New approaches to 21st-century meetings from our second annual industry roundtable

Are we in a relationship business anymore? What's the next step in the evolution of meeting planners, CVBs, and hotel sales as electronic RFPs, Internet event management systems, and other technological tools begin to proliferate? Are associations on the verge of becoming obsolete--or are they in for a major redefinition? These were some of the intriguing questions tackled by our group of independent- minded industry professionals at this magazine's second annual roundtable, held this summer at the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives.

Who Needs a National Sales Rep? *Jacy Hanson, American Diabetes Association: Now that we are distributing most of our RFPs electronically, there's no need for us to talk to a human being. A national sales rep handles our big meetings and does some schmoozing. But the person we deal with every day is in Dallas. He's been working with us for six years. We've never met him. We don't know if he has changed jobs and somebody else has just taken his name. [Laughter] But he's distributing our RFPs and getting the information back to us. Would this work for a huge meeting? No! But for small meetings, which are 80 percent of our meetings, it's terrific. I don't have time to get to know a national salesperson anymore.

*Richard Green, Marriott Hotels & Resorts: That concerns me because we are an industry based on relationships. When those relationships are not critical anymore, the role of the national salesperson has to evolve into something else.

*Hanson: Absolutely. Someone should be looking at the totality of my business.

*Joan Eisenstodt, Eisenstodt Associates: That's the function of the national sales manager. But my frustration is twofold. We are all moving toward electronic everything, but a lot of the hotel sales and service people and other types of suppliers can't receive the information because they don't have the software or hardware. Second, relationships can also be formed [with suppliers and buyers] via the Internet, but it takes a new way of learning how to communicate. And that's about generational differences. You still have to know how to write a decent letter and communicate well. And I don't think that we're teaching these skills to people in their twenties.

*Christine Stadler, PlanSoft: That's a big challenge for people on our end of the business. And talking about technology providers, the ones who are going to be most successful are the those who understand that providing the technology alone is not enough. You have to demonstrate that the technology creates efficiencies that get turned back into high-touch customer service.

*Debra Rosencrance, American Academy of Ophthalmology: I disagree with Jacy. I think national salespeople are becoming more important. Our Marriott national salesperson is the best national rep we ever had. We send out e-mails, he follows up. He helps us with our hotel contracts for our citywides. He understands the value of our total business.

*Eisenstodt: For all of us, it's the person and the training he's gotten--not whether he's on the end of a phone or in front of you or at the end of a computer.

*Regina McGee, AM: Are national sales managers able to handle their portfolio of meetings?

*Leslie Mathieu-Hogan, Bos-ton CVB: We found that just the challenge of training new hotel salespeople has been overwhelming. For us, it's about preparing a community to catch the ball when it comes their way, and it's never-ending. At six of the seven hotels that we work with the most for large meetings, the ownership has changed in the last 18 months. And I would say 70 percent of the salespeople have changed.

*Rosencrance: A lot of top sales people have completely left the industry in the last year. And the new national salespeople seem really young to be national salespeople. [Laughter]

*Green: Hotel companies haven't done a great job of building a long-term career path in professional sales in the hospitality industry. Traditionally, you get to a certain level in professional sales, you get bumped up to a director and you never talk to a customer unless there's a problem. So, that's our fault for not having a long-term career path. But we're changing that.

We have traditionally delivered the same level of services to all associations across the board. We're not doing a good job of segmenting. How many of us take a look at our top customers and say, "We're going to give you a higher value-added service and more time from our salesperson"?

You are going to see a change in hospitality sales. It's already happening where hotel salespeople who are proactively selling to top accounts will no longer be located at single properties. They'll no longer focus on one single hotel's bottom line but on 20 associations and what they can contribute to an entire company.

*Jonathan Howe, Howe & Hutton: What do you do, though, to satisfy the need of the owner?

*Green: We are selling this to our owners, saying, "Would you rather have three people selling your hotel at the San Diego Marriott or would you rather have a sales force of 900 who are deployed globally across 55 countries, all selling the San Diego Marriott?

*McGee: Christine, what do you see as an evolving role for CVBs?

*Christine Shimasake, San Diego Convention Center: Every GM today is being judged by rev par [revenue per available room]. For bureaus, our responsibility is to try to get more of that business into a member community. And how are we going to do that? We are going to do that by building our databases on meetings and meeting groups.

