By Mickey Murphy
In 1997, the Convention Industry Council (CIC) began discussions with industry leaders on the need to standardize industry best practices and promulgate these as widely as possible. CIC is a federation of 31 member organizations representing more than 103,500 individuals, and 19,500 firms and properties in the meetings, conventions and exhibitions industry. From these initial conversations, the Accepted Practices Exchange (APEX) initiative began to take shape. The goal: to make APEX the gold standard for the way industry professionals would do business in the future. The hope: to thoroughly revolutionize the industry and make it ready for the 21st century.
It was high time — indeed, well past time — for such a bold undertaking. For decades, planners, hoteliers, DMCs and others within the industry have been using the same old-fashioned, and in many cases, antiquated, methods and procedures to handle their business affairs. In a sleek and shiny new age, with stunning technology advances occurring almost daily, these stilted protocols are quickly showing their age. To illustrate, a primary APEX goal is to encourage the electronic transmission of requests for proposals (RFPs), event specification guides (ESGs), and similar often comprehensive and/or complex information. However, this currently is not the reality.
Lawrence Leonard, CMP, the newly appointed APEX director, discussed the current backward state of affairs regarding document transmission within the industry. “Things are still being done in an inefficient manner,” said Leonard. “We haven’t made it to the electronic exchange point yet.
“An example is the way the event specification guide, which also is called the event resumé, is transmitted,” said Leonard. “I’ve heard stories from convention service managers at hotels who have received handwritten specs for meetings that are faxed over to them. A planner will create the document and then fax that document to a convention service manager inside the hotel. The manager then has to re-enter all of information into a property management system and produce BEOs (banquet event orders). Then, a planner will be told, ‘In order to get this BEO back to you, I have to fax it to you.’ So in 2010, we are still using the fax machine. Thus, the planner has to go through the process of proofing the BEO from the hotel against the original specs. This is all very inefficient.”
For the meetings, conventions and exhibitions industry, protocols standardization is a key first step to enable electronic data interchange (EDI), which will truly bring the industry into the 21st century. Indeed, in so many different industry areas, protocols standardization is an absolute must. A primary reason: the industry is comprised of diverse professionals, business entities and interests, including: meeting planners and event professionals for associations, corporations and destination management companies; every conceivable hotel and resort type; convention centers; suppliers and vendors of every conceivable stripe; plus numerous professional associations, such as Meeting Professionals International, Association of Destination Management Executives, and Professional Convention Management Association. Obviously, this represents a remarkably diverse group of professionals, organizations and commercial entities.
I Say Toh-Mah-Toh, You Say Toh-May-Toh
Prior to the APEX initiative, each segment of this cluttered and complex industry used its own idiosyncratic specifications, nomenclature, protocols and standards. To say the least, this resulted in a confusing and grossly inefficient non-system. It was like inhabitants of 10,000 Towers of Babel trying to communicate with each other via tin can telephones, invisible ink and carrier pigeons.
By standardizing processes through APEX, many millions of dollars can be saved annually, while vastly improving operations and procedures. This will not only make the industry more efficient, it also will be a direct contributor to the overall economic good of companies worldwide. After all, according to Carlson Wagonlit Travel research, the global meetings and events market totals $650 billion. Clearly, with such a vast amount of dollars in play annually, optimizing standards will have a notable positive effect on business operations of all types.
The APEX Payoff
APEX promotes the development and adoption of best practices to create and enhance efficiencies, effectiveness and professionalism throughout the industry. APEX benefits are numerous. They include time and cost savings for meeting planners and their groups, more efficient communication and the sharing of data, improved service for customers, the streamlining of systems and processes, less duplication of work and increased efficiency, plus enhanced professionalism and working knowledge for planners and all those involved, including hoteliers, vendors and DMCs.
CIC enlisted nearly 6,000 professionals, the majority of whom are volunteers from every spectrum of the meetings, conventions and exhibitions industry, to work together on the APEX initiative. It formed numerous panels with more than 200 participants to focus initially on seven key areas, which are detailed below. CIC has produced valuable resources for planners, including numerous helpful templates and useful information regarding these seven areas. Interested parties can download preferred documents from the APEX section of CIC’s website, www.conventionindustry.org.
The seven core areas of Accepted Practices that have been completed are:
1 Terminology. It is impossible to agree on anything, for example, a hotel or vendor contract, if you first do not agree on — or even understand — basic terms. The APEX glossary solves this problem. Originally, it had about 4,000 words, acronyms and abbreviations common to the industry. Entries range from “CWT: Abbreviation for ‘hundred weight.’ This is the unit of measure used in drayage and freight shipments,” to “Zulu Time or GMT: Greenwich Mean Time, the world time standard.”
