IT Escapes Cuts to Business Travel -- For Now

Thanks to skyrocketing gas and airfare costs, a growing number of companies are limiting -- or completely banning -- "non-essential" business travel

Business travel isn't dead, but it is ailing. With skyrocketing gas, airfare, and other travel-related costs, a growing number of companies are limiting (or banning altogether) "non-essential" business travel. Many are even curtailing sales-related travel, typically the most cutback-resistant budget category. For now, however, IT seems to have escaped the cuts directly, though there may be impacts for vendor meetings.

Consider the experience of a marketing executive with Softchoice Corp., a hardware and software reseller with offices throughout the U.S. and Canada.

This executive says that there are clear indications that many of his company's clients are reining-in (and in some cases, slashing) their own travel programs. "I am seeing companies trying to cut back on travel," he confirms, citing (as just one example) a recent uptick in demand for laptop computers with built-in video cameras. This suggests companies are embracing video-conferencing to help make up for lost "face time," he points out.

Softchoice also imposed a travel ban for the month of July, this executive says, as part of an effort to cut costs. "Much of that [was] driven by [economic] reasons, but [was also] influenced by skyrocketing travel costs," he indicates, adding that -- in spite of his company's July travel ban -- he still spent more than a fortnight on the road. There's simply no substitute for face time, he argues: "There are still situations that warrant an onsite visit regardless of escalating costs."

A marketing executive with a large business intelligence (BI) vendor tells a similar story. He says he's been given a clear mandate to reduce his travel obligations. "If I have a meeting, [and] if I can do it via conference call, or PlaceWare [a Web conferencing tool], they'd prefer that I do that," he comments.

This is more difficult than it sounds, he says, largely because -- in addition to responsibilities that include travel to customer sites or industry conferences -- this executive works out of a remote office. In the past, he made frequent trips to his company's headquarters to try to get face time with team members and colleagues. That is no longer so easy.

"If I'm actually speaking at a conference or participating in some way so that I have to be there, then I go there," he says. "But [this travel restriction] does reduce the number of trips that I make [to headquarters].” He’s also frustrated by a cut in one-on-one visits.

With all of this talk about travel cutbacks, you'd think that one industry -- trade conferences -- would be particularly hard hit. For now, that doesn't seem to be the case, especially for attendees who are IT professionals and business end users.

Consider two recent events: this month's Summer SHARE show (a biannual mainframe conference that was held two weeks ago in San Jose) and the TDWI Summer World Conference (a BI and data warehousing conference held last week in San Diego); in both cases, principals indicate, attendance was about equal to year-ago numbers. SHARE, for example, played host to 2,216 attendees, a tally that was "comparable" to last year's event in San Diego, according to spokesperson Dave Reiners. The TDWI event (one of four quarterly conferences sponsored by The Data Warehousing Institute) attracted more than 850 attendees -- roughly the same as last year, according to organizers.

Things could get rougher. The economic outlook doesn't look any better, and -- when asked to speculate about their upcoming travel obligations -- many IT pros sound far from sanguine.

Trade show organizers are getting a lot scrappier. The SHARE organizers, for example, used a particularly topical promotion (involving free gas cards) to attract locals at the San Jose conference. In an interview earlier this month, SHARE vice-president Pam Taylor said that show organizers were considering ways to make upcoming events more accessible to remote or "virtual" attendees.

"We are looking at [improving virtual attendance] in the future, and what we have been doing for a number of SHAREs is that a very large percentage of the speakers do provide their submissions for the proceedings in advance of the conference, and those do go live on our Web site as soon as we have them available, so people do have a Web-based way to engage with transpiring at the conference," Taylor says. In the future, she adds, "we're looking … at actually doing some audio recordings of a couple of key session tracks and making those available through our Web site."

Another tactic gaining favor is for trade show organizers to take their presentations on the road -- directly to attendees. Consider Network World's IT Roadmap conference series, the most recent instance of which convened this month (and for the first time) in Seattle; the Network World currently plans to bring IT Roadmap to six different cities, with upcoming shows in Dallas (in late September), San Francisco (in November), and Washington, D.C. (in December).

Even as vendors scramble to adjust to changing business conditions, many -- especially purveyors of Web and video conferencing technologies -- are playing up the disruptive potential of change. Take Cisco Systems Inc., for example, which last week unveiled a special promotion ("Meetings Plus") for its WebEx Web conferencing software.

"WebEx is a terrific way to reduce travel and avoid paying high gas prices," said Patrick Moran, director of WebEx small business marketing for Cisco, in a release. "It's an easy way to interact with remote customers and team members, and with the Meetings Plus promotion, it's more affordable than ever. Now small businesses can get our 'big business' service -- with the high performance, reliability, and security our largest customers demand-for a very small-business friendly price."