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"The Inland area's vast counties also makes videoconferencing an effective tool for local government".



Meeting on video

Videoconferencing by companies gets a big boost after Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.



Meetings, meetings.

It seems the need for them will never die, whether at large corporations or small businesses. But the preferred meeting style may be changing, spurred by the events of Sept. 11 and the need in a sputtering economy to trim expenses.

Several Inland area businesses are turning more to videoconferencing -- a live audio and video connection between people in different locations -- to communicate with far-flung offices, meet with customers, provide training or interview job candidates.

Today's technology and higher-speed connections have eliminated the jerky body movement and delayed audio of early videoconferencing. Most videoconference centers operate at 382 kilobits per second (kbps) and above, more than adequate to provide real-time or near real-time connections.

And while they will never replace face-to-face communications, online meetings are in, according to a 2001 survey of 573 conferencing administrators by IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based advisory firm on technology and e-business trends.

"Businesses are using conferencing applications more than ever, in part because conferencing is a way to cut travel costs," said Robert Mahowald, an IDC senior research analyst.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the temporary inability to travel accelerated the trend and fostered a growing acceptance of online meetings in the business world.

Consider what has happened at Riverside-based Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., the nation's largest recreational vehicle manufacturer and a major producer of manufactured homes.

The company has used videoconferencing at its Riverside headquarters and at regional offices in Round Rock, Texas and Fernandina Beach, Fla., since July 1998.

But since Sept. 11, the volume of videoconferencing has grown from three or four sessions a month to two or three sessions a week, said John W. Gudgell, manager of Fleetwood's telecommunications and distribution services.

"It's become a very valuable alternative to travel," Gudgell said. "But it's unfortunate something so tragic (as Sept. 11) had to happen to focus on it."

Fleetwood's use of teleconferencing also is up an estimated 45 percent, Gudgell said.

The company's travel budget fell 33 percent in December -- in part because of an overall cutback in expenses as the company navigates through a business downturn.

But the increase in online meetings is trimming Fleetwood's travel costs an estimated 8 percent to 10 percent each month, Gudgell said.

Videoconferencing has become an important method of communication at Bourns Inc. in Riverside, said Patricia Moorman, vice president of worldwide distributor sales.

"Our increase (in videoconferencing) actually began two years ago, as more and more (business) partners began to feel comfortable with it," Moorman said. The company has videoconferencing facilities in Riverside, other U.S. facilities and its plant near London, Moorman said.

"Videoconferencing isn't our only method of communication, but it is absolutely part of our communication," she said.

Bourns uses videoconferencing not so much to save on travel, but because it can pull in key employees around the world and better communicate with customers and suppliers, Moorman said. "It's a very powerful tool."

Inland area videoconferencing isn't confined to large companies.

In downtown San Bernardino, a videoconferencing center at Arrowhead Executive Suites is being marketed for use by Inland-area businesses, entrepreneurs and individuals.

"Our niche is small to medium businesses and law firms," said Edward "Duke" Hill, a partner in a business group that converted a one-story former furniture store at Second Street and Arrowhead Avenue into executive suites.

The Arrowhead videoconference facility has room for 12 around a conference table, plus seating for another 10. It also has a technician on standby to assist whenever Arrowhead gets a client, Hill said.

Hill got the idea to add a videoconferencing center after seeing a similar facility at the former GTE (now Verizon) offices in Ontario.

"I was impressed with the idea that you could talk to anyone in the world, face-to-face," Hill said.

Clients have included Farmers Insurance, the Teamsters union, and the Inland Valley Development Agency, which has conducted videoconferences with Dallas-based Hillwood Investments, which is negotiating to develop the former Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino.

The Arrowhead videoconferencing facility is popular with area law firms for depositions, and companies use it for job interviews or to hold training or general business meetings, Hill said.

Entrepreneurs also have used the facility, including one from El Segundo who came in at 11 p.m. to talk with a prospective client in Hong Kong, Hill said.

Horizon Milling LLC (formerly known as Cargill Flour) used Arrowhead's videoconferencing center for a two-day sales training and product rollout session less than a month after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The company's offices in San Bernardino, Chattanooga, Tenn., Albany, N.Y., and Wichita, Kan., were connected to the company's headquarters in Minneapolis for the meetings, said Kym Philhart, Horizon's western region account executive.

The company decided to bring the 20 to 25 employees together online because "there was still a lot of nervousness (about traveling), as well as budget reasons," Philhart said.

While the company was satisfied with the online meetings, Philhart isn't sure Horizon will make regular use of videoconferencing. "We do conference calls every week, but we've kind of gotten away from not flying," Philhart said.

Use of Arrowhead's facility has grown through word of mouth and through videoconferencing brokers, Hill said.

Companies such as Proximity Inc. of Burlington, Vt., act as brokers by finding available videoconferencing facilities around the world and bringing the sender and receiver together.

Proximity draws from a list of more than 3,500 worldwide affiliate videoconferencing centers such as Arrowhead. Its clients include executive recruiters, law firms and corporations that use videoconferencing for job interviews, sales meetings or other group meetings, said John Mast, an account manager.

In exchange, brokers such as Proximity are paid part of the fees collected for use of the videoconferencing facilities, Hill said.

Following Sept. 11, demand for videoconferencing increased three- or four-fold, Mast said. It has since dropped to two to three times as many sessions as before Sept. 11, he said.

The Inland area's vast counties also makes videoconferencing an effective tool for local government.

The Energy Task Force of the Riverside County Department of Community Action uses videoconferencing to bring its far-flung members together, said Lois Carson, the department's director.

"Last spring, when the energy crisis was looming, we were holding a lot of energy meetings," Carson said. "Because our committee is countywide, we have members in the desert and elsewhere."

To meet via video, the task force used facilities at the county building in downtown Riverside and at the Palm Springs City Hall.

"It's been working very well," Carson said. "We send information (for the meeting) in advance, either by fax or mail, so everyone has it," she said.

Document sharing can be one of the drawbacks of videoconferencing, Fleetwood's Gudgell said.

"If you've got a presentation that you're trying to share -- slides, a new product, blueprints or other real detailed documentation, it's difficult," Gudgell said.

And videoconferences may not be the best for first meetings, he said.

"What I've found is if individuals meet each other face-to-face initially, the success of videoconferences is much greater than if they've never met," Gudgell said.

Reach Rick Burnham at (909) 782-7507 or rburnham@pe.com








Peter Phun/The Press-Enterprise
David Lanham, technology consultant, makes the connection for videoconferencing to counterpart John Mast in Burlington, Va. Lanham works at the Arrowhead Executive Suites in San Bernardino where videoconferencing rooms can be leased.