Noel Edmonds: Video Meeting Company and face2face (part 1)

We speak to one of Britain's most popular broadcasters to discover why he thinks videoconferencing will change the way we work forever

With a career on radio and television which has lasted over 30 years, most people still think of Noel Edmonds as one of the country’s most popular entertainers.

But along with the public persona, he’s a successful and canny businessman who is determined his videoconferencing company will change the way we work forever. Ben Neasmith spoke to him to find out more about the benefits of this technology and his business career to date.

How did you get into videoconferencing? Was it through personal experience?

I heard about videoconferencing and obviously with my broadcasting background I was rather interested. When I was offered it, around seven years ago, it was jerky pictures and complex technology and cost £70,000 to link from here in Devon to where you are now in Kensington. So I was put off by what I saw. However, because I’ve got a TV production company, the engineers looked at the technology and it coincided with the big advances in the Polycom Viewstation and in sorting out my own requirements for a fraction of the cost I had been quoted I thought there was now an opportunity for a business.

So initially I set up VMC, a video meeting company, which has grown pretty steadily to now have 500 clients in 32 territories. We’ve done this by being very focused. Not only are we very price competitive but we train people to use the system and then work with them to ensure they continue to be used. One of the biggest problems this industry has had in its short history, is there are more videoconferencing systems gathering dust than gathering users and that’s because people have bought the technology but not worked in a smarter way. Earlier this year I took another big step by launching face2face, which now has over 200 video meeting rooms in the country. It also answers the questions about price because a lot of people have been put off the capital cost of having their own system. The most interesting development has just occurred which is pay-per-use and I think it’s going to be the biggest evolution this industry has ever seen. We’ve basically replicated the videophone model. So we’ve put all the equipment in free of charge and all the ISDN charges and quarterly rental are paid and in the UK we pay all the call charges. All that people pay us for is the hour they use the system. If they use the system for what works out as an industry average of 40 meetings a month, then it works out at less than £15. We’re starting to get some real interest.

What sets both VMC and face2face apart from others operating in your market?

I’m a big fan of Charles Dunstone and have known him for many years. I wanted the Carphone Warehouse of the business world. I wanted my company to be able to look you in the eye and say ‘What do you want to achieve with this technology?’ and for us then to install something which meets their requirements. Our industry had a history of peddling whatever was in the warehouse, which is why so many systems in the nineties just went underused. People with no IT skills and no IT interest were being forced to use quite complex systems. Now my five-year-old daughter could work our system.

Was it easy to persuade venues to install the technology?

With 9/11 and SARS I find it unbelievable that it is still difficult to sell videoconferencing but I do understand a bit more than when I started. Very few organisations actually work out accurately what meetings cost and an incredible number don’t know what their travel budgets are. If you just think the cost of going from London to Bristol is the train fare then how are you ever going to appreciate the benefits of this technology? It’s an eye-opener as to how a lot of businesses are run. We can prove to a business how much this technology can save them, we can prove they will get a return on investment and they will say ‘We’ll think about it, we might introduce it in a year’s time.’ They are pissing money out of the window and they’re still going to keep putting it off until next year. I do not have very deep pockets on this one. We are talking about a lot of systems. If I put 200 systems out there in the market place, that’s a huge investment. It costs us in the region of £25,000, so you can do the maths. That’s a big wedge of money. So it’s first come first served, and we’re monitoring it very closely.

Is breaking down the culture of the meeting a big barrier?

Too many people in British business confuse motion with work. They think that if they’re running around all over the place then they are working hard. But these days working the way your Dad did is not bright. The challenges are different and the people making money these days are those that are taking technology in a smart way and changing their work practices. It may sound very arrogant for me to be criticising other business people but it is my experience and we have the statistics to prove it. I don’t expect everybody to want videoconferencing, if they don’t then fine but if you can’t take £500 out of your business costs with this technology I think there’s something wrong with your bloody business.

Have you noticed any trends in the types of businesses which are adopting this technology?

We have a very wide range of businesses. That runs from the whole of the prison service in Scotland, fire brigades in England, local authorities and national health trusts, charities, schools, and businesses of every size. The people who get most out of it are the ones who don’t see it as technology. You don’t see a train as part of your technology budget or an air ticket as something the IT department should take care of. This is about meetings, it’s about behaviour. So smaller businesses don’t want to have to think how these systems work, they probably don’t have an IT department, but have someone internally or an IT provider who looks after their IT issues. Because this is a managed service, it will be interesting in the Spring when we look back at our client profiles and see who’s come on board.

So are we at a point where the technology has caught up with the needs of business?

ISDN now and again will let people down and IP is not perfect. But it will work reliably. I’ve only ever really known one fail in seven years. This is as good as it needs to be. In the days when picture quality was poor you couldn’t do what we’re doing which is talking over each other. In those days it was an inhibiting factor in communication, these days you should very quickly get to a conversation. Yes I would prefer to be in a room with you but that for me would be a 500-mile round journey and it would take me all day.

What reaction have you been getting from business bodies?

I just don’t get it with the CBI at all. They are meant to be promoting British business and they haven’t embraced this technology at all. They’ve got far more clout than I have and they should be encouraging the government to recognise this technology is a viable alternative to business travel. But I suspect they are nervous for upsetting the travel industry. The reality is I that this is not a competition to planes or trains, it’s just an alternative. Share price at British Airways or Network Rail is not going to go through the floor because we embrace this technology to help people perform better in business, reduce stress levels and help the environment. It’s stupid because it’s not like there’s going to be tumbleweed running down the M25 because of videoconferencing. The world doesn’t work that way.

Are there other potential applications for this technology, such as broadcast for example?

I’m looking to find one broadcast organisation at the moment to work with. Every videoconferencing meeting room is a potential broadcast studio. I think those kinds of applications are going to start quite quickly.

We saw the first use of videophone broadcasts during the Iraq War, has that helped?

Broadcasters should have been sued for calling those things videophones, because they weren’t. I know a lot of people in the market who were livid. They produced very low-grade video, non-synchronised audio, and they were green and horrible. While I admire the correspondents for standing there with bullets whizzing around them, it didn’t do anything for videoconferencing.

So looking to the future, how will videoconferencing becoming integrated in the way we work?

Undoubtedly by 2010, it will be inconceivable in this country not to have the option to see the person you’re talking to. You’ll have desktop video systems in business and the public sectors. I think we are poised for explosive growth. The mobile phone market took off when the capital cost of having a phone was removed, that’s why pay-per use is going to be vital.

Check out the second part of our exclusive interview where Noel talks about the similarites between his broadcasting and business careers and the difficulties of living down Mr. Blobby. Click here

Noel Edmonds’ businesses

Face2face – a nationwide network public access Video Meeting Rooms. Typically a one hour Video Meeting costs as little as £50

Video Meeting Company - provider of videoconferencing equipment with 500 clients in 32 countries worldwide

Piper International Design Group – automotive and motorsport design company

Unique communications group – media company encompassing corporate communications, public affairs, public relations, design, media training, crisis management, media sales, event production, sponsorship and television production.

UBC media group – AIM listed firm, which was one of the first into the independent radio production market

Unique management group – artists management agency

Undoubtedly by 2010, it will be inconceivable in this country not to have the option to see the person you’re talking to


(will not be published)