There are thousands of meeting planning technology products that can automate everything from pre-meeting budgeting, to post-meeting analysis and nearly every job in between. The problem is that meetings vary widely from each other in terms of what technology is needed. “One size does not fit all” and sometimes hundreds of questions need to be asked to get a good fit. The right meetings technology solution can bring a huge benefit in cost, time savings and customer service. The wrong choice can be far more costly than just the price of the software and implementation.
How do you find the right products and how do you incorporate them into your meetings department? With the plethora of programs, where do you start? This article will guide you through the steps to be considered in this process.
Inventory your existing office environment:
The first step is to inventory what you are currently using and determine what is working well and what needs improvement.
Here are some of the questions that should be asked:
- What meetings processes are being managed via paper? Do you maintain a large file cabinet of meeting facility information? Do you send your RFPs via fax? Are you accepting registration via the mail or fax? Do you use paper surveys? Do you draw and update your exhibit plan by hand? Do you schedule your rooms manually? A piece of paper is a white flag of inefficiency. Often these should be the first targets to be considered for technology upgrades.
- What over-the-counter software (Excel, Word, Access, etc.) are you using? If you are relying on these (especially word processing files) for your meeting planning processes, this should be a warning. Flat files (i.e. word documents) are highly inefficient in terms of managing data from meeting to meeting.
- What meeting planning software and other technology tools do you currently use? What works well and what doesn’t? Are there newer versions that will work more efficiently?
- How does your meeting team share documents? Does this work well for all team members?
- How does your team maintain an events history? Do you track meeting spend well? Is it easy for team members to access? Is the data complete?
- What database are you using? Is this company wide? Do you wish to integrate any new software with this database?
- What problems exist with your current network, database and software products – are they user-friendly and easy to learn?
- How old is your current computer system and network?
- Do all meetings staff have access to a broadband internet connection?
- What percentage of your clients or members has access to broadband internet connections? How receptive are they to e-marketing and communication? If they are not using broadband, how can you help them come into the 21st century?
- What is your budget and timeframe for the change?
- What is the level of staff technology training? Do they embrace new technology? Are they well trained on the existing systems?
- To what level is your company open to using application service providers (applications that are rented and where the data is stored remotely)?
- To what level do you need to involve your IS Department in the implementation? How supportive are they? Are they qualified? Do they have the resources to help? Are they willing to help?
- Do you need help in answer these questions and in make these decisions? If so, where do you turn? Internal resources such as your IS department? An outside consultant?
Determine where the pain is – what types of solutions do you need?
Once this inventory has been completed, then next step is to determine what specific technology products can help solve the problems identified.
There is a broad range of products covering a wide range of tasks. Some cost a few hundred dollars and handle a specific task such as badge making. Others are suites (“Swiss army knife” programs) handling a wide array of meeting planning and accounting tasks and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or more.
Some areas where meetings technology tools can help are:
- Abstract and educational content management
- Association and membership tracking
- Attendee matchmaking and networking
- Auctions and fundraising
- Audience polling
- Badge making
- Banquet seating
- Contact management
- Customer relations management (CRM)
- Event web sites and portal management
- Exhibit sales and floor plan management
- Golf and tournament events
- Groupware and online collaboration
- Housing and room block management
- Incentive tracking
- Lead retrieval
- Marketing, communication and attendance building
- Meeting specification
- Meetings consolidation, procurement and request for proposal (RFP) management
- Onsite technology (registration, cyber cafes, product directories, internet access)
- Room diagramming
- Site selection
- Speaker management
- Travel and ground transportation management
- Virtual meetings and shows
Some of these will provide a faster payback than others:
- The highest priority often should be to fully automate the registration and attendee management system. Many of these attendee management tools will manage and substantially automate registration, housing and room block management, travel, surveys, e-marketing, credit card processing, event web site, and confirmations. Savings of 90% or more can often be gained when the many paper-based processes are replaced with online systems.
- Site selection and sourcing can also provide substantial savings. Online free databases of meeting facilities are far more complete than any paper guide every printed. Meetings consolidation tools can streamline the entire procurement process while tracking meeting spend giving planners stronger negotiation leverage.
- Abstract and speaker management tools can provide huge savings in labor for associations and group managing large numbers of speakers and/or submitted papers for approval.
- Customer relations management tools can provide personalized tracking of member or client interests strengthening this relationship. Effective e-marketing tools (a newsletter, web site, targeted personalized email) is often much less expensive than paper promotions, it can be much more effective if done properly and can build attendance at meetings.
- Paper surveys are inefficient and slow to get the results. Electronic surveys can be tallied and analyzed on the fly, and have even been used to change course of a meeting from one day to another.
- Exhibit sales and floor plan tools can be vastly more efficient and reliable than paper-based tracking techniques.
