom.

Cost of one roundtrip, cross-country flight: about $600. One-night hotel stay: $200. Food and transportation: $60 per day. Cost of not having to send a representative to the semi-annual business meeting: priceless, if you choose the appropriate service for your business.

As audio and video conferencing software becomes a must have, here is a guide to what your money will get you and how your business will be best served:

$50 per month plus equipment

A cheap Web cam from

Best Buy

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(around $40) and a subscription to Skype will get you video conferencing, but not the kind you necessarily want to make your business look polished. But couple that cheap camera with some decent Web conferencing software for as low as $50 a month and you have a sophisticated and efficient communication tool.

To view Alix Steel's video take of today's segment, click here.

$100 per month plus equipment

While the cost of travel has soared with oil prices, the Web conferencing industry is growing by 30% a year, notes Dan Richmond, CEO of

MegaMeeting.com.

MegaMeeting's browser-based video conferencing software requires no downloading because it's flash-player based. "All you need is an Internet browser, a broadband Internet connection and a Web or digital video camera," says the Web site. For around $100 per month, the software allows for up to five concurrent connections, as well as presentation and application sharing. Any Windows, Mac or Linux-based machine may participate in a Web conference.

"Travel is what kills small businesses," says Richmond, who highly recommends this solution to any business looking to cut back travel costs.

$129 plus cost of Web camera

Polycom's Desktop Video Conferencing Software, PVX, runs on a PC and works with any USB Web camera. While this technology runs from a personal computer, it can connect to a conference room with seamless interoperability and delivers high-quality, TV-like video and content sharing capabilities.

This technology is perfect for a small business that needs to get its foot in the door of a larger company or share product information, says Knauf.

"Companies like

Wal-Mart

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use video to talk to suppliers," explains Knauf. "So if the small business has some sort of video communication device, it can gain interest from Wal-Mart in setting a face-to-face meeting. The worst thing would be spending thousands of dollars to travel to a company and find out they aren't the least bit interested."

$2,000 to $7,000

Polycom's VSX product line (in the $5,000 price range) can be a great asset for companies having to share designs or documents with overseas offices or for a talent pool not located at a central headquarters. A trend in the textile industry, for example, involves designers showing the designs in real time to a manufacturing plant sometimes halfway across the globe.

Perfect for medium to small conference rooms, the system offers content sharing depending upon the price range and the display doubles as a PC monitor.

$8,000 to $11,000

Craig Malloy, CEO and founder of

LifeSize Communications, says his clients still have to travel, but 95% of their business gets done via video. Its entry-level system ($8,000) provides high-definition video over an IT network with no monthly charge except for broadband (around $125). High-definition zoom capacity and the ability to share PC information gets you even closer to the real thing. The system is capable of connecting multiple sites, but each location must also have the LifeSize system.

His customer base ranges from small two- or three-site law firms to Fortune 100 companies.

Its flagship product, the life-size room, is a multipoint control unit system with the same high-definition video quality, but more authenticity. "It feels as if they're in the same room as the other person," he says. "We are replicating true human interaction."

$15,000 to $20,000

Polycom's HDX high-definition video conferencing system provides audio, video and content sharing for large meeting spaces. The HD camera costs an additional $5,000. This is the optimal system for sharing content. Because of the detailed image quality, "this is great for the business selling an intricate widget of some sort," says Knauf.

Small animation houses and larger movie studios have found this technology particularly helpful.

$300,000+

Polycom's RPX Telepresence RealPresence Experience immerses participants in a video collaboration environment: An entire room is built to give the illusion that two different locations are sharing the same space.

Clients of this software consist mostly of the Fortune 500s. "

This option can really take away the aspect of travel," Knauf says of the rooms, which allow companies to have board meetings with global partners among myriad of other uses, almost eliminating the need to travel.

With video conferencing solutions getting cheaper and options expanding, even a mom and pop business can utilize pretty sophisticated technology and save on its precious travel budget.