Leonard pointed out that the APEX glossary, along with the six other key APEX document areas, are under a continuous state of review and, if necessary, updating. “The APEX Standards Review Council recently removed nearly 2,000 terms from the glossary,” said Leonard. “They looked at every word in the glossary to make sure that the terms were relevant to the industry and that they were words in common usage. They wanted to make sure all terms were specific to the industry. For example, we don’t need to define the word ‘chair.’?” The new version will be available on the CIC website later this summer as part of the rebuild. To access the APEX glossary, visit www.conventionindustry.org/glossary/.
2 History/Post-Event Reports. APEX has developed industry-accepted standards for securing, archiving and retrieving comprehensive history/post event reporting data concerning meetings, conventions and events. APEX also provides a template, known as the APEX PER, which planners and others can use to record all pertinent event/meeting information, including details concerning lodging, meeting space, F&B, contact and date particulars, and so on.
3 Event Specification Guide (ESG). Previously known as a “Resumé,” the ESG template, available in PDF and Microsoft Word formats, covers all logistical information, for example, room setups, schedule of events, specific menu items, and so on, regarding any meeting, event or conference.
4 Housing and Registration. This has to do with retrieving and reporting housing and registration information for meetings, conventions, conferences, trade shows and other events. APEX recommends industry standards concerning such issues as housing providers, international housing, disclosure, plus Internet and technology issues. APEX templates are available for such things as event registration, housing, rooming lists, international housing and so on.
5 Meeting and Site Profiles. This concerns site profile formats in five categories: hotels, resorts, convention centers, conference centers and cities. “This [documentation] provides guidance to meeting destinations and facilities — hotels, convention centers and so on — regarding the kind of information they should consider providing to planners and groups in their marketing materials,” said Leonard. “This means a list of all of your meeting spaces, restaurants onsite, hours of operations for those restaurants, and so on.”
6 Requests for Proposals. APEX RFP templates are available for every type of meetings activity, including for venues/facilities, destination management, transportation, audio-visual, service contractors, function schedules and function setups.
7 Contracts. Because contracts can take so many different forms, and cover so many alternative circumstances, APEX does not provide standardized contract templates planners can download and use. What it does provide is valuable guidance in a report format concerning how to develop and evaluate contracts, contract terms and so on.
APEX Green Standards
Additionally, CIC began work in 2008 to develop green standards for the U.S. meetings, conventions and exhibitions industry as part of its APEX initiative and through its Green Meeting Events and Practices Panel. The standards are being developed in conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and ASTM International, a prominent member of the American National Standards Institute.
APEX’s Environmentally Sustainable Meeting Standards concern these areas: meeting venues, accommodations, audio-visual, communications, destinations, exhibits, transportation, F&B and onsite issues. Now under advisement, the standards include a comprehensive checklist that planners and others can use to determine that their meetings and events are truly green.
The standards are now undergoing final review before publication. Once approved, APEX’s green standards will represent the gold standard for environmentally friendly meetings and events. Indeed, no less an entity than the U.S. federal government plans to adopt the soon-to-be-finalized standards for all of its many meetings, conferences and events.
APEX Meeting and Event Toolbox 3.0 is CIC’s branded software for the APEX initiative. The updated version of the popular software contains 50 APEX-specific templates along with more than 200 general business templates. These enable documents for every aspect of the industry: checklists for meetings and events, housing forms, rooming lists, plus all of the forms and templates that are downloadable from the APEX website.
“A template-driven program, the APEX Toolbox is a great solution for some planners but not for every planner,” said Leonard. “What Toolbox will allow planners to do is to set up simple profiles that define their meetings, and then use those profiles to automate several of the APEX documents that have been produced. For example, a planner can set up a profile for his or her event, generate an RFP document, and then go into Microsoft Word and edit it. The planner can also generate the ‘shell’ of an event specification guide that he or she can also go into and edit. So for a lot of planners, this is the level of solution that they need.”
Version 3 of Toolbox is compatible with the Microsoft Vista operating system and the Microsoft Office 2007 suite of applications. It also works with older Microsoft operating systems and Office applications such as Windows XP or Windows 2000.
All Toolbox templates can be reformatted with these Microsoft products: Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Of course, all Toolbox items meet the newly developed APEX standards.
