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Talk, Talk

07 December 2007

Virtual meeting technology is becoming easier to use and is making face-to-face meetings unnecessary. Jane Fenwick talks to Tim Duffy to find out how a modern conferencing service provider can ease the business of conducting meetings

SETTING UP AN AUDIO CONFERENCE used to be a process that involved co-coordinating diaries, and ensuring members are prompted to call in using complex codes and at the right time. Then working out who pays for the call bill creates even more headaches.

Pressure from the CSR agenda, environmental policies, and crowded roads and trains is putting the need to meet ‘virtually’ at least some of the time rather that face-to-face all the time, firmly on the agenda. Furthermore, audio conferencing does not have to be a ‘cumbersome process, nor the cost and administration nightmare of the past. Specialist conference service providers, such as Meeting Zone, have taken up the challenge to provide seamless, managed conference calls on demand and at any time of the day or night.

Founded in 2002 by Tim Duffy and Steve Gandy, both veterans of the audio and video conferencing sector (Duffy with PictureTel and Gandy with BT), Meeting Zone aimed to set up a service that was user friendly, customized, efficient and integrated from end to end. Underpinning the offering is a service delivery platform that creates the virtual meeting space using about 20 operators based in Oxford who provide a 24/7 hosting service, and three data centres in the UK and one in Germany.

Starting from the need to eliminate all the ‘bad’ aspects of the earlier conferencing technologies, Duffy explained that one key problem to overcome was billing. “Billing was not co-ordinated within organisations and costs were not controlled. We created Meeting Zone to provide billing in real time, shown in a hierarchical way so that the customer can see the entire spend by department and project.”

Another key differentiator was to make the process of calling and holding the meeting simpler. Meeting Zone does not require prebooking of calls, and its customers use just one number and access code each time. This also enables the call prompts to be personalized so that callers are greeted with the host company name when they join the conference.

In the last two months, a Click to Conference service has been launched by Meeting Zone making the meeting set up even easier. Conference participants simply click on the ‘Click to Conference’ link in the conference hosts’s invitation email or calendar invite and the Meeting Zone system automatically dials out to the individual and places them in the conference. This means participants no longer have to remember the dial number and access code each time they join the conference call.

Click to Conference compliments MeetingZone’s Host Conference Control feature and is a key component of the MeetingZone’s Conference Portal that support the set of conference tools. These include services ranging from using an operator to moderate the conference including introducing the participants and managing the Q&A sessions; an operator dial out to other parties; web delivered Power Point presentations; voting; recording the meeting on wma, CD or cassette formats, and a replay service for participants who could not take part live but can listen to the meeting later.

The conference hosts can also opt to use some powerful tools to control the conference call live from his/her portal. From here the conference host can activate Participant Conference View so that all conference participants have the ability to view all other parties in the conference, request an operator, lock the conference, dial out to add participants into the conference and use the ‘conference chat’ feature.

With a flat rate charged across Europe and paying only for calls that you make, audio conferencing via Meeting Zone makes considerable financial sense. Meeting Zone recently commissioned research by Wainhouse Research into ‘Using Conferencing and Collaboration to Reach Carbon Neutrality’ which was published in August this year. An extensive piece of work into business awareness of climate change issues, and attitudes and actions in mitigation, the researchers found that on average across the range of audio conferencing services available it costs about 8p per minute per participant or £4.80 per participant per hour. This compares very favourably to the cost of a train fare or petrol in traveling to a meeting, and is significantly less than flying.

Audio conferencing is no longer a marginal pursuit. The report estimated that three billion minutes of audio conferencing will be used in the UK during 2007, that up 24 per cent on 2006.

Web conferencing – or net and data conferencing - is growing too. Web conferencing is similar to an LCD projected presentation that can be viewed on participants PCs rather than gathering in one room, and used in conjunction with audio conferencing. The report says that market prices on average range from a nominal cost when packaged with audio conferencing to up to 12p per minute when provided separately. The researchers estimate that web conferencing usage in the UK grew over 50 per cent in 2006 and a similar increase is forecast for 2007.

Video conferencing remains the expensive option for most organisations but for those requiring to have ‘eye contract’ and to see ‘body language’ in their meetings, or when participants do not know each other, it could be worth the investment in technology and facilities. Systems can cost some hundreds of £0000s but the latest technology can make the participants feel as if they are just sitting across the table from one another.

Quite apart from the arguments about saving executive time and reducing carbon emissions by not traveling to meetings, organisations are seeing the value in audio conferencing to the operation of their businesses. For example, the financial community uses the Meeting Zone managed events services for investor relations meetings including services such as providing lists of names of people who took part in the meeting, through to managing the Q&A session or the whole the event.

Audio conferencing is also seen as normal practice in the legal community with specialized event calls set up for court hearings and meetings between legal teams. Many Employment Tribunals now use the technology to conduct their business.

For large corporates, getting a message through to all or selected groups of employees can prove to be headache. The technology has applications across the company but particularly in training and where operational changes need to be conveyed quickly, and the organization assured that the managers concerned have received the message and read it.

Another topical reason for adopting this means of communication is at times of crisis in support of business continuity. In disaster situations where an organisation’s own communications have been disabled or are under stress, it is possible to send key SMS and voice messages to alert staff, or to locate them in major incidents. Such communication in an emergency can be a life saver, and certainly assist business continuity plans.

With nearly 7,000 clients using its services, Meeting Zone sees a bright future ahead in a business environment which is increasingly counting the environmental as well as the financial cost of business travel. In the UK alone, the conferencing market is estimated to be worth some $4bn, of which 80 per cent is audio conference. Meeting Zone has recently set up a data centre and host service in Germany and has plans to operate within the USA.

It prides itself on being available to anyone to use immediately. The Meeting Zone platform can process an online account application, automatic provisioning, automated sign up and activation, and fully automated electronic invoicing at any time. As a result anyone can join up at any time and instantly use the service and receive an invoice without operator intervention. It is easier than booking a train or flight on line!

Link: Meeting Zone

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