Who in their right mind would start up a meeting industry Web site in today's economy? Charlie Robinson, for one. A 28-year hotel sales and marketing veteran, most recently with Starwood's Washington, D.C., National Sales Office, Robinson says the idea came to him when he was sitting in the back yard with his wife shooting around some ideas. He said, “A Web site for hot dates/hot rates?” She said, “Bingo.”

HotMeetingDates.com, which debuted June 1, provides event planners with a source of short-term meeting dates. The site design follows the two cardinal rules of the Web: The user must accomplish a task within three mouse clicks; the site must provide quality content.

Being skeptics, we had to test it out: In our tour of the beta version, it does, in fact, take just three clicks to get the job done. The first click: The “search our database” button brings you to a screen where you fill out some basic info. The second click: The “search” button brings up a recap of your info and a place to check off dates you're interested in at the various hotels listed. You also can attach your own RFP or fill out the form provided. This screen also gives you a thumbnail sketch of the hotel, including amount of meeting space and number of rooms, and lets you choose which hotels' dates and rates meet your needs.

The third click: The “submit” button sends your request to hotels you've selected. An immediate e-mail confirmation includes contact information for sales reps at the properties you chose, in case you want to follow up before they do. Listings are noncommissionable. Hotels pay an annual fee as well as $19.95 for each request received.

HotMeetingDates.com is building in quality control measures to keep hotels on their toes. For example, the site automatically pulls a listing as soon as the hot date passes; and it puts a “freshness date” on each listing so users can tell when the information was last updated. Also, the site deletes any listing that gets 10 hits. The hotel is sent an e-mail message asking it to repost the listing if it doesn't fill its dates with the 10 responses.

And what about starting a new site at what most would consider an inopportune time? “What the heck,” says Robinson. “My experience in the hotel world is that up to 65 percent of bookings are less than $50,000 in rooms revenue, and the vast majority are looking to book within a 12-month window. Hotels have holes to fill, and planners have short-term meetings to book. Our site is absolutely the model of B2B on the Web: Connecting the buyer and seller in real time.” The plan is to have 300 properties on board by the end of 2001.