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Saving on travel expenses via technology — Solutions better, easier, cheaper

Metropolitan Bank video conference

What does Iran have to do with Mississippi? Controversy over the country’s nuclear program has caused oil prices to rise again. When oil prices spike, gasoline prices do, too, and that means higher travel expenses for businesses nationwide.

Mississippi businesses are increasingly saving on travel costs by embracing web and video conferencing technologies. They are also saving hours that would be lost in transit and increasing productivity.

Numerous webinar and video solutions vary in price and features, so businesses have to prioritize their needs. While some prefer free solutions that provide the options of presenting and interacting with documents in real time, others prefer the addition of high-quality video for greater efficiency and credibility in conversations.

Free options

Social media consultant and entrepreneur Joe Stradinger is a big fan of the free, online software platform join.me (https://join.me/). Stradinger founded web-based business JoeOptions.com, which connects property seekers with owners of destination real estate. He travels frequently and enjoys the flexibility that the service provides, whether he’s in Mississippi or Shanghai, China.

“I use join.me every day with my team with sales calls. I use Skype a good bit if I want to see a person’s face,” he said.

The join.me main page offers the user a “share” or “join” option. The site provides a free phone number and screen sharing, and users can invite others to join via an e-mail link.

Thomas Broadus, frequent tech speaker and director of interactive and new media at The Focus Group in Gulfport, has enjoyed using GoToMeeting (www.gotomeeting.com) and Google+ Hangouts.

GoToMeeting is one of the most popular webinar tools available, and the service is free up to a certain number of users. “The costs are tiered: The larger the conferences, the more you pay. The cool thing is it is trusted, can handle a lot of information and is well-known,” Broadus said.

When Broadus has wanted the option of face-to-face communication, he has turned to a GoToMeeting upgrade or Google+ Hangouts.

“Being a public speaker, I’m used to some feedback, people making eye contact. I want to know: Are they falling asleep?” he said. Google+ Hangouts is a free service for Gmail users that is marketed to friend groups and will accommodate up to 10 people for video chats.

High-quality video options

Businesses desiring more high-definition and secure solutions for web and video conferencing can buy products directly from providers like Cisco or LifeSize or go through value-added resellers (VARs) like Mississippi-based companies BCI and Venture Technologies, which provide installation and technical support.

“When it comes to comparing business video with solutions such as Skype or Google+ Hangouts, you’re talking about apples and oranges,” said Wendi Garrison, marketing director for BCI. “Neither of these is a solution created for business, and it shows.”

BCI’s most popular video solution right now is the Tandberg Solution, offered by Cisco. “In the Tandberg solution set there are options for creating a video-enabled conference room that allows for seeing all who are in the room and participating in the conversation, as well as a relatively inexpensive endpoint solution for individuals who use video as a part of everyday business. We use both of these solutions at BCI, and we don’t know how we worked without them,” Garrison said.

Venture Technologies, also headquartered in Ridgeland, offers video conferencing solutions by Cisco as well as LifeSize. “Although video conferencing is not a new solution, recent advancements have made affordable, life-like HD video that streams consistently and clearly with very low bandwidth requirements,” said Venture CEO Gerard Gibert.

Venture helped Mississippi-based Metropolitan Bank connect to its Memphis branch with a LifeSize video conferencing system. The bank is installing new LifeSize systems in three Mississippi locations as well as its Nashville office this month.

Pam Ware, chief operations and information officer for Metropolitan, said the LifeSize system paid for itself within its first year. “Our interface communication is not only more frequent, but it’s also more effective. We’ve saved hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in travel expenses,” she said.

The bank is happy with the quality of the high-definition video and feels secure having the system running on its own network: “In the past, we had all been on different video conferencing systems and that wasn’t efficient. The quality was very poor with fuzzy visuals and dropped calls.”

LifeSize vice president and general manager for video solutions, Michael Helmbrecht, said video conferencing options are now available starting at a few hundred dollars a year: “In 2005, an HD video system could cost nearly $20,000. Today, even better quality is achieved at lower bandwidths for $1,500, and cloud-based systems for video are another option — with comparable, enterprise-class features for $30 per month for desktop users.”

Venture vice president of sales and marketing, Mark Frye, who frequently works with Venture offices in Birmingham, Baton Rouge and Memphis, estimates his use of video conferencing saves the company about $24,000 per year on travel. “If you figure there are three of us who are experiencing this type of travel reduction, the ROI on this system is less than 9 months,” he said.

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