The functionality of today’s meetings management tech tools is quite robust, making them more like “tool belts” that typically include modules for meeting registration, hotel sourcing, budgeting, generating reports, surveying internal clients and more. A planner can certainly use some or all of these features without having a strategic meetings management program (SMMP) in place at his or her firm. But the converse is not so certain.
If a planner is working within an SMMP, it is very difficult to do it properly without using a tool like Cvent or StarCite, simply because an SMMP requires company-wide tracking and control of meetings activity. That’s often a tall order to fill, and many planners feel it calls for a system that centralizes and automates the various planning processes, from site sourcing to expense reports on the tail end.
“Technology does not make your SMMP, but it certainly is necessary to keep it all in motion,” asserts Amy Harris, SMMC, vice president, enterprise marketing and activation, with Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks Inc. In particular, a meetings management tech tool “allows you to consolidate and slice and dice the meetings data, and customize reports for the internal stakeholders,” she says. The customized reports can break down meetings spend and savings by department, with particular hotel chains, by category (e.g., sleeping rooms, F&B), across certain time frames, and so on.
“I suppose you could do the tracking and reporting ‘old school’ with Excel spreadsheets,” Harris adds. “But the time it would take you to do it would be ridiculous.” Just how long it would take depends on the amount of meetings activity, of course, but it’s surely time that could be better spent on other tasks.
Tim Brown, CEO of Irvine, CA-based Meeting Sites Resource, which licenses Meeting Evolution technology, notes, “Some of our customers are very decentralized, but procurement still has their finger in the pie. They said it was taking them between eight and 20 hours to do that reporting because they were dealing with data spread in so many different places.” An SMM tech tool essentially brings it all into one place, and outputs it quickly in a digestible format.
Tracking meetings-related spend has certainly improved in recent years, thanks in large part to such tools. JR Sherman, senior vice president of business solutions for Active Network and based in Wilton, CT, cites an Aberdeen Group study stating that on the average, 9 percent of an organization’s budget is spent on meetings and events, and the figure will rise to 20 percent in the next couple of years.
“Just two years ago the estimates in the marketplace were saying the figure was 0.5 to 1 percent. So it’s not that much more money is being spent on meetings; rather, organizations are now doing a much better job of tracking that spend,” Sherman says. “There is a lot more transparency now, and I think technology has played a big role in that. And as soon as CFOs start realizing the amount of money being put into meetings and events, it’s going to become critical that the company buys a system that can track that.”
Especially at insurance and financial firms, and especially in a post-recession world, the careful tracking and reporting of meetings spend is de rigueur. But not all firms accomplish that via an SMMP. “The adoption of SMMPs has been more limited in the insurance and financial industry than in others,” observes Issa Jouaneh, vice president and general manager, American Express Meetings & Events. “We see that more companies in the sector have a meetings policy, and some form of reporting on meeting spend, but the level of strategic management of the spend varies from company to company.”
Still, many of the larger firms in that sector are indeed using SMM tech tools. “We have 10 of the top 15 financial institutions currently using our product,” reports Sherman. “The industry is really driven by compliance and duty of care, which makes an enterprise application around strategic meetings management really critical to be able to track the spend associated with customers.”
About 15 months ago, Active Network launched its Business Solutions division and acquired StarCite. Sherman explains the motivation for the acquisition: “Coming out of the recession and trying to prove more of the value of meetings and events, we realized there was a big piece of the events industry that we were not touching. And that was the procurement-driven side of meetings and events, or strategic meetings management. That led us down the path of adding StarCite to the family.” Since then, Active Network has tried to target StarCite to midmarket companies as well as the big firms. “StarCite was traditionally seen as an enterprise solution, and what we have done is added the ability to have a much more self-service, simplified, low-cost user interface for small businesses, while still giving them access to tools like RFP outsourcing and expense tracking. The real advantage of StarCite is its robust global platform, and now we are working to try to bring that functionality to the midmarket clients.”
More recently, in October, American Express Meetings & Events partnered with Cvent. “The client reaction has been very positive,” says Jouaneh. “Since the partnership launch, we have implemented Cvent across a number of geographic regions, and over the next few months we will complete the global rollout.” American Express Meetings & Events’ existing Meetings Expert solution was enhanced by the relationship with Cvent, which added a new meetings portal that “brings the request process online and provides a seamless automated experience,” according to Jouaneh. The Web portal’s features include a centralized meetings calendar; a Meeting Requestor tool to help automate meetings sourcing; and a Request History tool, which provides a database of past meeting requests. American Express Meetings & Events clients also will have limited-time exclusive access to Cvent’s Meeting Cost Estimator.
While Cvent and StarCite have long been the big players in this arena, there are other formidable contenders that are continually ramping up their offerings. In February, San Francisco-based Certain Inc. launched the Certain Certified Meeting Management Program, a new partner program that enables meeting management companies to deliver differentiated and more profitable services. The program provides access to Certain’s award-winning technology platform, certified training and support, marketing and sales opportunities, and early access to new features.
And Zentila, the first online sourcing and booking solution for meeting planners, has entered the SMM space with its recently launched Enlightenment tool. Designed to “enlighten” users about their company’s meetings activity, the product has features like My Dashboard, where users can access all reports and What’s Happening Now from a single page; a meetings calendar; and a report generator. Also included are Zentila’s standard sourcing tools, such as the eRFP Genie and hotel search engine, along with new features such as Preferred Hotels and pre-populated meeting concessions.
