Going the Distance

It was only at the beginning of this year that Tony Blair made business presentation history by taking part in what was billed as the first non-political satellite broadcast from No 10 Downing Street.

The Prime Minister’s home played host to a three-way link with Ford Motor Company’s world headquarters in Michigan and its Halewood plant in Merseyside. Thirty minutes of our leader’s message was bounced around two continents at an estimated cost of 30,000.

This was all made possible through Ford’s internal communication network, FCN, which also uses satellite links supplied by BT Global Satellite Services (BT GSS).

According to Richard Aspinall, head of BT GSS: “Ford broadcasts over business TV a satellite-based network supplied by BT GSS and regularly uses the network to transmit news as it arises.”

A recent 18-site meeting held by pharmaceutical company Merck Sharpe Dohme managed to involve a potential audience of 2,500 people. This educational event, focusing on new treatment for asthma, comprised a satellite link from London followed by simultaneous individual break-out sessions at each location. Using groupware response company IML’s handsets, participants were able to key in their responses which were subsequently collated by the IML computer and shown on screen.

As the Blair broadcast and the Merck Sharpe Dohme event admirably demonstrate, the technology to carry out multi-site business presentations has come on at a staggering rate over the past decade, spurred on by the arrival of ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) and, from this, video-conferencing.

As communications technology has become more sophisticated, so the need for multi-site business presentations has become more apparent. Business globalisation has seen the rise of the international corporation. Geography, time considerations, management styles and travel costs have meant that marketing departments have had to reassess the validity of face-to-face presentations.

If Francios Mazoudier, director of marketing for RealNetworks, was to have his way, we would all be using the Internet. We would all simply stay at our desks and wait for the chief executive’s message, words and picture to be Webcast across the ether as an e-mail and played out on our computer screens – as and when the mood took us.

RealNetworks’ system, RealPresenter Plug-in, is designed for use with Microsoft PowerPoint 9, and allows users to stream full-screen narrated PowerPoint presentations over the Internet or corporate intranet, which, in turn, can be viewed by the receiver on Windows, Macintosh and Unix RealPlayer 5.0.

To some this may seem a little like big brother coming at you through the PC screen, but as Mazoudier says in its defence: “Many people working in banks and finance houses would love to hear the voice of the chairman. This method allows better communications at a more personal level. Employees can hear and see the top guy presenting real issues to them. This has to have a great effect on morale.”

Mazoudier adds that, at 40, RealPresenter is a considerably cheaper alternative to flying executives round the world and using up their valuable time presenting to all and sundry. “More importantly you present to your team when you really want to and they don’t have to wake up at four in the morning in Japan to catch your message.”

However, those who find doing anything more on the Net than logging into their favourite football team’s Website a serious challenge, may well be comforted by other industry observations.

Despite the fact that Webcasting and satellite broadcasting appear to be at the cutting edge of multi-site broadcasting, June Dawson, managing director of marketing communications consultancy the Words Group, maintains that the tried-and-tested method of video-conferencing is far from dead.

“Video-conferencing is incredibly effective as it provides a real time experience. It is much nicer to see the colour of someone’s eyes instead of listening to a cold telephone call.” What’s more, Dawson adds, the vast majority of people involved with multi-site events are still quite happy to use it.

Dawson admits Webcasting is an emerging area but believes that clients are still cautious. “I know one very large financial organisation which has the capability to Webcast but has never used it. Webcasting can do what video-conferencing does but, as yet, video-conferencing is a much more proven solution.”

Conference and events company Cataclysm’s director, Christophe Stourton, had a similar experience to Dawson with one of his clients. “We put in a proposal two months ago to an IT client who needed internal conference facilities and didn’t want the costs of flying around or satellite. We suggested that the solution could be a Webcast on intranet. Despite the fact that they had the infrastructure, they were too frightened to carry it out.”

For Najam Kidwai, head of digital services for Crown Business Communication, the reality of Web-casting is that it is a technology in development and its weakness is simply a lack of available infrastructures.

“Our clients are evaluating Web-casting and checking how to use it, but the majority of them are still using video-conferencing for their multi-site conference needs. After all, it is important to remember that it is the message that you are trying to convey that is important – and then you work up the technology around that,” says Kidwai.

This is a view shared by Dawson. “The best solution is not necessarily the latest solution. The secret is that you have to use a system that you feel comfortable with.”

But if the experience of delegates and organisers at the Wembley Conference Centre is anything to go by, it is going to be quite a while before video-conferencing itself becomes a byword in multi-site conferencing. “We still see that a lot of the people who use our facilities still prefer face-to-face contact,” says Steven Lee, assistant technical manager in charge of theatre.

The majority of the conference function rooms, exhibition and conference areas at Wembley Conference & Exhibition centre are equipped with ISDN lines, providing the basic facility for video and satellite link-up. And, indeed, the use of this technology is becoming more popular – particularly in the corporate market.

Wembley has been the site of a number of international satellite link-ups. But it is recognised that the relatively high cost of using satellite and video-conferencing equipment means that, for many companies, it is not an affordable option.

“It is still quite complicated to use and the bottom line costs can work out at about 20,000. You also have to remember the additional costs for the people at the other end of the video-conferencing link who have to duplicate the system,” states Lee.

Not only do you have to remember to use the right technology to suit your particular message and needs but it is also important for all involved to be able to operate it efficiently and professionally. As Peter Rand, chairman of The Peter Rand Group advises, it is advisable not to get too carried away with what he calls “technical wizardry”.

“So many multi-site events can be destroyed by people being unfamiliar with what they are using. The people who put the system together understand how to use it, but that may not be the case for the speakers who have to stand and deliver the messages.”

When Microsoft’s Bill Gates came to Cambridge recently to do a presentation at St John’s College, a humble video link was set up to link the college to the Moller Centre which allowed another 200 people to soak up his words on a big screen on a separate site. “It was all done at very short notice,” recalls the Moller Centre’s co-ordinator Jenny Dibsdall, “and it was all very cost effective.”

Dibsdall continues: “We do not have a great demand for multi-site facilities but it is growing.” And the way to provide this type of service in her experience has been through video-conferencing. “A few of our clients know about Webcasting, but we suspect very few really want to use it. After all, the Internet is still a subject they have to tackle – let alone anything else.”

So here’s the conundrum. Demand for multi-site presentations may be there and the technology in place to carry out the job. But inevitably, will the talking head of the chief executive on the computer or the chairman on the television screen really replace the same chaps sounding off in person in the conference hall just yet? Are multi-site conferences what people really want and need – or simply another way for the accounts department to cut costs?

Stourton provides an interesting case history. One of his clients used to carry out satellite broadcasts to put out information to its salesforce. Those involved ended up sitting in front of a TV screen for hours at a time and the exercise was simply not cost effective. The sales team got bored with the broadcasts, and the company decided to change tack and went for a less technologically driven solution – the roadshow. With real people.

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