APEX Powershop Solution
Toolbox is a terrific product and highly useful and versatile for meeting planners. However, Toolbox doesn’t do any sort of electronic transfer of information. “Toolbox was created as an alternative solution and as a bridge over to full-featured platforms and packages that will offer electronic data interchange,” said Leonard. This would be Powershop, developed by DataApp, Newhall, CA. “DataApp is a supporter and early proponent of APEX,” said Leonard. “They share the ultimate APEX vision of being able to electronically transfer information between planners and hotels.
“One of the things that the APEX Initiative has done is partner with the Open Travel Alliance to build the XML ‘messages’ that will be necessary for EDI to take place,” said Leonard.
The Open Travel Alliance (OTA) is a community where companies work together to create a common structure for electronic communications, enabling all parties to speak the same language. The XML (Extensible Markup Language) format enables easier exchange of data over the Internet.
“XML is a message set that will be required to transmit the information,” Leonard said. “Powershop is built around using those APEX [XML] messages. Other software developers could adopt these messages as well. We are not advocating a bunch of proprietary solutions to the problem. We are advocating that the industry as a whole build solutions that use the OTA XML standards.”
Powershop has already done so. Once it is fully perfected and available to planners, it will offer the vaunted EDI capabilities that represent such an important aspect of the APEX vision. Thus, planners will be able to use Powershop to develop RFPs, ESGs and BEOs that fully meet APEX standards and then transmit those documents electronically to hotels, vendors and other suppliers. It will be the first commercially available software package to offer this groundbreaking capability. Leonard anticipates that eventually other suppliers will enter the marketplace with their own APEX-compatible software packages that offer full EDI capabilities.
Powershop is currently in its “pilot phase,” according to Chip Meyer, CEO of DataApp. Powershop is now being tested by meeting planners.
“Before we go to the official launch, we have many early users,” said Meyer. “We are working with them to make the product easier.” The DataApp CEO stated that the fully developed product will be ready sometime during the last quarter of 2010.
In addition to its EDI capabilities, Powershop is a comprehensive application designed to improve event communications while reducing time and effort. Meeting planners can use Powershop to manage and communicate data of all types for their events, regardless of size. The easy-to-use program offers planners a practical approach to create and communicate meetings and events documentation, and transmit that information electronically to hotels, vendors and so on.
The application follows a logical, step-by-step process for capturing event information using the APEX accepted practices and data standards. The original beta version of the product was so successfully APEX-compliant that it turned out to be much too powerful for practical use by most planners, according to Meyer.
“The purpose of Powershop was originally conceived as a tool for planners to aggregate all of their data regarding meetings,” said Meyer. “It would allow them to manage that data and distribute it to all of the venues and vendors that they would deal with when handling the order process. The idea was to create a product capable of handling communications with any vendor or venue in the meetings industry that was using the APEX standard.
“The downside of that was that the product was infinitely more powerful than most planners needed,” said Meyer. “It turns out that planners don’t really need more than half of the data fields that you can potentially track. Therefore, on two occasions, we have pulled the product back for further development work.
“Developing Powershop has been an enormous undertaking,” said Meyer. He explained that DataApp has been a key technology partner for APEX in documenting the various APEX standards as they have been developed. “We provided the software that CIC used to track all of the data fields and write what we call the ‘messages’ that were part of the APEX standards.
“Additionally, we developed the software that runs the Mandalay Bay Convention Center,” said Meyer, who described the famous Las Vegas venue as a far more complex facility than most. “Our software has to manage all of the operations there. Thus, we already had a strong background in tracking and managing very large data sets for complex meetings. This is the basis of what has become Powershop.”
Meyer stated that once it is finalized, Powershop will be available to planners for less than $100. The product they receive will be fully functional. However, for a reasonable monthly fee, planners also will be able to subscribe to a Powershop website set up for site selection. There, planners will be able to access a database of the most popular hotels in the country. They will be able search the hotels and submit electronic RFPs to them. Of course, all Powershop RFPs will be fully APEX-compatible.
Meeting Planner Feedback
What has been the industry reaction to the APEX initiative? “The interest in APEX has been huge since day one, back in 2001 when the initiative launched,” said Leonard. “Planners and suppliers clearly recognize a need for a program like APEX.” He stated that enthusiasm by planners has been high concerning doing things the APEX way. “Plus, many planners are probably doing things in an APEX-compliant manner without even recognizing it, which you might call passive adoption. Many industry leaders and educators are basing their materials on APEX. The APEX initiative definitely is reaching planners. We get feedback that APEX really solves problems or improves the way meeting and event information is developed, and so on.
