Key Findings * Top uses of the Internet: meeting destination and facility research, meeting registration, sale of association services and products, and e-mail.
* The verdict is still out on the overall usefulness of online RFPs and meeting auction services. Many refinements are needed, according to respondents.
* Overwhelmingly, respondents said they were more productive, thanks to the Internet. Many also said they are more involved in marketing and developing online programs.
* Most said they don't know enough about for-profit companies that provide online education and commerce activities to gauge whether this "new media" poses a threat to associations and their meetings.
Five years ago we launched the first "special section" on how technology affects. The sweep and pace of change since then is truly striking. In 1995, there were about three Web sites specifically for the meetings industry, few associations with a Web presence, and a huge number of Web sites in general were "under construction." Moreover, AOL hadn't yet offered Internet access. "Most association meeting planners are not yet ready and the Web is not yet ready for them," one of the articles in our series concluded.
In the digital age, five years is an eon or two, of course. Still, the speed with which Internet options have proliferated- not just for consumers but for the meetings industry-is dizzying. Today there are dozens of dot-com companies vying for a piece of the "transaction business" conducted by corporate and association meetings groups. The extent to which associations, often considered slow-moving compared to corporations, have embraced the possibilities of the Internet, is also surprising. Keep in mind that in 1995, few associations had a Web site, and the topic of debate at industry meetings was whether an association really needed a "home page" on the Web--or was this whole Internet thing a passing fad?
Our first survey devoted exclusively to understanding how association meeting and event organizers use the Internet shows that for the most part, associations have gotten well beyond the "home page" mind-set (thinking of their Web site as a kind of yellow pages) and are tapping Internet for meeting management, research, and promotion--using it for everything from site selection to e-mail marketing, registration, housing and speaker program management. Do you think electronic RFP services provide a useful tool?
While many have also tapped the Web as a way to sell association products and services, a much smaller group has latched on to the next phase: using the Internet to create new products and services and new revenue streams, for example: online marketplaces or business exchanges, webcasting, and online education programs.
In the vanguard are associations for whom the Internet has led to a fundamental redefinition of what they can offer as not-for-profit entities. This group has created Web portals offering business-to-business e-commerce opportunities, and many of these portals operate as separate for-profit subsidiaries of parent associations. What do you use the Internet for-or plan to use it for in the next 12 months?*
Percentages are a combination of those who have used the Internet for the listed application, and those who plan to use the Internet for such a purpose within the next year.
What the next five years will bring is anybody's guess. The end of for-profit associations? Partnerships with existing for-profit Web exchanges? More for-profit subsidiaries? Stay tuned: Our August cover story will explore some of these questions.
How do you use the Internet? Fully half of respondents now use the Internet, or plan to use it in the the next 18 months, as tool for meeting planning, with the top three applications being using the Web for destination and facility research, online registration, and other vendor research. (See chart on next page.) At the bottom of the list of usages were virtual trade shows (an ill-defined term, admittedly), webcasting, and online committee meetings.
A healthy percentage also use the Web for the sale of association products and services, but few were currently involved or planned to be involved in brokering the sale of their membership's products or services via the Web (a real business-to-business exchange). Read more about this under the revenues section.
Which electronic RFP services have you used to date? Regarding using the Internet to send RFPs (request for proposals), half of 57 percent of respondents said they currently use the Internet for this purpose, while the other half of that percentage said they planned to so within the next 12 months. Moreover, with 57 percent of respondents saying they weren't sure if electronic RFPs were a useful tool, the verdict is still being formulated on the value of electronic RFPs within the association market.
Those that had used electronic RFPs had some very useful suggestions for making them more effective. This group said that follow-up was not prompt enough, that too many responses to the RFP didn't match requirements, and that some forms were too complex while others didn't provide enough room for important unique details. A good number of respondents wanted to be able to attach an existing file or to paste in information. Overall, the sentiment was that the RFP input process needed to be more flexible, the response time more prompt, and the responses more reflective of RFP requirements. A few of our survey participants also remarked that developing a personal relationship was far more valuable than saving a few thousand dollars by using the electronic RFP process.
