Craving 'face time,' firms keep traveling ...

Businessmen and women can communicate practically anywhere around the globe in seconds. Still, business travel continues to rise.

And electronic handshakes won't replace the human touch any time soon, analysts say.

"Even with Net conferencing and video conferencing, you've got time changes and lots of circumstances when the technology doesn't work," says Robert Strauss, professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon's Heinz School of Public Policy. "The initial courtship [of business] often benefits from face-to-face contact, especially when people are talking about a lot of money. People want to know who's on the other end of the split screen."

The 100 companies that spend the most on business travel, led by IBM, spent more than $10 billion just on air travel in 1999. Overall, corporations spent $175 billion on business travel, including transportation, food, lodging, and entertainment during the same period, according to Business Travel News, a New York-based magazine for corporate travelers.

Furthermore, more than 1 in 5 adults traveled for business at least once last year, a 5 percent increase since 1994, says the Travel Industry Association of America (TIAA).

"Travel gives me the opportunity to get out, see what's going on throughout the country and meet new people," says Steve Chamberlain, head of SCA Consulting Group, an up-and-coming engineering firm in Washington State. "It gives me a chance to think about things. In my busy day-to-day situation, I don't have a chance to sit back and think. Whenever I come back from trips of more than a day, I have some new idea I can apply in my personal or business life."

While teleconferencing and other new technology were the bright hope of the 1980s for decreasing business travel, the opposite has been the case. "Technology makes it easier for business travelers to be out of the office and remain productive," says Cathy Keefe, TIAA media-relations manager. "You can take your office on the road with you, with laptops, Palm Pilots, and cellphones, and simply turn them off when you need a little downtime."

A booming domestic economy and globalization are two chief drivers of the increase in business travel. Plus, like rabbits, communication breeds more communication.

"Technology encourages travel. It's the self-perpetuating nature of communication. The more you talk and exchange e-mails, the more you stir up business, eventually requiring more meetings and more trips," Ms. Keefe says.

Technology, rather than face-to-face meetings, is most often used for internal company communication, as well as with external firms once deals have been sealed. "When the lawyers get together and write the contracts, it's still face to face. The reason is we're talking about a lot of money. Once the relationship is established, then technology takes off," Mr. Strauss says.

In an ironic twist, the Internet, e-mail, and teleconferencing have freed up firms to do more travel. "If anything, technology has helped travel grow. While it saves time and money on internal meetings, it gives you resources to spend on external meetings and sending more staff to conferences," says Jay Campbell, executive editor of Business Travel News.

Cultural differences also play a role in when technology is used. "You can't force something like videoconferencing on a culture that's accustomed to in-person meetings," Mr. Campbell adds.

Combine technology with the hassles of travel, and the result is more-stressful business trips. Whereas people-watching in airports used to be a favorite pastime of business travelers before the digital age, many now spend time waiting for often-delayed flights hunched over laptops or making frantic cellphone calls.

Nor are airline flights or even hotel rooms the respites they once were. Boeing plans to begin installing high-speed Web access in aircraft cabins late next year, with all domestic and international flights expected to have the service by 2004. Similarly, hotel chains are racing to install high-speed Internet hookups in guest rooms. (See story below.)

Despite the lure of frequent-flier miles, business travel is not always the perk it once was. Age, family status, and rung on the career ladder affect employees' views of travel.

"Younger employees tend to believe that traveling will advance them in their career and that it is a sign of status. Older employees see it as a sign of status to be able to stay in their office," says University of Washington researcher Jonathan Bricker, who has been conducting an online survey of business travelers since 1997. "People start out traveling with a lot of excitement. They want to see new places and new faces, and get out of a routine. About two years into it, they start to reevaluate. Travel becomes something much less exciting, particularly if they have young children."

Even an enthusiastic business traveler like SCA's Chamberlain, a father of two, feels that personal and professional crunch. "I pay a price when I leave," he says. "I get plagued with mail. I'm gone a couple days and it seems like I was gone a couple months. Likewise at home, there's always something that needs doing. I'll put things off, and then on the weekend, I don't want to do anything."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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