Integration between immersive remote conferencing systems and travel providers was popular several years ago. Marriott and Starwood installed some telepresence rooms. Sabre explored and its GetThere unit built booking systems for conference facilities. American Express Global Business Travel and Carlson Wagonlit Travel partnered with a Cisco reseller.

It all fizzled.

Last month, BCD Travel announced its Advito consultancy and Cisco had agreed to collaborate on collaboration. A lot has changed since the turn of the decade. “It doesn’t take telepresence-level investment anymore to drive effective collaboration,” said Advito managing director and BCD Travel senior vice president April Bridgeman.

The high-end technology is cheaper and better than in the past. The cloud facilitates interoperability between system types and devices. People are more accustomed thanks to widespread webcams and video calling via Facetime, Hangouts and Skype. More workers are remote.

Cisco Systems business development manager Sam Chon said some of the earlier initiatives were “well-directed” but ahead of their time and too expensive.

Now, Advito and Cisco will work together to enhance mutual clients’ use of the technology. They’ll also help create travel avoidance strategies and assess the ROI of collaboration options. Bridgeman said the idea is to make “staying home” successful, partly by identifying the right kind of travel to replace. Decision trees could help travelers choose whether to stay or go and direct them to either a virtual tech or travel booking system.

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“Virtual conferencing does save a lot of money but I haven’t seen a lot of good analytics on that,” said GoldSpring Consulting’s Kevin Iwamoto. “To me that’s the real opportunity — hiring a third party like a TMC partner to come in and provide those analytics as part of their scope of services.”

Advito also wants to help clients adopt organizational inventory management systems. These could come from Yarooms or other scheduling software firms. “It’s easier to stay if it’s super easy to book those assets,” said Bridgeman. “A lot of companies still make it difficult.”

Another step that companies have explored but never quite nailed is bringing decisions on video versus travel to the point of sale. Bridgeman said that following a 2014 partnership announcement, recent integration by Concur and RouteRank could grow this more dynamic approach.

That was part of the plan for the Sabre GetThere Collaboration Suite. According to Harman International senior director for global corporate travel Sally Abella, GetThere discontinued the program. Harman had been using GetThere’s capability to book conference rooms as well as travel. Now, employees book rooms in Microsoft Outlook. When logged in to GetThere, they see messaging promoting videoconferencing as an option.

Some companies program their booking tools to prompt travelers about whether they have considered remote conferencing. Cisco itself drastically reduced travel costs from internal meetings largely with an awareness campaign. Employees use Outlook to book the facilities, and decisions are in the travelers’ hands.

“By the time I go to the booking tool, I have made the decision to travel,” said Cisco’s Chon, himself a frequent traveler. “We’re trying to get ahead of that curve and make it apparent to the traveler — before that decision to travel — that there’s a different way to organize the collaboration session. We’re trying to give them a moment of pause. If you look at the overall number of trips, it’s clear some are not worth the money.”

Advito also is hoping to involve more corporate travel professionals in their firms’ virtual conferencing efforts. According to an October 2015 Advito survey of 442 travel managers, three-quarters work at companies that deploy videoconferencing. One-quarter use immersive systems like telepresence. However, the survey found 64 percent of travel professionals had little to no influence on virtual collaboration.

Traveling And Not Traveling … Hand In Hand?

Point-of-sale integration between virtual and travel options may not be required for a travel avoidance program, but its absence helps keep TMCs on the sidelines. A big reason for the earlier flameout in collaboration is the conflict between traveling and not. It’s one thing to accept that fears of tech replacing business travel were overblown. It’s another to promote cannibalization.

Former TMC manager and association head Paul Tilstone, now a consultant with Festive Road, experimented with telepresence in its early days.

“The role of the TMC in working with videoconferencing has remained at [a] strategic level, where a TMC’s consulting division can analyze travel type, risk and any other influencing factors and make recommendations for greater VC investment,” according to Tilstone. “Strategic thinking about the part travel plays in facilitating meetings hasn’t taken root in any scale and the ability to compare productivity/cost saving metrics for videoconferencing use against travel are just not available at the point of booking — something which would really bring the two together.”

Tilstone called it “a little disappointing” that other companies have not adopted the approach taken by Ikea, in which “the reason for the meeting determines the meeting methodology, and only once that is complete is the need for travel determined.”

Accenture, EY and many other companies have pushed virtual conferencing, both for cost savings and carbon management. In some cases, they’re doing so without the enthusiastic support of their TMCs. EY global head of travel, events and meetings Karen Hutchings late last year told Business Travel News that a TMC had said it would not support telepresence because it generates no money. Hutchings could not be reached on short notice for an update.

According to Tilstone, “The TMC business model somewhat gets in the way of any further move towards this utopia as any move away from travel transactions tends of course to reduce income to the TMC. If greater incentives were in place to reward the TMC at the point of sale or at a strategic level to move towards VC then it would provide a more interesting opportunity, but this requires the TMC to move more headlong into the consultative space rather than operational processing.”

Some discussions about revenue models have contemplated TMCs making money based on savings achieved for clients, though that can be difficult to calculate.

While Advito’s advisory role on virtual conferencing strategy may be clear, Bridgeman had to resort to the hypothetical when considering how BCD Travel could profit. She said she could imagine the TMC charging transaction or subscription fees to help travelers make the “stay or go” decision at the point of sale. Or the company could become a reseller of remote conferencing solutions.

“This is long-term,” she said. “It’s not that we’re looking to do something like that next year.”

Additional info: Officials with American Express Global Business Travel, Carlson Wagonlit Travel and Sabre could not be reached for comment. Representatives at the three Marriott and Starwood properties to first install telepresence tech several years ago all said the systems had been removed.