Just Call Me Strategist *Patricia Quinlin, Produce Marketing Association: Planners need an understanding of adult learning styles. We have to say to the properties, "No, this seating style is not conducive to adult learning in any way, shape, or form." We need to become experts on distance learning. And we need to reverse the planning process by starting with the

Internet, before we plan the meeting, so we can build its capabilities into our annual meetings--which may not offer a lot of interactivity. Interactivity adds value.

*Eisenstodt: We're trying to figure out how to get part of our annual meeting up on the Web after the meeting. And we've found out that it has to be redesigned. So now it is going to be two months after the meeting before we can get the program up. That doesn't make any sense. So we have to design our programs so that they can be ready to go on the Web immediately.

*Brian Layton, Passkey.com: So it's really refining what a meeting becomes because it's no longer just a four-day stint. You've got to be up on the Web for three to six months before your event and two to three afterwards to really maximize the potential. We were talking earlier about rev par, but really what it comes down to with database marketing is one-to-one marketing strategies. And that's a whole new skill for some meeting planners. You have to maximize what you do with that Web site and all your revenue opportunities.

*Eisenstodt: We planners have allowed training directors, executive directors, and others to drive the education in associations. But now we have an opportunity to begin to drive education. There was a great article in the American Society of Training and Development's magazine about free-agent learners--how people are now getting information from everybody's Web sites. And so they may decide they have an interest in five different associations; they're going to go to them for interactive education as well as for other information. We can drive that.

*Hanson: Meeting professionals need to be strategic leaders. That's my CEO's expectation of me, that I'm a communications strategist. The Web is a tool to enhance my communication strategies. And that doesn't just mean one-to-one marketing to my members. The Web has enabled me to open the entire world to ADA's products and services. So when we're planning a meeting, we're not just looking at a scientific meeting. We are not just looking at the people who might come. We're looking at all the people we know won't come. And that's okay. We can segment some of our Webcasting and program marketing to target specifically their needs.

*Shimasake: And is that a revenue opportunity for you?

*Hanson: Yes.

*Eisenstodt: Part of the problem with associations is, please pardon the expression, they're still run by old white guys. Who don't get it. [Laughter] They're afraid of the Internet. They're not using computers effectively. They don't understand it, and they're the ones holding associations back from change.

*Stadler: We just finished some focus groups among associations, with planners with two to ten years' experience, and I was blown away by what we found. There was always at least one champion on the technology side. Some guy, some gal saying, "You planners don't know about this tool?" And the other people looking at them going, "What is that? What can it do? Electronic RFP, what is that?" One person in the group made the comment that the Internet is not going to catch on. He thought it was a fad. [Laughter]

*Layton: We went through the same exercise with our focus groups. Based on that experience, I think the planners here are the exception to the rule. Some of the senior planners are so inundated with what they've got on their desks that it's very difficult for them to keep track of what's going on in technology. For example, in all the groups that we did, a lot of the technology champions were convinced that Passkey and PlanSoft were exactly the same thing. Another misperception is that Passkey is only about Internet housing. So, we tell people that the basic thing we do is connect all the parties to communicate and manage events on the Internet. And by the way, the fallout of that: Your attendees can go on and shop for a room and get an instant confirmation. Twenty minutes later, people will say, "But it's not for me because most of my folks aren't on the Internet." So it's very difficult to retool the way people are thinking about this technology.

*Rosencrance: Everybody keeps saying we can't put it on the Web because our members don't have access. Well, maybe your members should have access. Physicians, for instance, have to be on the Web. They have patients asking them about drugs they learned about on the Web but that the doctors never heard of. I think it's our job now as planners to say, "If you're not on the Web, you're going to be left behind. So we're going to help you get on the Web."

Barbarians at the Gate *McGee: Here is a very interesting quote about the changing role of associations today. It dovetails with our August cover story on e-commerce. This is a quote from Gary LeBranche, vice president of professional development for the American Society of Association Executives: "Associations may make a financial killing from knowledge management or be killed by it.

The knowledge management revolution won't allow us the luxury of wait-and-see or slow adaptation. The winners will be those with the fastest speed to the market, those who gain market share first. Unprecedented competition from non-association knowledge-providing organizations has begun and will likely increase."

*Hanson: There's an old saying, "They're full of a bunch of useless, old information." There are a lot of associations now that are full of useless information. Groups able to capture the knowledge and create new alliances that enhance their potential audience's knowledge will succeed. We're having meetings and discussions with groups that we never thought we'd talk to--from online pharmaceutical companies to insurance brokerage houses.

