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Jun 292009

By Shermakaye Bass
Green Right Now

“Travel by long distance and stay a while…”

That catchy slogan from a few decades ago touted the power of long-distance telephone calls to keep you and your close contacts closer. Now, with dozens of online-conference companies hitting the market, long-distance relations and communications have really arrived at the next frontier.

Call it web-conferencing, virtual meeting, webinar’ing or call it what you like, but chances are before long your company already is — or will soon be — conducting business meetings over long distances using online technology that links individuals from around the world, in a virtual conference room accessed in real-time from your desk.

It’s revolutionizing business travel, and trimming companies’ transportation and accommodation expenses. According to recent statistics from industry sources, many businesses are cutting their travel costs by one-third to 70 percent.

The byproduct of all this tele presence, as the techies call it, is that companies large and small also are reducing their carbon footprints. In fact, virtual meeting technology is at the juncture where technology and sustainability meet, creating not just immediate benefits in saved carbon emissions, but indicating a much larger trend in which a corporate “bottom line” dovetails with an environmental bottom line.

Few companies tow the thin green line as consciously as Philadelphia-based Astound Conferencing (just renamed Globe Conferencing), a company that debuted a few months ago and rewards its clients by working with American Forests to plant a tree for every 1,000 minutes a company generates monthly, and “if they sign the Re-Plant agreement, every month they generate 20,000 minutes, we’ll plant 20 new trees,” says Globe founder and partner Kevin O’Brien.

“I have to say, we’ve created a buzz in a short period of time, especially in the city of Philadelphia – and with the City of Philadelphia,” he adds. “Mayor Michael Nutter has an initiative to make the city the greenest in America by 2015, and a lot of the local companies have bought into this.”

That includes the city itself, which has contracted with Globe to provide virtual-meeting services. Additional clients include SEI Investments – one of the biggest employers in the Philly area - the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Eureka Growth Capital and some two dozen other clients.

“We think we can provide a little better value… and maybe make people a little more aware of the environmental benefits” of foregoing traditional in-person meetings, “whenever possible,” the exec says.

O’Brien adds that at the moment, Globe is most focused on the Northeast, because the company is still only a few months old. But it uses the platform of another eco-friendly outfit based in San FranciscoON24, which specializes in online trade shows, webinars and other major “gatherings” that formerly occurred in a physical environment.

“We’re not looking to take the place of business travel,” O’Brien continues, “but there’s a whole lot of travel going on, where quite frankly you already know the people you’re meeting with; you’re just going to work on a document or a presentation. And if a handshake is not necessary, then, really, why are you getting on a plane? A five-person meeting in Chicago utilizing our service would cost exactly $24 – to meet for an hour, at 8 cents per minute. That same meeting flying everyone in would cost – and I’ve low-balled this extremely  – about $4,000.

“That’s hard cost, nothing to do with the environment or the fact that people are away from their families. Five people making on average, say, $50 an hour getting to and from the airport, flying out there, all the other costs, add up to $4,000 or more. Even if you save just 30 percent on your travel budget, that’s substantial. And that allows you not to lay off as many people, if you’re facing layoffs.”

Virtual meetings are an idea whose time has come, has in fact been arriving for the past five years. But it’s gone orbital in the past year or so, says Denise Persson, chief marketing executive for ON24.

“We’re seeing massive growth in the industry. The real trend with trade shows is…(that) this year there will be about 1,000 held online. And last year there were about 300.”