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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Seeing the Double

Photo by David Malhalab, MNS Photo/M News Service

Norris Flowers hung out with his peers at the Small Market Meetings Conference in Sioux Falls, S.D., without ever leaving his desk in Gettysburg, Pa.

By way of an iPad, FaceTime and a Segway-style transporter, Flowers, president of the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, telecommuted to the conference. On the rolling iPad, attendees could see him sitting behind his desk. The iPad sat atop a pole atop a set of wheels. “It was the thinnest I’ve looked in years,” Flowers quipped.

He guided the robot’s movement with an iPad in his office.

Flowers would roll up to meeting planners at their Marketplace booths, lowering the iPad so he could be face-to-face with them. He chatted with other convention and visitors bureau staffers from around the country as they passed by. He was even interviewed by a television reporter from Sioux Falls.

“This is the first time in travel industry history that a delegate has attended via remote presence robotics,” said Charlie Presley, a partner of the Small Market Meetings Conference (SMMC) and founder of the Group Travel Family.

Presley bought the remote presence robot from California company Double Robotics. The Double, as it is called, is the brainchild of seven Stanford dropouts. Double Robotics has already sold more than 500 of the robots at $2,000 each, Presley said.

The Wall Street Journal reported that many small to medium-size businesses, as well as business giants such as Google and Coca-Cola, have bought Doubles. A number of companies make similar devices, touting them as a way for employees to easily telecommute.

Flowers navigated his way through the Marketplace floor fairly smoothly, bumping into only one attendee by his count. “It was much easier to navigate than I thought it would be,” he said.

In an industry that thrives on interpersonal relationships, the robot will never replace face-to-face meetings, Flowers and Presley said. But it could come in handy for attendees who can’t get to a conference; for example, three meeting planners who were attending a preconference familiarization trip in Rapid City, S.D. They had planned to drive from Rapid City to Sioux Falls on Sunday for the start of the SMMC, but the two feet of snow that fell after they arrived in Rapid City made that trip impossible. Stuck in their hotel in Rapid City for three days, they made it to the SMMC a day late, after roads had reopened.

With the Double, “someone in a hotel room could have done their appointments for the Small Market Meetings Conference with an iPad,” Flowers said.