As I write this column, I am sitting on a park bench outside the Westin Hotel in Savannah Harbor, GA. I have seen several freighters steam past me, and a few tugboats. Further down I see a cruise ship docked near downtown Savannah. Business as usual, travel as usual, life goes on.

Not quite.

Many people — including myself — will be making fewer trips this year, thanks to the slow economy and Sept. 11. I expect that. It makes more fiscal sense to conduct business via the telephone, e-mails, and faxes.

This philosophy shouldn’t come as any surprise to people who own or manage a business. Tough economic times necessitate tough budget decisions — like the aforementioned travel schedule.

News’ editor-in-chief Mark Skaer wrote in his October 15 column about contractor group ISL, which opted to conduct an online member conference in order to save travel costs and alleviate travel fears. This “virtual” meeting may be a precursor to similar meetings as traditional face-to-face meetings become less popular to stage and attend.

There will never be a replacement for face-to-face meetings. In fact, the meeting this day in Savannah was for York distributors. Doug Widenmann, marketing manager for York’s Luxaire division, said he polled distributors to see if they thought the meeting should be cancelled. He got a resounding “No!”

But despite this example, meetings similar to this may soon go the way of the dinosaur in today’s business world — doomed to extinction by the extraordinary circumstances in the world today. In their place, the “virtue of virtuality” will continue to blossom. The love-hate relationship with “anything Web-related” will give way to the necessity of Internet conferencing and virtual meetings.

Maybe there is still hope for e-business!

Plotting a Course

The convenience of talking to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others in the safety of one’s own building or home can be appealing, if only because it can do away with the costs and inconveniences of travel. But what about measures beyond travel? After all, many contractors rarely take the time to travel to meetings or conventions. This measure only deals with a solution to the problems of travel, but there are other problems to cope with.

Have you sat down with your partners or management team and plotted out your course through the economic flotsam and jetsam?

Will a 10% cut in one department budget necessitate a similar cut in other departments? Will there be a moratorium on travel unless it is absolutely necessary? Will there be a cut in advertising/marketing budgets? (I hope not. Marketing experts say — and I agree — that this is the last area that should feel the budget knife.)

Will companies exert more control over company vehicles? Will inventories be cut back? Will overtime be eliminated in the midst of a more diluted service/installation schedule?

These are all questions that may need to be addressed in the coming days or weeks. I’d rather not add months to that list, because we could be coming out of our “slump” (if indeed we are in one) by then.

I’d like to take the optimistic view on our current state of affairs, although I might be in the minority. I’d like to see businesses continue to grow. I’d like to resume a normal travel schedule because I prefer meeting people face-to-face, and I feel the personal touch is lacking a bit right now.

Yes, these are extraordinary times requiring extraordinary measures. And in the coming issues, The News intends to offer as much guidance as we can to keep you moving in the right direction.

Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 734-542-6214; 734-542-6215 (fax); (e-mail).

Pulication date: 11/05/2001