“Supplier network is key,” says Harris, whose company has been using Cvent for more than two years. “They’re starting to add alternate venues, not just hotels but also restaurants and other offsite venues, which is a good resource.” She notes that the Cvent site search mechanism implements two valuable cost- and time-saving criteria: first, hotels in the search area with cancelled space, where a booking would absorb monies due to the hotelier as a result of SunTrust’s cancellation (per the company’s contract rider); and second, hotels known to accept the rider, which expedites the booking process and is especially helpful for short-term meetings. “It also helps us tell a hotel property that if you can meet our terms and conditions, we will elevate you to the top of our search list,” Harris adds.
The contracting process itself is greatly facilitated by meetings management tools such as Meeting Evolution, which, Brown notes, was the first APEX-compliant system and just last month integrated APEX’s Post-Event Report. APEX is the Accepted Practices Exchange, a voluntary meetings industry compliance initiative of the Convention Industry Council promoting the use of standardized tools to facilitate the exchange of information. “We can put our different customer contracts in the system, allowing us to customize a contract in minutes for a specific meeting,” says Brown. “It auto-populates all performance clauses based on lost profit, not lost revenue. Then we can easily prepare a cost savings and contract risk-reduction report by meeting,” he explains. The company’s new Event Workspace module allows collaboration between planners as well as suppliers within the system. “It takes your counter-signed contract, with all your details of the meeting including your agenda, functions and space, and drops it down into a BEO (banquet event order). There will be hotel access to it when you’re adding table settings, floral and other aspects of production, and it expedites the entire process to manage the logistics of the meeting and have real-time cost analysis at every phase.”
Sherman identifies two other cutting-edge features, exemplified by StarCite: First, one-to-one meeting capabilities allowing individuals to “book” meetings with other individuals within a larger conference; and second, the integration of meeting management tools with mobile technologies. “For example, on our supplier side, hotels can now receive and review feeds from buyers via a mobile device,” he says. “So if they’re not in their office and an RFP comes in they can actually view it and reply to it, etc. And the person that is in the chain of command for approving the spend can do that with our system from a mobile device, so that it doesn’t hold up the decision process for the meeting. With everything we are doing we are making sure that mobile is a critical way to access that information.”
Norwalk, CT-based etouches is another meeting management software company that is immersed in the mobile app and social media spaces with its eMobile and eSocial solutions. And last summer, Atlanta-based SignUp4 acquired RappidApp, a leading software company specializing in the user-driven creation of mobile applications, expanding SignUp4’s current suite of event, travel and spend management products to include mobile platforms.
According to James Spellos, CMP, president of Meeting U., “To say that functions like registration and attendee management are the only part of meeting management technology is to miss a huge revolution that started in the past seven years with social media and mobility.”
Now, a planner may decide he or she doesn’t need a given feature in a meeting management tool, but two criteria are always important to keep in mind: scalability and service. As to the first, “consider what your company’s needs may be three years from now, and choose a platform that can scale to those needs,” Sherman advises. Globalization is an important trend in this regard. Companies that are global or moving in that direction will want to funnel all the meetings planned internationally through the system as well, and the system must be able to handle that along with the domestic meetings. With Active Network’s cloud computing system, scaling, adding features and maintenance are all done from Active Network’s end. “We don’t install software in our client’s offices or on their servers at all; it’s on our servers within what is called the ‘cloud’ and they access it via the Internet. That makes it much easier to enhance the applications,” Sherman explains.
As to service, it’s not just about how easy it is to adopt the system, but how responsive and accommodating the tech company is to a customer’s needs. “What I like about Cvent is that if you ask if some feature can be added, they will immediately escalate it to their engineering team and put it into a queue,” Harris says. “If it’s something other people have asked for, it goes higher in the queue, and even if it’s something no one else has asked for they will take a look at it to see if it improves functionality. I feel like they really listen.” The company is also regularly in touch with Harris about updates and offering training if desired, she adds.
Deborah Borak, CDS, SMMC, director of global accounts at ConferenceDirect in Littleton, CO, participated in a Cvent focus group. She notes that Cvent continues to add international hotels into their supplier network in response to client demand. “They do not have all the hotels in the world in there, but if they are missing one, we are able to let them know about it and they add it in,” she says.
Customer service and scalability, then, should be among a planner’s “must-haves” for an event management tech tool. “I think it’s important that when a planner is looking at a tool that they have a checklist of the functions they need, as well as a ‘wish list’ of functions they want,” Borak sums up. One narrows down the product choices to those that meet the checklist, and then decides between the remaining few based on the wish list.
Or the decision might be between different products offered by the same company. For instance, etouches offers a “Quad” package, which includes basic features such as eReg (registration), eMarket and eSurvey; a “Pro” package that subsumes the Quad features and adds eProject, eScheduler, eBudget and eWiki (for collaboration between event teams); and “Plus+” which adds further functions to Quad or Pro, such as eMobile, eScan (badge scanning) and eRFP.
Products like these are practically “build your own” tools, and a planner must really put some thought into what features are essential (perhaps because they support an SMMP) and which can be eschewed to bring down cost. Improving ROI for the event is key, but so is improving ROI for the event management software. I&FMM