Over the past decade, step by step and tool by tool, technology has come to dominate the meeting industry. Not only is there now “an app for that” for every conceivable meeting-related function, but tech providers face relentless competition almost daily from new entries into the market that claim to be better, faster or cheaper at performing a particular function.
And on balance, no one would deny that is a good thing.
At the same time, however, there are quite a few planners — especially those who have been in the industry for decades and are not particularly tech savvy — that find the obvious reality overwhelming and find themselves in this tech conundrum.
“How do you know what products you should actually take a look at? That’s the real challenge. Also… the newest is not always the best.”
— Cori Dossett, CMP, CEM
“In our personal lives, as well as our professional lives, all of us are just bombarded by technology,” says Cori Dossett, CMP, CEM, president of Dallas-based meeting planning firm Conferences Designed. “As meeting planners, we constantly get pitches for new products. So how do you know what products you should actually take a look at? That’s the real challenge, I think, because we are so busy with the events we do. So we have to be careful in terms of how we use our time. And for many of us, there is just not enough time in the day to keep up with all the new technology that’s out there. And the other thing I always keep in mind is that the newest is not always the best.”
Lauren Cramer, owner/principal of planning firm Turn-Key Events in North Andover, Massachusetts, says she can “completely relate” to the increasing demands the use of technology make on her time and the time of all planners.
“And it’s especially true of me as an independent planner, because my clients are looking to me to have information on what is the best app for a particular thing,” Cramer says. “Like so many planners, even inside their companies, I’m expected to know who the players are and what they do. And sometimes it almost feels like it’s impossible to be able to stay up on all that. I do think a lot of the technology vendors do a good job with things like webinars to teach us about their products. But what I don’t like is the sales pitch they give you. I just want to learn what a tool does so I can know whether it’s something I should recommend to my clients.”
For Cramer, the ubiquitous role of technology in every aspect of the meeting industry has become overwhelming in two ways that are distinctly related. “One is the question of what I should turn to” for a particular function, she says. “And the other is how I use it properly.”
And the actual use of a technology is not what she finds most daunting, she says. “That’s not what I feel challenged or overwhelmed by. The issue for me is the incredible number of choices that are out there now and how you keep up with them, or how you know which one is right for your event. That’s what I find overwhelming. I wish I could pay more attention to it. But for me and for most meeting planners, it’s just a matter of time management. And unfortunately, most meeting planners don’t have enough time to become experts on all the technology that’s available.”
One of the supreme ironies of the current climate is that so many veteran planners have stuck with a tried-and-true way of doing things that flies in the face of innovation — spreadsheets.
Dossett is among those who still use simple Excel spreadsheets rather than invest the time required to learn and then master the latest technology platform. “I definitely fall into that group,” Dossett says. “And I really don’t see any reason to change my mind.” She uses spreadsheets for three simple reasons: They’re free. They’re easy to use. And they work.
Furthermore, she says, she has not encountered a specific planning need that cannot be met by her long-standing and comfortable use of spreadsheets. And from what she hears anecdotally, including at meeting industry events, a surprising number of experienced planners agree with that assessment — while tech-savvy, young planners just beginning their careers embrace the trendiest new technology with genuine enthusiasm.
For planners such as Dossett, her more tech savvy peers might ask an obvious question: Why not take the time to master technology?
She has a clear response to the query.
“To me, of the thousands of products out there, the few — and I stress the few — I might be interested in don’t actually serve my needs,” she says. “For example, you either have to buy a pre-set package that doesn’t service all of your individual needs, or you get something free that is either low-end or the ‘free’ part turns out to be a way to get you to upgrade to a paid service.” So based on those two essential perceptions, she remains resistant to the idea that technology is the holy grail of the meeting industry it is often made out to be by providers.
A further complication for her, as an independent planner, is the need for seamless integration into a client’s technology platform. “For the customization you need for a particular meeting, you generally need to get buy-in from the company’s information technology (IT) department — which could be a challenge because, among other things, it costs money,” she says. And with meeting budgets remaining tight and resources stretched thin, that factor just makes the aggressive deployment of the latest technology even more daunting, she believes.
And finally, like many planners, she is aware that although most meeting technology providers boast that their tools are easy to use, the opposite is often the case. “And that is a common source of frustration for me and many other planners,” Dossett says.
Cramer also can relate to that assertion, she says. “My issue with that is really instructions that aren’t very clear, or the fact that it takes a lot more clicks or a lot more effort to get it to do the things it’s supposed to do,” she says. “Sometimes I find myself saying, ‘Wait. I already did that. Now you want me to do it again?’ And I agree that sometimes these tools are not as easy to use as the vendor says they are. And that translates to more demands on my time.”
As Cramer noted earlier, nearly all of her clients expect her to be aware of and conversant about the ever-widening range of new technologies in existence and which one is best for a precise purpose.
“All of them expect me to know the latest technology so I can make recommendations,” she says. “None of them expect me to also be an expert on using them or to be able to teach them how to use it. But it’s a challenge just to be able to know enough to tell a client about the pros and cons of a particular tool they might ask about.”
