Throw out your meeting facility guides and dusty stacks of hotel brochures. Forget about faxing or overnight mailing your request for proposals directly to hotels. These methods of finding and booking meeting facilities are rapidly giving way to Web products that are faster, more convenient, and richer in detail.

The first online RFP site appeared in January 1996. The Radisson Miyako Hotel San Francisco offered a simple meeting space request form. In the four years since, a plethora of Web sites has sprung up, offering everything from extensive, searchable meeting facility databases to automated RFP forms that you can send to multiple facilities to, most recently, online meeting space auctions.

Since these sites vary considerably, this two-part column (part II will appear in an upcoming issue of Association Meetings) will help you sort them out. It includes all the major sites (and some of the minor ones), with detailed information regarding database size/usefulness, pricing models, and special features (see box for criteria).

AllMeetings (www.allmeetings.com) Database--4,000 hotels. Searching a specific example, "Seattle area," yielded 42 listings. Listings were not very complete (two of the major meeting properties in Seattle not included). Many listings had only basic information--no photos, floor plans, meeting-related details.

Filtering--By region (U.S. only), state and metro area, minimum capacity, number of guest rooms, star rating, hotel type, and a variety of amenities (golf, fitness center, business services, etc.)

RFP--Requests meeting and hotel rooms, catering and contact information, and contact method; sent to in-house site selection staff; 24- to 48-hour response.

Hot Rates--Minimal listings Additional Features--The "Budget Estimator" asks for details on air travel, catering needs, and desired room rates, and prepares a detailed budget based on estimated costs. Site also offers eight meeting planning checklists, including information on everything from setup to follow-up.

Convention Company (www.theconventioncompany.com)

Database--None. The site provides online lead collection for this site selection firm.

RFP--Fields for contact information, group history, location requirements, number of sleeping rooms required, and meeting room information, with space for free-form information

Hot Rates--Minimal

EventSource (www.eventsource.com; database also accessible through Trade Show Central, www.tscentral.com)

Database--More than 10,000 properties. Especially good at including nontraditional venues (2,000 non-hotel venues listed). Seattle search yielded 115. Meeting facility information is detailed, including a picture of the property, profile, full listing of meeting space dimensions and capacities. Floor plans are sometimes included.

Filtering--By name, city, region, facility type, number of guest rooms, golf, beach, and four- or five-star/diamond rating. Facilities can be sorted by city or name.

RFP--The "Bookit" RFP form asks for contact information, dates, desired location, rate, sleeping rooms and meeting space needed, food and beverage, group history. Form automatically distributed by e-mail and batch fax to qualifying hotels; responses forwarded to user. Event-Source follows up the lead to the hotel and promises quotes within 24 to 48 hours by e-mail. Users can archive and retrieve past RFPs for future events.

Hot Rates--Extensive section, searchable by city, metro area, region, state, country

Additional Features--A destination guide, including links for maps, airports, weather, golf courses, attractions, restaurants, and event supplies. This site also rolled out the first-ever online auction for meeting space--especially useful for short-term, small group business.

Hot Dates/Hot Rates (www.hotdateshotrates.com)

Database--About 1,500 listings. Seattle search yielded 11 properties.

Filtering--Searchable by city, state/region/country, individual property, and chain

RFP--Sent directly to hotels by e-mail or fax; or use "Tracker" feature, which submits RFPs to HelmsBriscoe Performance Group, a third-party site selection firm, to do the searching (10-room minimum).

Hot Rates--Searchable by city, state, region, country, property, and hotel chain

International Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus

(Currently moving its database from www.iacvb.org to its new site www.officialtravelinfo.com, designed for the meeting planner and the general traveler.)

Database--450 meeting destinations (IACVB member sites); the new site will include non-IACVB locations.

Filtering--Destination information (links to IACVB members) found by following the links to member sites.

RFP--Users can attach their own RFP document or fill out an online form asking for contact information, meeting profile, exhibit information, service requirements (AV, car rental, golf, etc.), meeting history, information on future meetings, and general comments.

Hot Rates--None

Additional Features--Additional information includes meeting industry event calendar and member resources.

Industry Meeting Network (IMN) (www.industrymeetings.com)

Database--About 250 luxury properties. A search of "Seattle" brought up three properties.

RFP--The form is fed to the staff at IMN to handle the site selection information; 48-hour response time.

Hot Rates--A limited number, searchable by month or by location

MADSearch International Inc. (www.madsearch.com)

Database--More than 4,500 meeting facilities. A search of Seattle yielded 44 facilities. Basic hotel information includes number of meeting rooms and square footage of the largest room. Expanded listings, when available (only one hotel in the Seattle example had one), are more comprehensive, including site descriptions, pictures, meeting space specs and diagram, menus, and a hot link to Web site.

Filtering--Numerous filters, including selections for golf, fitness centers, and other amenities

RFP--Includes fill-in boxes for contact information and a general comment for meeting request information. They are provided to the hotel for free (via e-mail or fax), with a follow-up to the hotel from MADSearch.

Hot Rates--Not listed. Can sign up for free weekly e-mail newsletter that features special rates and dates from properties that pay for the expanded listings.

Meeting City Inc. (www.meetingcity.com)

Database--Claims the largest searchable database of hotels on the Web, with 60,000 properties. Especially strong for non-U.S. destinations and smaller properties with minimal meeting space. Property detail is basic; no spe-cifics on meeting space. An extensive non-hotel supplier database has more than 10,800 listings in 59 categories.

Filtering--By city and facility name

RFP--Online form fed to a site-selection service (Windsor Consultants) requires 10-room minimum. RFPs are provided for meeting facilities, corporate cruises, charters, air charters, and Caribbean estates.

Hot Rates--None

Hotel and Meeting Facility Database--What's most important for site selection is the size and usefulness of the online database. The larger the database and the more meeting-spacerelated detail (floor plans, pictures of meeting space, meeting room specs, etc.) the better. The biggest sites have more than 10,000 meeting facility listings. For the purpose of this article, I used a sample city, Seattle, as a benchmark.

Filtering--Generally, the more filtering capability, the better. If you are looking for a four-star hotel with at least 800 sleeping rooms and a meeting room of at least 10,000 square feet, in a warm climate with a business center and golf, you will need a site capable of finding the hotels that meet these specific criteria.

RFP--A number of Web sites allow you to fill out a single request form and send it to all the selected hotels electronically. Some sites consist of nothing more than an online form to generate leads for a third-party site selection firm. Others distribute the leads directly to the hotels or to the appropriate convention and visitors bureau. A few let you save your RFP in order to copy it for future use. There are great differences in the ease of use and extensiveness of detail requested.

Hot Rates--Web sites are used increasingly to broadcast rapidly changing hotel inventory, but they vary in how effectively they do so.