If you watch TV, you've probably seen one of the pervasive IBM commercials exhorting us to "Work the Web." It's a great concept, but of course, the toughest part about working the Web is figuring out what exactly you want to work.

Fortunately, the meetings business provides an ample supply of potential targets. I had the opportunity recently to witness a truly useful application of Web technology in action on one of these targets.

The Innovation The North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (www.nafem.org) holds a space drawing before each of its trade shows that allows preferred vendors to choose their booth locations. In the past, those exhibitors all traveled to a hotel in Chicago to sit around a series of large paper floor maps with Post-It notes, pencils, and lots of erasers, choosing, redrawing, and erasing throughout the day.

This year, although NAFEM still rented the hotel meeting room, the floor map was handled entirely electronically using the ExpoCAD product from ACT, Inc. (www.expocad.com).

Exhibitors who traveled to Chicago watched the floor take shape on a projection screen as NAFEM staff assigned, reconfigured, and redrew the floor map. At the same time, exhibitors who chose to take part online saw exactly the same floor plan updated in real time on their computers.

As exhibitors prepared to choose a booth location and configuration, they could see exactly which booths had already been taken and see those booths' sizes, locations, and occupants. Exhibitors online phoned the meeting room in Chicago to choose the size and location of their booth. Their computers displayed the results within 90 seconds.

According to the NAFEM press release, "Over 65 percent of the available booths for the NAFEM trade show were sold representing over $3.2 million in revenue for the association. This easily surpasses the dollar amount of any previous one-day e-commerce event in trade show history."

NAFEM estimates that exhibitors who participated online collectively saved more than $68,000 in travel-related costs. The full press release can be found at www.nafem.org/news/9901a.html.

The Significance The importance of this event lies in the integration of CAD technology--what's behind the floor mapping software--with Internet technology to completely redefine a standard business process.

And this brings me to the larger point about working the Web: The Internet allows businesses to automate tasks all the way through to the customer--in effect, automating the full business cycle. The implications are enormous. Potentially, all phases of meeting planning and delivery can be redesigned to allow our customers to talk directly to our meeting systems.

I'm not suggesting taking people out of the sales and service loop. Having been victimized myself by enough customer service automation traps to want to return to candles and quill pens, I don't recommend removing the human touch. But customer communication can be greatly expanded by the new interactive visual tools provided by the Internet.

Space drawings like NAFEM's represent only the beginning. The jump from choosing booths online to conducting the entire trade show online is a short one. For more information about automating the floor planning task or other aspects of the event planning business, check out the ExpoCAD Web site, as well as those of other providers in the field such as TSCentral (www.tscentral.com) or Blue Dot Software (www.bluedot.com).