GRAND RAPIDS — As he works to get his first satellite office off the ground, C/D/H President Paul Hillman splits his time between Southfield and his Grand Rapids corporate headquarters. On Monday and Friday, he calls Grand Rapids home — which, literally, it is — while Tuesday through Thursday he lives on the opposite side of the state.
But when clients call the Grand Rapids office, they ring directly through to Hillman, whether his desk is in Grand Rapids, Southfield or somewhere in between. The technology consulting firm’s Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) network routes Hillman’s calls directly to his laptop (commonly called a “soft phone”), at whichever office or customer location he may be.
Hillman is a prime example of how technology is changing how (and where) people do business. He can effectively do most tasks from his corporate headquarters or from the other side of the country.
“I’ve got a guy working in Europe right now,” Hillman said. “And it’s no different than if he were working in Detroit.”
And the same technology that has enabled many West Michigan employees to work from home — whether in Holland the city or Holland the country — is providing businesses an opportunity to keep workers in the office.
“Travel is not particularly efficient,” Hillman said. “We know it’s costly, and the time I’m spending either in an airplane or car is not particularly useful time. Most of us don’t do our best work behind the steering wheel.”
This is emerging in a number of forms.
Michael Hansen, IT manager of Grand Rapids manufacturer Display Pack, said that technology has allowed the company to place its sales force in remote locations.
“It never seemed to work out before,” he explained. “Now we’re able to keep people in other locations in touch with our home office. We hire people in the cities we want to be in. … Now the traveling salesperson travels from home.”
Jenny Fanning, president of technology firm CPR, noted that a great deal of its services are now conducted via a remote connection.
“Unless you physically need to touch something — which we only need to do on the hardware side of the business — you really don’t need to be there,” she said.
As for out-of-region travel, Fanning believes there will be a dramatic effect from the growing use of the “Webinar” (an interactive seminar over the World Wide Web).
That’s bad news for convention bureaus, as many businesspeople are finding that videoconferencing products like Microsoft Live Meeting and WebEx provide equal value to an in-person seminar or meeting.
“I went down to an HP meeting last week, and except for the last hour of peer interaction, there was nothing I couldn’t have had on the Webinar,” Fanning said.
While there is no measure of how these emerging technologies and newfound practices are impacting business travel, some evidence can be found in the decreasing number of short-haul trips, which traditionally have a much larger percentage of business travelers.
Comparing the second quarters of 2000 and 2005, there are roughly 40 percent fewer trips from Kent County’s Gerald R. Ford International Airport to the major metropolitan areas within five hours drive of West Michigan, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (see chart).
Bruce Schedlbauer, the airport’s marketing and communications manager, believes this may not represent fewer trips, but rather a larger number of trips by car; the change could be the result of lengthy and inconvenient security procedures in the wake of 9/11.
As a whole, business travel is as healthy as pre-9/11 levels, he said.
Brett Elzinga, vice president of client management for TQ3 Navigant, noted that there was a large increase in the use of the travel agency’s videoconferencing service in the year after 9/11, but that it has continuously decreased since.
“Technology has increased people’s ability to gather information and communicate,” he said. “But our customers have found that you cannot replace the face-to-face meeting.”
“There will always — and I’m pretty comfortable saying always — be a need for face-to-face interaction,” added Schedlbauer.
Jeff Meyers, executive director of the Van Andel Global Trade Center at Grand Valley State University, believes that technology may actually be opening up more travel, but to different places.
“Any reduction is offset by how technology has opened up the business world,” he said.
For instance, in Tom Friedman’s watershed book on globalization, “The World Is Flat,” the first chapter opens with a videoconferencing demonstration in India. The same technology that allows Hillman to run his Grand Rapids office from Southfield is allowing West Michigan firms to outsource work to Mexico, India or China — and with that, entirely new markets for business travel.
Puddle Jumps Decrease
For a myriad of reasons, air travel between West Michigan and nearby metropolitan areas has significantly decreased. Below are daily passengers from Gerald R. Ford International Airport to major metropolitan final destinations within five hours drive of Grand Rapids in the second quarters of 2000 and 2005.
(Midway and O’Hare)
|Total of all daily travel|
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Gerald R. Ford International Airport.