Does your association have a strategic policy with regard to integrating the Web into its activities and goals? As for auction sites for meetings, no respondents had ever used such a function to date, although 29 percent said they would consider doing so. Eighty-seven percent said they weren't sure if auction sites for meetings were useful.
WHAT REVENUES are being generated via the Web? Other than meeting registration fees, respondents indicated that they are selling ads, sponsorships, and vendor listings on the Web, as well as association products like books, tapes, subscriptions, memberships, home study courses, and various other educational materials.
Only 6 percent of respondents said that their association's Web site provided an opportunity for exhibitors or members to sell their products or services in a scenario in which the association garners a percentage of revenues generated. However, 16 percent said that probably would have such an arrangement within the next 12 to 18 months, indicating that the number of associations involved in brokering business-to-business sales is tiny but growing.
Do you think commercial online marketplaces, online education, and online professional communities within specific industries and professions will erode participation in in-person meetings and trade shows of associations? When asked how much of the association's total annual revenue would most likely be generated via the Web two years from now, 15 percent estimated up to 5 percent of revenues, while a combined 33 percent estimated ranges up to 15 percent; however, 45 percent, the majority, said they simply weren't sure. The fluidity of the marketplace in this area just can't be predicted.
Nonetheless, the influence of the Web is apparent in that 54 percent of respondents said their organization had a strategic plan with regard to integrating the Web into the activities, events, and goals of the association. And another 26 percent said that their organization didn't currently have such a plan but probably would in the next year. Only 9 percent indicated that there were no plans whatsoever for such a strategic approach to the Internet.
How influential are meeting organizers in the development of such a strategic plan? Very influential, said 22 percent of respondents, while 59 percent said moderately influential, and 19 percent said not influential at all. Obviously, how much revenue a group's meeting orgenerates relative to the association's total revenue is an important factor governing responses to this question.
DESCRIBE the impact of the Internet How has the Internet changed planners' jobs? A solid majority of respondents indicated that they were more productive because of the Internet. About a quarter of respondents said that because of the Web, they were more involved with marketing and developing online programs and applications; a slightly smaller percentage said they were more involved in strategic planning within the association as a result of the Internet's impact. Results like these point to a clear direction for professional growth within association meeting and trade show management: more strategic involvement and more involvement with Web-based events and marketing, as well as more partnering with outside organizations in developing Web-related affiliations.
How has the Internet changed your job as a meeting or trade show manager? Most respondents felt that, overall, the Internet will cause moderate to significant change within the association. Interesting comments on this question focused on how the Internet in general provided better communication and management tools (especially for housing and registration) and how it reduced the need for travel for site inspections--although many also acknowledged that online communication is not a real substitute for human contact with vendors.
Will for-profit companies that provide online education and business-to-business e-commerce opportunities within specific professions and industries significantly erode attendance at the in-person meetings of associations? Most respondents said no; however this question sparked a lengthy list of qualifying comments. The impact will vary with the industry being served, noted many respondents. The majority also said that, while nothing will replace face-to-face learning and networking opportunities, there probably will be some erosion of in-person attendance. However, associations could also reach new audiences with Internet-based education and events of their own, not to mention generate new revenues through these activities.
How would you gauge the depth of change that the Internet will cause within your association? What strategic steps have associations taken to integrate the Web into the live events managed by the association? Some respondents were in the planning stages of evolving virtual trade shows and online marketplaces, online education tools, listservs, and online call-for-papers programs. Most were using the Web as a promotion and registration tool.
SURVEY Details We used e-mail rather than "snail mail" to conduct our survey, realizing that in doing so, we were biasing our results somewhat, since not all readers have e-mail or access to the Internet. Further, we also selected from our readership list only those who worked for national associations, with about half of our sample composed of professional associations and the other half of trade organizations. Our sample also contained only those with titles corresponding to the following: CEO/president, director/manager of meetings, director/manager of trade shows, and director/manager of education. Respondents were hyperlinked from our e-mail to a Web site where the survey was posted. We received 203 usable responses out of a sample of 997 readers (after adjusting for undeliverable e-mails). That represents a response rate of 20 percent.
Readers were offered a chance to enter a contest to win a piece of leather luggage. A winner will be announced in our August issue. To all those who participated in our survey, many thanks for your important contribution. *