With at least 170 meeting planning software products on the marke--for everything from pre-meeting budget-making to post-meeting analysis--how do you choose the best product for your company? I suggest four steps: (1) Consider your office environment; (2) look at your software; (3) determine your requirements; and (4) ask the right questions.

Your Office Environment First, take a look at your company's level of computerization. If you answer "yes" to the following questions, you will need IS (Information Services) support:

* Do you work on a corporate-wide network?

* Is your database used throughout the company?

* Do you wish to integrate new software products with this database?

Many meeting planning software products are built around databases. Most can export and import into other company-wide databases, but this may be difficult. Your IS department or an outside consultant can help you. If you are interested in tackling a specific problem--room diagramming, for example--you may not require as much IS support.

Your Software The next step is to consider the software you are using now and identify places where automation can help in the future. Analyze your work flow and see where the bottlenecks are occurring. Answer these questions:

* Which general business software (Access, Excel, etc.) do you use?

* What meeting planning software products do you use?

* What problems exist with your network, database, or software products?

* What is necessary to streamline your meeting planning tasks?

* What works well and what doesn't?

* What is your budget and time frame for any changes?

* Which specific tasks and product categories will help the most?

Your Specific Requirements Now, focus on exactly what you'll need. On the high end, corporate and general meeting planning suites handle an array of tasks and can cost from $2,000 to more than $100,000. These programs will require involvement with your IS and accounting departments, since many are companywide solutions to data flow and accounting, in addition to meeting planning. But there are many task-specific, less-expensive meeting planning software products, including badge-making and budgeting, that may not need as much IS support.

The Questions to Ask Once you have focused on specific vendors, questions you might bring to the table to ask include:

* How long has your company been in business?

* How many employees do you have?

* What operating system does the software run on and what are the system requirements?

* What are your support polices?

* Can you provide references?

* What are the costs, and how are the costs calculated?

* Is there a demo version of the product?

Fortunately, many software companies now have Web sites with significant information, product descriptions, screen shots, and even demos.

For further information, see the feature article, "Meeting Software Review," which appeared in the August 1999 issue of Association Meetings magazine.