IT supports business in travel chaos

Despite the General Election campaign and the first ever televised leaders' debate in the UK, it was transport - or rather the lack of it - that dominated the headlines last week.

Flights to and from the UK, Ireland and a large swath of Europe, were suspended for more than five days as clouds of ash from the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland drifted across Europe. Millions of people were stranded. One of them, the prime minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, was pictured managing the country from New York using his iPad.

Not surprisingly, the effects of the Icelandic volcano completely overshadowed the transport policies included in the three parties' manifesto launches earlier in the week. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem transport policies, none could have foreseen or overcome the natural event which is having such a devastating effect on air transport.

The grounding of Europe and so much of a corporate mobile workforce that is, at any given time of the day, en route to and from countries on the continent, the US or Asia, was a salutary reminder of the reliance that today's business world places on travel as a means to conduct commerce and to communicate with other businesses and customers in other parts of the world.

While it might be hard to believe that a volcanic eruption in southern Iceland, 80 miles or so from the capital of Reykjavik, could cause so much disruption to worldwide business travel, a number of firms were quick to exploit the situation to emphasise the benefits technology could deliver as a means to reduce or even eliminate the need for business travel in the first place.

Technology to the rescue

One of the quickest out of the blocks was Virgin Media Business, which issued a press release extolling the virtues of remote collaboration tools such as videoconferencing within hours of the shutdown of Europe's airspace.

"Today's disruption serves as another reminder that businesses need to put contingency plans in place to deal with unforeseen events," said Alistair McKinnon, senior product manager for IP Multimedia at Virgin Business Media.

Cloud computing and unified communications provider Outsourcery also used the impact of the volcano to promote its instant messaging, presence information, voice and videoconferencing services for SMEs.

"This technology has proved vital for many SMEs as travel becomes increasingly difficult through a number of natural and weather-related events, as well as more normal commuting congestion," said Mark Seeman, product strategy and development director at Outsourcery.

While it was unlikely that either company could have succeeded in shifting the discussion on the effects of the volcano to alternative methods of communication and commerce, they had a right to promote themselves and their products when circumstances conspired to present them with the opportunity to demonstrate the potential advantages of using their technology. Especially as their technology, which allows for personal interaction without people having to be physically present, is particularly relevant to trying to replace the movement of business representatives by air.

No escape from cost of freight

The consequences for freight of last week's no fly zone were less dramatic because the bulk of it tends to come by sea and land. But a potentially more significant, if less immediately dramatic, development that could affect freight is the effect of the rising price of petrol on the costs of shipping and delivering goods. The price of a litre of petrol rose above £1.20 last week and is expected to go even higher. Some predict it could increase a further 25% by the summer.

In the current circumstances, there appears little option for distributors but to pass those increased costs on to their resellers. Andy Gass, managing director of C2000, admitted it is reviewing the situation every month. "There is likely to be some impact," he told MicroScope last week. "We have not seen it yet, but our policy is to cover freight output costs. If the cost goes up, we will have to pass them on to customers."

His was not an isolated voice. Sukh Rayat, EMEA vice-president of sales at Avnet Technology Solutions, said: "Our freight costs are going up and we clearly have to pass these on to our customers."

Alex Tatham, sales and marketing director at Westcoast, agreed it was "inevitable" that rising transportation costs would be pushed down the supply chain. "Products do not get from A to B on a bike. Any price rises will be passed on," he said.

There are some ways to try to alleviate the consequences of petrol price rises on freight costs. Joe Fagan, group product marketing manager at CMS Peripherals, suggested that distributors and resellers could consolidate shipments or change to a two- or three-day delivery time rather than next-day services. While measures such as these may help, they are conditional on customer acceptance and have an effect on the supply chain.

The Eyjafjallajoekull volcano may have grounded planes in Europe, but these types of events do not have to stop people from conducting business. Technology is available to help companies bypass this type of inconvenience. The high price of fuel, by contrast, will have a noticeable effect on businesses and a definable cost.

The stark fact remains that while technology may be able to place two or more people in a virtual environment where they can conduct meetings and business in much the same way as they could in the physical world, it cannot shift a box from one place to another.

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