*McGee: Is that your role as a communications strategist?

*Hanson: Yes. I am brought in to ask if these two groups are going to have a relationship, how can it be marketed to both our current audience and a potential audience? We have relationships with Deb's organization, with American Heart, with groups we used to compete with.

*Quinlin: One of the things I see as being a big threat to smaller associations is a Web company coming in and saying, "We're going to link all these things. Here is the whole gamut of meetings out there, attendee/consumer, now you pick which one you want to go to. Here are your choices [for meetings, hotel, air travel]. And how much do you want, association planner, for us to sell your event online more than we sell someone else's? "

*Layton: That's not too far away. We've created a strategic alliance with SABRE to wrap the entire travel and housing experience up--so not only the attendee but the planner has one-stop shopping. Web sites for the event industry are coming out of the woodwork today. They are clearinghouses of information for the end-user, the attendee.

*Hogan: The moment that the ROI from their Web site exceeds the ROI from their trade show will really change things for associations.

*McGee: Some associations are reluctant to get involved with business-to-business e-commerce, for example by brokering their exhibitors' sale of product to customers via the association's Web site. They fear antitrust issues.

*Howe: Anytime you have an association involved in the marketing of product, or the opportunity to set terms and conditions for sale or relationships with customers and members, you run into the bugaboo of whether or not you are involved in some kind of price-fixing or restraint-of-trade opportunities.

*McGee: Are we going to see meeting dates and rates regularly up for auction on the Internet?

*Green: Sure.

*Stadler: What exactly it would look like we don't know. We were talking about it.

*Hanson: Chris [Stadler], I think this is going to have a huge impact on you in the near future. Hotel occupancy is starting to make a turn, and it will probably become a buyer's market again now that they're building hotels. And so, when we're putting up our RFPs on PlanSoft or MeetingPath, whatever, then we hope it's going to become a bidding war! Maybe ADA creates a Web site where we post all our RFPs on a closed page for just the hospitality industry, and then we go out to all the national sales people and say, "It's up. You look at it and bid on it."

*Shimasake: I think it's a perfect use for that kind of technology. You can get a lot of information out to a lot of people in a very short amount of time.

*Stadler: But we're going to have to see the changes in the industry. People need to have and use e-mail, for instance.

*Howe: Part of the problem is the expectation with e-mail that when you hit the send button, you're supposed to have a reply within five seconds. In a given day I probably have over a hundred e-mails. And it just drives me crazy.

*Eisenstodt: Last December I was negotiating hotel contracts with a major convention city, and of the 10 hotels for the citywide, at that time, only one of them had e-mail. Only one! Support staff do not have access to e-mail because companies are afraid they are going to play on the Internet. God forbid they should learn something. We've only talked about hotels and convention bureaus--we're not talking about all the other vendors that we use, and they're not there yet with e-mail. So now in our company we've decided that if we can't access you via the Internet, we're not going to do business with you.

Predictions: Fewer Old White Guys

*McGee: Business Week recently published an article called "21 Great Ideas for the 21st Century." Let's go around the room and each person offer a prediction or an idea for our industry for the new millennium.

*Green: I hope hotel sales people are engaged in value-added selling, where they partner with you on the delivery of an experience. Whatever experience you want--educational, social, a combination of all. I hope we are no longer looked at as the rates, dates, and space mongers of the hospitality industry.

*Eisenstodt: There were two predictions in that Business Week issue that struck me most. One was how our time clocks are going to 24-hour days because of the Internet. The second one was that we may not have any need for high schools in the future, since we're already seeing people who are coming out of their junior year in high school to work for technology companies. And the article said they don't have the social skills in some cases. So I think we need 24-hour meetings so that people who wake up at four in the morning on the West Coast to be with their East Coast people can get into an online discussion group about a session that's coming up that day at the meeting. We're going to see a wide divergence of age at meetings--people from 16 to 75. And we're going to have to make very different accommodations in terms of education and experiences for them.

*Hogan: I've been intrigued lately in thinking about how new technologies in the development of databases might enable us to be more efficient in certain ways--how within our own communities these databases may evolve to talk to each other. We're beginning to see that in little ways. Microsoft has come up with several open standards that all these databases can write to. Newmarket has 80 percent of the software in managing hotel sales. There are all these divergent RFP systems out there. And if they could all go through one standardized process, that might help the industry.

