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Not Traveling Is Working for Now, But Can Virtual Business Sustain Test of Time?

While questions remain about when life in general will return to normal after nearly a year of pandemic, some of the more pressing questions surround the sustainability of businesses if they continue to operate in a virtual vacuum.

Certainly, for the time being, both small and large businesses in Huntsville are adjusting well to the circumstances. Telework and working from home, Zoom conferences and virtual events have made their way into the mainstream, and everyday life from online learning to groundbreakings, tradeshows, and award ceremonies are relying on virtual technology to carry them through. 

While some people, particularly in the educational field, are reporting “Zoom fatigue”, others are already seeing it as an opportunity to get creative, scale back office space, and streamline procedures and operations well into the future if not permanently.

But how sustainable is it really?

Air travel at Huntsville International Airport is ordinarily 70 percent business and 30 percent leisure. Currently combined, HSV is operating at about 30 percent of what it was this time in 2019. 

According to Jana Kuner, airport public relations and customer service manager, air travel is slowly improving, but business travel will be the real indicator for how long it will take to get back to normal, and when it does – assuming it will eventually, just how much will business have changed?

“Do people prefer Zoom to in-person meetings and are the savings in travel costs justifiable when compared to face-to-face meetings to ‘close a deal’ or meeting new people to build relationships?” she asks. “These are questions businesses everywhere are asking and the airport is interested in their perspective.”

Bevilacqua Research Corp. CEO Larry Burger said employees are losing, and missing, the personal connection with people.

“Those little conversations you have waiting for a meeting to start, or at the end of the meeting when you extend the conversation beyond the meeting,” he said. “You lose that sense of belonging, that feel of family in an organization when you haven’t seen someone in a month or so who works within your company.

“I think there are a lot of general update meetings for established customers that may continue to be virtual after everything returns to normal,” said Robert Conger, senior vice president of Technology and Strategy at Adtran. “However, when it comes to competing for new business and establishing key relationships, companies will still want to be in-person once they are able to safely do so.

“I do think web meetings and remote work will continue to play a much larger role in business than they did prior to this year, but each company will have to make their own decisions about when they may return to normal based on the type of work and roles within each company.”

For example, Conger said it will depend on the type of work a company is doing, the individual roles within those companies, and the experience level of the employees as to how effective remote working will be in the long run.

“For a lot of jobs like software development, remote work is fairly efficient and effective as long as the employees have a good environment at home to limit distractions. However, for employees that are new to a company or are earlier in their careers, there is a lot of value in those face-to-face work environments where you can collaborate more frequently and easily.”

Kuner uses the AUSA 2020 Annual Meeting going virtual this year as an example of a travel-related event that had a big impact on HSV because so many people in Huntsville travel to that conference by air. 

“Some things just can’t be done in the same way virtually,” she said. “While a simple meeting or conference call can accomplish some tasks, it can’t replace the in-person networking, relationship building, and deal making that in person accomplishes.”

Burger agrees.

“Virtual conferences are much less effective because you don’t get that synergy of a face-to-face,” he said. “We just had a live event in Huntsville for the Redstone Small Business Contracting Conference & Expo and we got more than a dozen leads that were unexpected because we were there. We could have discussions face-to-face with people wandering around the exhibit hall. None of it would have occurred virtually.

“We get almost nothing from a virtual event. We are still following up with several opportunities to work together with companies we met at the Redstone event. That’s the value of the conference … being in person, able to combine everybody’s good ideas to come up with a much better solution.”

How about the costs incurred in by having to have IT teams and creative departments develop virtual “booths”, Kuner said. Do other businesses stop by those booths like they do when the conference is in person?

“We hosted our first virtual customer summit a couple of months ago,” said Congers. “We had to invest in a platform that nearly cost as much as what it would have cost to host customers on site, at least for the first use. With that said, we can continue to use the platform at a lesser expense moving forward, so it will reduce our cost over time. 

“In the case of the virtual customer meeting with Adtran as the host, it was a great success in terms of how many customers we were able to reach versus on-site but you certainly lose some of the focused customer attention and relationship-building opportunities in a virtual environment. 

“As for the larger virtual conferences with booths, these are much less effective than the typical in-person conferences.”

But Burger said in-person meetings hold an advantage over online meetings.

“We attended another live event where we rolled out a new product and more than 10 percent of the people we talked to were very interested in following up or purchasing, whereas we can’t get any traction with just online stuff,” said Burger. “For a new product, if you let me explain it to people and talk to them about it, they tend so say, ‘Oh, okay, that makes sense’ or ‘That’s a good idea’.”

Burger said Bevilacqua has made allowances for some of his employees so they can still travel.

“We’re doing very limited travel, but we have several folks who are traveling by automobile,” he said. “One of our older employees who is high risk, bought a recreational vehicle so he and his wife can travel together. Of course, what used to be a half-day trip takes them two or three days, but they feel safer and they don’t have to stop at restaurants along the way.”

Roger Rhodes, Business Development director at Qualis, said nothing replaces the human face-to-face interaction for building relationships and making deals but he believes virtual meetings are here to stay.

“We completely cut out travel since May,” said Rhodes. “I think virtual meetings will continue to play a major role in business for the foreseeable future, but companies will reassess travel costs versus the benefits in the near future but the way of marketing and business travel has definitely changed. We will look to others to determine that balance of travel for the new norm.” 

Congers agrees.

“Virtual meetings will continue to be a vital component in day-to-day engagements where maybe face-to-face meetings are not as critical or as a complement to less-frequent on-site meetings,” he said. “However, when it comes to relationship-building and pursuing new customer opportunities, each vendor will want to have an edge of their competition and being in front of the customer more often is one way to achieve that.”

Kuner said it is important for people to know HSV is clean and safe and they have all of the appropriate procedures in place to keep people safe. 

“We encourage our region to get back to the sky for business and leisure,” she said. “Our airport is so heavy with business travel, if Huntsville gets back to traveling sooner, it could positively impact the airport since the airlines will be making decisions for adding back flights and routes based on demand. It could give them an opportunity to re-evaluate what worked before the pandemic, and where needs are for travel after.

“If we show that we are back to the sky and we need the service, then chances are that they will provide it. This could be an opportunity for us to shake things up.”