On some fundamental functions such as registration, she says she feels confident. On others, such as the ever-expanding universe of mobile apps, she is not so self-assured. “All I can really do,” she says, “is say, ‘Here are the players. I personally have not used the XYZ tool, but I hear good things about it. And I know people who use it I can refer you to.’ ”
In her role as a planner responsible for the success of her events, Cramer says one issue she often contemplates is “the question of how I make it easier for attendees to register or communicate with one another, or how to make it easier for speakers to know what deadlines they have or what kind of information they need to include in their presentations. Those are the kinds of things I find really challenging, because there are so many different (options) you can look at to do those kinds of things. So I’m always asking myself, which one should I use? Which one is best?”
Finding the right answer to those kinds of questions can sometimes be quite fulfilling, and enlightening, Cramer says.
One recent example: exploring the world of social media, in terms of truly understanding it and deciding how to best use it.
She cites an app called Slack that is currently gaining wide popularity. Among its clients: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“It was originally launched as an internal tool for companies to use so people could communicate with one another,” Cramer says. “For example, you can create groups of people who are working on the same project. So last year, I wondered what would happen if we used that in a conference environment. I thought it would be an opportunity for attendees to engage and communicate with one another. I thought it could be an alternative to Twitter because not every company wants to use Twitter. And I thought people could use it to communicate with each other or with speakers, or plan evening activities. The thing to understand is that this was not a particularly tech-savvy group. But Slack worked well. And that’s an example, I think, of using a social media tool within the specific environment of a meeting and not ‘the whole world,’ like you get with Twitter or Facebook. We used Slack for clear purposes related directly to the event, not as a social media tool that everyone uses every day in their broader lives.”
Although some fundamental concerns about the practical use of technology impact is adoption, there are more substantial and important issues that are just now coming to the fore.
One of them is that the most widely used meeting management platforms may not be the universal solutions they purport to be. And related to that is the business relationships between some of these companies and vendors such as hotels and restaurants and why some are more heavily promoted than others as “best options” — a practice Dossett says some meeting planners call “pay to play.”
She tells the story of a revelation she made at a Convention Industry Council (CIC) CMP conclave meeting. “I was at a round-table discussion with about 20 other industry colleagues — half planners and half hoteliers — and that topic came up,” she says. “And I made the point that I was really frustrated because I don’t use the major meeting technology platforms…because they don’t meet my needs, and they don’t allow for the many intricacies in planning meetings. And about half the people at the table said, ‘We don’t use them either.’ I was really surprised. And it also gave me a little comfort that I was not alone.”
She adds that her concern is the “pay to play” aspect. In other words, the hotels or other vendors that spend the most on advertising or other promotional fees with these companies are the ones that get recommended, but they are not necessarily the ones that actually best fit the needs of a particular meeting.
“My problem with that is that when you submit an RFP, what you get back — let’s say hotels ranked number one through five — is based on who spent the most money advertising, not the best hotel for your meeting,” Dossett says.
She objects specifically to the failure to disclose that fact with genuine transparency.
“I didn’t even know for a long time that was the case,” Dossett says.
Although a surprising number of planners have their own concerns about technology, there also is an 800-pound gorilla in the room when it comes to the concerns hotels have.
The big one for them is the growing demand for and generally limited supply of bandwidth. And that’s an issue that can lead to serious onsite problems such as the crash of a general session or virtual meeting.
Making matters worse is the fact that many planners do not have a clear understanding of the issue or how to prevent meltdowns.
Chris Bunton, the Bethesda, Maryland-based senior director of event management, the Americas, for Marriott International, is acutely aware of that issue.
He works closely with all Marriott properties, including those in the company’s Convention & Resort Network, which includes the properties that host the brand’s largest corporate meeting clients.
Because of spiking bandwidth demands and the issues related to them, Marriott rolled out a “Wi-Fi Simplified” program that focuses on training meeting sales and event management personnel to understand the issues with bandwidth “and to ask meeting planners the right questions before they ever get onsite,” Bunton says.
The initiative also means that Marriott can give bandwidth use information to planners during and after a meeting, so they can use it to help do a better job of planning their next meeting by knowing exactly how much bandwidth they used and what the peak times were.
For Marriott and Bunton, no technology issue is more important than dealing with the unprecedented and increasing demand for state-of-the-art bandwidth and wireless services that are related to the success of major meetings.
Despite the concerns some planners have about the challenges of technology and its ever more dominant role in the meeting industry, one thing is for certain: it is not going away.
For planners such as Dossett, that means the challenges related to mastering it will become even bigger.
“I think technology is going to become more challenging before it becomes less challenging, mainly because there is just so much of it out there,” she says. “But I also think that in the future, 15 or 20 years from now when the kids just now getting out of college are at the midpoints of their careers, these technologies will be much more accepted and less challenging than they are today for those of us who are older and used to doing things the way we’ve always done them.”
Until then, Dossett says, the basics — like spreadsheets or picking up the phone to communicate something important — are the basics for a reason.
And they never get old or fail to deliver as expected. C&IT