“Some of the feedback we get from planners is that the APEX documents are great, but that they are sometimes too extremely thorough,” said Leonard. “In some cases, the RFP and ESG templates can be a bit imposing. They might not be as accessible and usable for every planner as they could be. They are very comprehensive and can handle any meeting that you throw at them, but for some planners, they might seem a little too much. We take this feedback to heart.
“The Standards Review Committee is now looking at the RFP and ESG documents to see if there is a way we can make them more usable for every planner,” said Leonard. “For example, we might develop ‘lite’ versions of these documents. Of course, there are planners out there working on very large and complex meetings who will use every field of information.”
“I really think the APEX tools are great,” said Stephanie Hudson, meeting and event manager at Providence Events, an Atlanta event management company. “I love the meetings specification form. I use it when I give my meeting specs to a hotel or venue. It is great for detailed programs. Plus, with this form, it is easy to go back and make changes or corrections. I am gradually incorporating some of the other forms. I have made some modifications to them, such as the Resumé form.”
“I use APEX’s RFP, which is lovely,” said Sue Walton, co-owner, May and Williams Ltd., an independent meeting planning firm in Evanston, IL. Walton also is an moderator for online conversations that take place between planners through MeCo, an Internet meetings community. “I have the RFP on our website. I modified it to fit my small groups. My meetings usually have 100–150 people at them. I put the RFP on my website to save paper. Thus, I can easily update my needs and not try to second guess how many RFPs I am going to hand out at any one event.”
Leonard joined CIC recently to head APEX. Previously, he was director of conferences for the National Association of Homebuilders. “I am excited to be on board at CIC and working on the APEX initative,” said Leonard. “My personal background as a meeting planner is in association management. So I have been on the user side of the APEX equation. We used some of the APEX templates to create standardized documents for our conference department. APEX really is an important initiative, and extremely valuable to the industry.” C&IT
New APEX Leadership
The Convention Industry Council (CIC) recently announced the appointment of a new Leadership Council “...to lead CIC’s APEX initiative into the next stage of its life cycle,” said CIC Chief Executive Officer Karen Kotowski, CAE, CMP. As part of this planned transition the previous governing body, known as the APEX Commission, was dissolved to mark the completion of its work.
The new focus required a redefinition of the purpose and makeup of the
APEX body, which could address the priorities of APEX in the areas of adoption, communication outreach and product development. Now called the APEX Leadership Council (ALC), the group is chaired by Teri Tonioli, CMP, senior vice president of strategic account management at Experient. The new leadership council held its first meeting in June.
“The ALC’s first meeting mapped the priorities for APEX going forward. The Council determined them to be: completing and launching of the APEX/ASTM Environmentally Sustainable Meeting Standards; enhancing the usability and accessibility of the existing best practices; updating the existing best practices to support the Environmentally Sustainable Meeting Standards; advocating for greater adoption of the Event Specification Guide by hotels and major customers; and providing greater support to the education community,” Kotowski said.
The members of the APEX Leadership Council are: Victoria Ascione, CMP, CMM, Bacardi U.S.A. Inc.; Deborah Breitner, Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida; Dave Dvorak, Starwood Hotels & Resorts; Maura Gast, Irving Convention and Visitors Bureau; Scott Gillespie, author, “Gillespie’s Guide to Travel + Procurement” blog, Joyce Inderbitzin, CMP, Hilton Hotels Corporation; Kimberly Meyer, Meeting Analytics; Doug McPhee, CMP, Experient; Bob Moore, Gaylord National Hotel & Convention Center; Kelly Peacy, CMP, Professional Convention Management Association; Janet Sperstad, CMP, Madison Area Technical College, and Teri Tonioli, CMP, Experient. — MM
- APEX Meeting and Event Toolbox 3.0. This updated software includes 50 APEX-specific templates along with more than 200 general business templates. Planners and other interested parties can order Toolbox V.3 from CIC for $99.95. Visit CIC’s online store at www.convention
- APEX Powershop. This powerful software, currently in development, allows electronic transfer of APEX-compliant information to hotels, vendors and other suppliers. Some unique features include an RFP comparison tool; network capability (several team members can work on different segments of an event and all information will be merged automatically); interactive knowledgebase; interactive database; autopopulation of forms across events; and more. Interested professionals can go to www.apex.us and click on the “Try It FREE” button to get a copy of Powershop. Product launch is slated for the last quarter of 2010. www.apex.us