Some technology is not purchased for cost savings but more to allow your meetings department members simply to do their job better or improve the value of the meeting to the attendees:
- Room diagramming software often is the only way to know for sure if a specific room set up will fit in a room. Also, as the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” indicates, the chances are much greater of getting your room set correctly if you give the setup crew a diagram rather than a page full of text.
- Banquet seating is often a slow, frustrating, paper-based task. Seating tools will automate much of this.
- Audience polling tools can determine what the audience is thinking far more efficiently, quickly and with greater impact than paper-based voting.
- Networking and professional matchmaking systems can assist attendees find people of like interest more efficiently. One good contact at a meeting can often make the entire meeting worthwhile for attendees.
The major goal is this step is to determine what areas you need help. Where is the pain and what categories of technology tools are needed?
Determine specific feature set needed:
Once you have narrowed down what you need, the next step is to develop a list of specific features required. I recommend having all meeting stakeholders brainstorm a feature list of specific features desired in the “ideal” system. Examples of a few of these features for an attendee management/registration system are included in the sample Request for Information (RFI) listed below.
Once the list is compiled, it should grouped by feature area and ranked (must have, good to have, nice to have but not necessary). Delete the ones that, upon further review, are not deemed important.
Vendor evaluation and selection:
Armed with the above information, it is now time to start looking at the technology vendors. I have found it is helpful to use the following steps in the vendor evaluation and selection process:
1. Develop your Request for Information (RFI) work sheet as outlined above. Include response fields for companies to reply how their product meets the specification or not. I find that using an Excel spreadsheet works the best for this as it is easier to copy cells to combine into one comparative spreadsheet with all of the companies included. A sample RFI contain just a few of the items might look like this:
|Sample Request for Information (RFI) Form|
(1-low 10 high)
(1-low 10 high)
|online registration form that can be easily created and updated by planning staff using templates|
|capability to handle multiple registration categories and registration options|
|customizable registration form with corporate logo and the look and feel of the corporate web site|
|room block management and housing capabilities with the capability to handle multiple hotels|
|secure credit card processing using SSL encryption|
|automated confirmation via email and at web site with a confirmation number|
|ability for attendees to make changes to registration after submitted via an individual access link.|
|automated email list management capabilities with personalization and unsubscribe capabilities|
Etc. etc. etc.
2. Determine the list of technology vendors providing the desired technology tools or services. To help in your search, The Ultimate Meeting Professionals Technology Guide is available for a free download from the MPI Foundation (www.mpifoundation.org) containing detailed, categorized listings for more that 1,300 software products in twenty-eight categories.
3. Narrow down you choices to a recommended maximum of eight to twelve vendors. For example, there are hundreds of attendee management/registration vendors, but many specialize for certain types of meetings. The vendor web site visit or a quick phone call asking about key “must have” features. Some narrow categories, such as “room diagramming” do not have twelve vendors, so the process will be easier in these cases.
4. Send the RFI out to these eight to twelve semi-finalists asking them respond you your specific feature set requirements. Include information about your company, the overall goals for the technology upgrade, a description of the decision process, and the specific decision timeline.
5. Compile all the responses into a single spreadsheet with a side-by-side comparative feature review. Rank the vendors based on their responses.
6. From the responses received from your RFI, you narrow the companies down to the top three or four vendors.
7. With these top three or four vendors, develop an official request for proposal (RFP) asking in specific detail more information about the product.
Also, a background check on these finalist vendors is in order. Among the questions to be asked are the following:
- Full pricing information
- References – especially companies that match your company profile. (Note: it is very important to follow up on these references – this is where you can get a good insight into the company.)
- Length of time in business. (There are many companies that have come and gone. Checking their longevity may help.)
- Number of employees in the company.
- Company support polices (help desk hours and costs, toll-free support, training, knowledge base on the web, email support).
- Security management (especially if the providers are application service providers housing your data remotely)
- To assist in developing the question list, the following link contains eighty-eight key vendor questions:http://www.corbinball.com/articles_software/index.cfm?fuseaction=cor_ArticleView&artid=466§ionCode=art_soft
8. Set up full product demonstrations. Depending on the size of the sale and the elaborateness of the products, these can either be in person or via web demo. Software companies often have a demo version.
9. Make the final selection from the information gathered.
10. Set up a full implementation and evaluation timeline. (See next section.)
Implementation and evaluation:
The final steps are to implement the solution, train the staff, and set up measurable criteria and goals for successful deployment. These goals should be centered on measurable decreases in meeting management costs, fast meeting turnaround, and/or improvement of customer services – often all three.
Your reward for this effort will be substantial improvements in how you manage meetings. As you digitize your business process you will be able to maintain competitiveness, reduce costs, reduce planning time/effort and improve services. As these processes are digitized, it will reduce the logistic data entry tasks allowing more time to focus on strategic planning.