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Flying Isn't the Only Way

The term "road warrior" seems to have taken a literal turn in the fall of 2001. Many businesses are postponing work-related travel, at least for the short term, spurred by weak economic conditions and an even weaker desire to travel.

But it's not all grey skies for business travel. In a survey released by the National Business Travel Association at the beginning of October 2001, more than 70 percent of businesses anticipate a recovery in business-related travel within the next three to six months. However, the Travel Industry Association of America has implemented Operation Restore Confidence as an attempt to stimulate an industry with a drastically falling demand.

Riding rails, burning rubber

For shorter distances, businesses have been turning to an old standby - the train. Amtrak reported that in the month after the September 11 attacks, ridership on its high-speed Acela train service out of Washington, D.C., New York City, and Boston increased by 35 percent, with the trains selling out in many instances. In response, Amtrak has been adding trains to its busiest routes to handle the increase in business.

Meanwhile security has become a concern on trains as well as airplanes, prompting calls for additional legislation to make ground travel safer as well. On October 17, the Senate endorsed a $1.8 billion aid package to increase security on Amtrak trains and at stations.

Some business people are turning to the road when possible. The NBTA survey showed that 65 percent of businesses planned to make greater use of car rentals for short-haul trips. This trend has already been in evidence in cities that are close to each other, such as Boston and New York, a four-hour drive.

Digital bits replacing handshakes

Those businesses who are especially skittish about traveling are turning to video- and audioconferencing to keep in touch with clients, prospects, and out-of-town audiences. In the NBTA research, 88 percent of companies said they would increase their use of these technologies to some extent.

But experts caution businesses to be wary of accepting technology as a permanent replacement for traditional meet-and-greets. Jack Burke, president of Sound Marketing, is a vocal proponent of keeping face-to-face meetings an essential part of business. "A lot of companies are looking at videoconferencing and saying, 'Wow, we never have to put anybody on a plane again,'" Burke said. "In a word, bull." He continued, "Videoconferencing does have the ability to enhance the level of communications. However, it cannot replace the level of human touch in that relationship."

The human touch

The telephone didn't replace meetings, and neither did email. Proponents of video- and audioconferencing believe they will substitute for some, but not all in-person interaction. "Each piece is integral to the entire picture," Burke said. "Remove the face-to-face meetings and you don't have a whole anymore."

Immediate financial needs shouldn't be the only factor employers touch upon when reviewing their travel program and budgets. Technology increases worker productivity, but decreased face-to-face peer interaction has been shown to diminish it drastically. Removed from the educational atmosphere of conferences and trade shows, employees can become listless and lacking in motivation. Burke believes one of the key factors in keeping employees productive is keeping them motivated. "When they are removed from the interaction with their peers, the excitement and educational frenzy that occurs within the conference setting, you're taking away one of the main motivation tools of the trade," he said.

Many agree that face-to-face meetings are a necessary component of successful business relationships. "The higher up you go, the more the need for the human relationship, because the human relationship is what brings the uniqueness of the deal to the table," said Burke. "It's the value that the salespeople bring to their clients which makes the client willing to choose them over another of the same cost."

- Regina M. Robo, Contributor

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