*Stadler: I read somewhere that the two biggest speaking topics at meetings are, number one, technology and, number two, the stress that technology creates. [Laughter] If the '80s were about quality and the '90s were about process re-engineering, I think the first part of the millennium is going to be about the velocity of change--which means speed and direction. It's going to be about the things Jacy mentioned: Getting up to speed strategically. I think technology providers have an obligation to help with that. At PlanSoft we have many 20-somethings. I love 20-somethings, I used to be one 20 years ago. They are so enamored of the tools. They think, "Oh let's do it faster. We don't need a better user interface. This is simple." But if our users can't use it, it's not simple enough.

*Layton: This really is a relationship business and that's never going to change. Our customer service team is so important to our success as a company. Without them we wouldn't be around today. I think planners are going to become knowledge experts, people who strategically drive the communications continuum out to members and nonmembers. People who don't embrace that kind of thinking aren't going to thrive five to ten years from now. And it's frustrating right now for planners to have to open up a book this thick to figure out who they are going to work with from a technology basis. It's up to folks like Passkey and PlanSoft to bring a more collaborative offering that makes sense to planners so they're not working with various vendors. So you're going to see companies like ours, with very highly professionalized product and service deliveries, working together to wrap it in a bow and make it easier for attendees and planners to access.

*Shimasake: In the next five years, I see that sales and services will merge at more and more CVBs so that you won't have the separate lead-generator process. CVB professionals will increasingly become experts who understand delegates and visitors and what they need when they come to a destination--and how those needs affect your meeting. We see an increase of families traveling for dual purposes, and a willingness to take kids out of school to go to the annual meeting. As a destination, we can help you take advantage of these kinds of trends.

*Rosencrance: I see the next couple of years as being really interesting for associations in that they have to change the way they do business. We can't sit around and have a committee to decide what's on the agenda for the next committee meeting, and then get six months down the road and still not have made any decisions about a key item. It is not going to work any longer. I think that the technology involved with the meeting is going to drive change in the rest of the association.

*Hanson: Meeting professionals need to be communications strategists. And our industry partners need to be able to work with us to create the tools to move us into the 21st century, and they need to be able to keep up with us so we can be effective communication strategists.

*Quinlin: Associations, CVBs, hotels, and all successful businesses, have to drive change through new technology. We either drive it or we get run over by it. In my association about 30 percent of our members were Internet-capable and now it's 67 percent, I believe. Phenomenal! We drove that change. And like Joan [Eisenstodt], if our industry partners don't have Internet capability and e-mail, I'm not going to work with them. That's how you drive these changes. Associations will have to make partnerships with other associations, bureaus, and hotels to survive and to add value to what we do. I see the international market as our biggest growth segment through technology.

*Howe: I'll say one thing for sure: In the year 2005 there will be fewer old white guys. [Laughter] One of the problems I face as a lawyer is that the law has never been capable of keeping up with technology. We're deciding Internet cases based upon cases that were decided in the 1890s. There was a case in which something derogatory about a company was posted on an Internet bulletin. And the New York court relied upon a decision from about 1890 as to the liability of the saloon keeper who was put on notice because somebody had scrawled something derogatory on the men's room wall! Technology is going to become more and more encumbered by new laws. One of the biggest concerns of all is privacy encryption. There's a law that's pending, or the Justice Department is pushing, to require that any encryption devices must be made available for purposes of search warrants, which raises the question of how something can be really encrypted. It's going to be a delight over the years to see how this plays out!

Roundtable Participants Jonathan Howe senior partner, Howe and Hutton, Ltd., Chicago, Ill.

Debra Rosencrance vice president, meetings, American Academy of Ophthalmology, San Francisco, Calif.

Richard Green executive director, association sales, Marriott Hotels & Resorts Washington, D.C.

Jacy Hanson director, meeting services, American Diabetes Association, Washington, D.C.

Christine Shimasake vp sales/marketing, convention center, San Diego Convention Center Corp.

Leslie Mathieu-Hogan vice president marketing, Greater Boston CVB, Boston, Mass.

Brian Layton At press time, he left Passkey.com in Quincy, Mass.; and is now with TrainingNet.com

Joan Eisenstodt president, Eisenstodt Associates Washington, D.C.

Christine Stadler director of marketing, PlanSoft Corporation Twinsburg, Ohio

Patricia Quinlin director, conventions and meetings, Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

Regina McGee, editor, Association Meetings