By Julia M. Johnson
Gone are the days when meeting planners had to pick one of a few available software packages, and hope that it met most of their requirements.
Today, with the help of the Internet, software providers say their industry is leaning toward customization. They say meeting planners shouldn’t be afraid to ask a supplier to design a Web-based program that will specifically address their special subsets of needs.
There are still software programs available that are specific to one segment of meeting workflow, such as registration desk operations, databases, request-for-proposal systems or customer relations management. But there are others that multi-task via the Web so planners and their supplier partners don’t have to install multiple programs in order to get multiple features, says Steve Mackenzie, vice president of global sales and marketing for O’Fallon, Mo.-based Ungerboeck Systems International.
Mackenzie says his company’s Event Business Management System (EBMS) is a Web-based program that combines all meeting planning and recordkeeping functions under one umbrella. Capabilities include space booking, budgeting, service and work orders, staff scheduling, procurement, speaker management, housing, registration, accounting, financial analysis, audience feedback management, document management and other key tasks. Mackenzie says that because the system is Web-based, it can be linked to multiple parties in real time, including planners, venues and other suppliers.
And there’s never a need to perform more than one set of data entry, which cuts down on information mistakes. “Productivity is a big thing for meeting planners,” Mackenzie says. “This system eliminates a lot of human error. There’s no transposing of figures, no working off two separate sets of data, no getting names and numbers wrong in translation.”
According to Mackenzie, planners using Ungerboeck’s system first need to come armed with information such as the size of the rooms being used for an event and the number of people attending. Working online with employees at a meeting venue, they can map out schedules and floor plans for a conference and quickly decide where and when catering and audio-visual setups need to be arranged, for example.
Florence May, president of Simply Hospitality, an Indianapolis-based event software company, agrees that Web-based technology is the way successful events will be managed in the long term. Her company offers TRS (The Registration System), a program that allows meeting planners to streamline Web registration and electronic communication for meetings, conferences, volunteer activities, ticketed events and more. Her firm also offers online solutions for accommodations, attendee surveys and other needs.
“Software solutions are so frequently built to try and give you a template for how you’ll handle registration,” May says. “But the challenge is, every event is different. Each has its own design requirements, activities and participant profile information that needs to be collected. You want a program that’s very flexible in design.”
Both Mackenzie and May say their companies make regular upgrades to their online software systems. Because the programs are Web-based, the updates are automatic and seamless, so clients don’t have to worry about receiving and loading software upgrades themselves.
May says the latest updates to her company’s program include richer e-mail capabilities that allow users to manage the status of their e-mail addresses and communications. “You can see if and when an e-mail was opened, or if it bounced,” she says. “That’s very helpful in keeping up the accuracy of your e-mail database.” The company’s program also now offers the capability to download attendees’ registration data and conference schedule information directly to a PDA, May says.
Mackenzie says his company is planning to include new social networking functions in its event management platform. “There are options like handheld electronic devices that can carry a list of all your event’s attendees, and you can plug in the names of people you’d like to meet and when. When you’re on the trade-show floor or at a social function, the device will vibrate to tell you when you’re within five yards of a person you selected. Her picture will pop up, and you can go and meet her.”
According to May, planners also are looking for automatic electronic confirmation of financial transactions such as vendor and registration payments, so software companies are working to bring those to the table as well. Many planners are saying they’d like to receive event communications by text message to their cell phones and PDAs, so companies like hers are devising ways to make that work.
“So many groups face the challenge of using multiple software platforms, then trying to get them to talk to each other,” May says. “Our system has an open format where you can connect automatically to housing, surveys, credentialing systems and more. It really creates the opportunity for seamless use, and reduces the number of administrative hours people spend on these tasks.”
One important effort coming into play here is APEX, or the Accepted Practices Exchange initiative of the Convention Industry Council, according to Mackenzie. “It’s driving standardization of terms and technology in event planning,” he says. “It’s designed to make sure hotels, venues, planners and technology companies are using the same terminology so that when they share data in a third-party system like ours, it’s much easier to be on the same page. We are developing our software with those standards in place.”
All these Web-based, paper-saving capabilities can’t help but appeal to the environmental consciousness of the meeting planner as well. Attendees who can download a whole trade-show guide or conference schedule to their phones or PDAs don’t have to carry printed meeting guides, and that cuts down significantly on paper use and printing costs. And according to Mackenzie, some newer event venues are even linking planning software to their building operations systems. In this way, lighting, heating and cooling can be automatically regulated before, during and after scheduled meeting sessions as a way of saving energy.
Web-based meeting technology may have yet another new role to play as fuel prices and travel costs climb, according to Mackenzie. “Some people are wondering if individuals are going to attend fewer events because it’s getting more expensive to travel, and easier to meet remotely,” he says. His company doesn’t see this as a big issue threatening the meetings industry right now; instead, he thinks technology will be used to spur greater attendance.
“Soon there will be more ways you can extend the audience of an event by having people ‘attend’ online,” Mackenzie says. “If they can’t make the actual meeting, they may be able to pay a fee and access streaming video of the entire event content.” They also will be able to interact with speakers by submitting real-time questions and comments, which can be received and processed by a moderator at the event.
In this way, planners effectively broaden the scope of who can benefit from their meetings, Mackenzie says.
“The online programs we have now can help us get away from proprietary systems, where you have to have a certain keypad or certain hardware in order to participate,” he says. “Anyone who has a PDA and the Internet can interact directly.”
At the end of the day, planners really care about saving time and money, according to May. “They want to save printing and mailing costs, and they want to reduce the number of e-mails and phone calls they have to make each year. These systems can help them get it done.
“My recommendation to planners is, sit down with your technology provider and say, ‘Here are the features I have to have in a system, and here is where I’m hitting time speed bumps,’” May says. “An effectively tailored, Web-based system decreases administrative work and increases your capacity to make money.” MM&E
(Julia M. Johnson is the Assistant Editor from St. Louis, Mo.)