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Telepresence and the travel industry: If you can't beat them, join them

The visionaries and the evangelists at vendors like Cisco, Polycom, HP Halo et al would have you believe that the immersive experience of telepresence videoconferencing will eliminate some if not almost all of the need for business travel as the technology is adopted more broadly across the globe. The need for face-to-face meetings among business partners and between corporate branches will decrease as companies realize that telepresence is a feasible alternative to face-to-face meetings in many if not most circumstances.

The notion that telepresence could reduce business travel should be bad news to the travel industry, right? Business travel is bread and butter for airlines and hotels.

And yet, hotel chains appear to be embracing the technology. Both Marriott International and Starwood Hotels and Casinos have opened public telepresence rooms in a couple of pilot locations this month, both using Cisco’s TelePresence technology. Mariott has opened rooms in New York City and Bethesda, Md., and plans to open at least a dozen more across the U.S. and Europe, China and Brazil. Starwood opened rooms at its W Chicago City Center and at its Sheraton on the Park in Sydney, Australia. It has plans to open more rooms in New York, Toronto and Los Angeles this summer.

Mary Casey, vice president of corporate global sales at Starwood, told me her company was prompted to install telepresence rooms in its hotels after speaking with large corporate customers who were looking to reduce their travel costs.  She said one of Starwood’s largest customers in Chicago said told her that it had been investing in telepresence rooms across the world, but there were certain regional hubs where it wasn’t practical for the company to make an investment in the technology because a company-owned telepresence room in such locations wouldn’t be used enough to justify the investment.

Casey says that large corporate clients, especially those who have invested in telepresence in certain locations, are the main targets of her hotels’ telepresence rooms. She said smaller companies haven’t expressed much interest in such services yet. However, she thinks that might just be a matter of educating the market on the experience the technology can offer. She also expects some non-corporate clients to use the technology, based on what she’s heard from Tata Communications, Starwood’s technology services partner in the telepresence venture.

“If we listen to our partners at Tata, they’re beginning to see their public telepresence offerings used by different segments, such as suites used by families who are spread around the world, who want to celebrate events like a birthday party,” she said.

Casey and Starwood clearly see telepresence as an opportunity, not a threat.  Perhaps someday some hotels will have just as many telepresence rooms as they do beds.

Now airlines, on the other hand — I don’t see them adapting quite as well.

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