As business travel becomes increasingly complicated and fraught with security concerns, businesses may turn to technology to replace in-person meetings and conferences. When the New York Stock Exchange re-opened after the September 11 hijackings, stocks in companies that make videoconferencing equipment soared.
Teleconferencing and webcasting are now easy and affordable for most small companies. Not so long ago, expensive high-end systems were required for teleconferencing capability. But the cost and complexity of the hardware has dropped sharply. Frost & Sullivan, an industry analyst, says videoconferencing and webcasting services will be a $5- billion-a-year industry by 2006, up from less than $500 million last year.
While some companies are investing in hardware and software that allows for real-time conferencing over high-speed data lines or even phone lines, many others are turning to service providers such as V-Span, headquartered outside of Philadelphia.
"We have seen a surge of business since September," says V-Span President Ken Hayward. "A teleconference can save a company of any size both time and money, and it is now becoming critical in the face of the difficulties and uncertainties of business travel. We think we will show a gain of 50 percent or more next year, and a significant segment is from smaller enterprises than we have served in the past."
Other companies offer inexpensive alternatives for small businesses. SmithMicro, for instance, offers a videoconferencing package for the Macintosh for less than $60.
Darlene McKinnon, deputy district director of the San Francisco office of the Small Business Administration, has long advocated videoconferencing as a means to allow small businesses to compete with larger ones.
"We're rooted in doing things traditionally in this country," McKinnon says. "I think most sales are still based on meeting someone face-to-face, looking someone in the eye, and closing the deal. You can do the same things the same way with videoconferencing. You don't have to deploy a huge sales staff or team of people for days on end."
Now, McKinnon says, teleconferencing may have an even more vital role. "It's a shame that September 11 is a backdrop to this topic," McKinnon says. "But people are afraid to fly, and the erosion of the economy has hit small businesses hard." Staying in touch is more important than ever, after all, and saving money won't hurt.