Poor Karen Pierce Gonzalez.

Not long ago, an out-of-state client of her California public relations firm needed her at a face-to-face meeting but had cut its travel budget. To save money, the client booked her on a weekend flight with multiple stopovers from an airport that wasn’t even close to her home. “I was exhausted from sitting in horrible airport chairs during the stopovers, plus the meeting was scheduled for late Saturday night and Sunday morning,” her usual time off work, Gonzalez recalls. “I don’t see how they could have gotten their money’s worth from me.”

If only Gonzalez’ client had considered a videoconference, she could have participated from the comfort of her own desk during regular office hours and the client could have saved itself the hassle and expense.

With air travel and gas prices still sky high, more small and mid-sized businesses are using videoconferencing and online meetings in place of in-person visits. In fact, 42 percent of 610 business travelers and corporate travel managers responding to a June poll by Business Traveler Magazine said they were exploring alternatives to business trips, including video- or Web conferences.

Technology finally lives up to promise

When videoconference systems debuted in the early 1990s they promised to revolutionize how companies conducted business. Things didn’t exactly work out that way. Hardware in those early systems was glitchy and transmissions traveling over too-slow computer networks resulted in choppy pictures that lagged behind audio feeds.

Thanks to high-quality graphics, high-speed Internet connections, webcams and voice over IP, videoconference systems, and Web-based online meeting services are miles ahead of where they used to be. Add to that companies looking to cut travel budgets -- and lower their carbon footprint -- and you have the perfect combination of factors pushing online meetings into widespread use.

“Videoconferencing is a whole different experience today than it was a few years ago, and it’s more affordable, which is driving it down” to smaller companies, says Brett Shockley, CEO at Spanlink Communications, a Minneapolis communications reseller that markets videoconferencing and other communications networks to small and mid-sized businesses.

While some high-end videoconferencing systems run well into six figures, services exist for just about any budget. At the lowest end are services such as DimDim, a free, open-source, Web-based online meeting tool that lets up to 20 people share PowerPoint presentations, files and video without having to download software onto their desktop. Meatier versions of DimDim’s software cost $99 a year for online meetings of up to 100 people and $1,999 a year for up to 1,000 people.

Even mid-sized companies are remodeling conference rooms to include expensive telepresence systems featuring wrap-around-style screens and HD-quality video from companies such Cisco and HP to avoid flying salespeople and managers to face-to-face meetings, says Spanlink’s Shockley. Spanlink uses telepresence rooms for its own business, to hold meetings with far-flung employees and make presentations to new customers. “I fly two or three days a week but I can’t be on the East Coast, West Coast, Florida and Canada in the same week,” Shockley says. Using videoconferencing “I can leverage my time and be closer to the customer.” Not to mention cutting his travel costs.

Road warriors and companies that don’t want to take on the burden of buying videoconferencing equipment themselves can rent videoconferencing rooms by the hour at FedEx Office, formerly known as FedEx Kinko’s. The shipping and business services company has videoconferencing systems in 122 locations around the country, starting at $225 an hour.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez, the California public relations agency owner, is hoping her customers start using videoconferencing soon. “While it isn’t warm and fuzzy, it still serves a great purpose,” she says.

SIDEBAR: Videoconference and Online Meeting Vendors

Here are some additional videoconference and online meeting services suited to small businesses:

  • Adobe Connect Pro -- The Meetings module included in this recently upgraded Web conference and e-learning lets a user customize the look of their online meeting space, among other features. Connect Pro also has modules for presentations, training and events.
  • GoToMeeting.com -- Citrix’s videoconference service for small businesses was recently upgraded to include free VoIP and audio conferencing for PCs and Macs.
  • IBM Lotus -- The venerable communications and productivity program includes features people can use to simultaneously send instant messages, share documents and launch Web confernces.
  • Microsoft Live Meeting -- The Microsoft service lets people schedule, start or join audio or video online meetings from Outlook.
  • WebEx -- Cisco purchased this online meeting pioneer in May 2007 and six months later introduced a version of the service for sole proprietors called MeetMeNow that’s $49 a month and includes personal video conferencing and Web meetings that can be launched from Microsoft Office programs.