Industry Conference Fuels Debateon Future of Meetings Technology It was the software package that was supposed to create, at long last, a standardized platform for the electronic exchange of meeting data between hotels and planners. Then, just weeks before the much-anticipated launch of PlanSoft Ajenis and Meetings Exchange at April's Meetings & Exhibitions Technology Conference (METCON) in Rosemont, IL, the industry's most publicized partnership fell apart when Arthur Esch, chief scientist for MXI, Inc. (formerly Meetings Exchange, Inc.), Leonardtown, MD, split from Twinsburg, OHbased PlanSoft to develop his own site selection software product (see below).
The breakup was a fitting symbol of the frustration planners and hoteliers displayed at METCON about meetings technology and its future. In seminars and exhibits, attendees saw first-hand the proliferation of competing products that promise solutions to everything from site selection to convention housing. "Are we back where we started from?" one planner was overheard asking. He was referring to the new Passkey housing product and its possible competition with THISCO UltraRes--but his question hit the center of the debate at METCON. With all their hype and promise, speakers said, technological solutions aren't going to be solutions unless standards are set.
The urgent need for standards was voiced emphatically at the second general session. "Associations such as the American Society of Association Executives [ASAE], Professional Convention Management Association [PCMA], and Meeting Professionals International [MPI] have to provide leadership," declared panelist Ed Paradine, former brand vice president, Marriott Convention & Resort Hotels, and now general manager, market vice president with the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. "Those associations have to come in without a profit motive and decide on a common highway," he continued, drawing audience applause. "We need to link these three associations and provide a common platform."
In a later interview, Paradine added, "We have to say to each other that electronic commerce is coming, and let's get the standards right before competing forces take over. I don't want this to be a way for PCMA or ASAE or MPI to make money, or a way for one association to push itself in front of the other two."
ASAE president R. William Taylor, CAE, responds that although ASAE is a part owner of PlanSoft, it views the product as a member service. "We bought into [PlanSoft] because the meetings industry needed it," he says, adding, "We would be unhappy if in the long term we lost money, but we don't expect any immediate appreciation."
While PlanSoft, with its industry-wide alliance of associations and suppliers, including, ASAE, MPI, Hyatt, ITT Sheraton, and Marriott Hotels, was supposed to set the standard, the spinning off of Meetings Exchange makes that hope look bleak. Even if PlanSoft is launched successfully, "you have a for-profit venture taking a leadership role in standardization, and I think that is problematic," says Paradine.
Taking up the challenge, Taylor announced at METCON that the "Unity Team," composed of representatives from MPI, ASAE, PCMA, International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus (IACVB), and International Association for Exposition Management (IAEM), would meet to discuss standards May 29, during the Greater Washington (DC) Society of Association Executives Springtime in the Park. But even if the industry associations take a strong leadership stance, for now, planners still have to contend with a fast-growing and seemingly chaotic marketplace.
The PlanSoft/MXI Split Explanations vary as to why the agreement between PlanSoft and MXI collapsed recently, with each group preparing to launch its own product. "We just thought it would be more efficient for each of us to get our respective services running independently and then look at how to work together in the future," says MXI's Esch. Not exactly the reason offered by PlanSoft president Edward J. Tromczynski. He says Esch did not accept PlanSoft's operations strategies. "We have very different standards of excellence," Tromczynski says. The joint venture, established last summer, was something that PlanSoft's industry partners had pushed for. The agreement took a long time to hammer out, says Tromczynski, "because we had difficulty agreeing on our operation process and standards. Our fears and concerns came true." He is quick to add that the joint venture did seem to make sense and was a good decision on the part of the PlanSoft partnership. As for a reunion, Tromczynski says, "Our stance is simply that we need to consider anybody who really brings value to our partnership, but today we can't see what value [MXI] would bring."
The breakup has raised concerns among industry experts that, rather than setting standards, PlanSoft and MXI will now emerge as competitors. Both products, for example, include site selection components. ASAE's Taylor remains hopeful that the two will team up again, observing, "Together they offer a complete package. Each separately offers a lot, but not a complete package. There is sufficient overlap that they can turn out to be competitive and cost the planner more." Tromczynski acknowledges the potential competition. "There are some areas of overlap," he says, but declares he is not worried. "We address all stages of the planning process. Our stuff is untouchable."
Given the split, it's unlikely that anyone at METCON was surprised at the announcement of further delays in the release of either product. Current prediction? PlanSoft Ajenis modules will be available this summer, according to Tromczynski, who characterizes the process as "evolutionary delivery." He expects software testing to continue throughout the summer, and Marriott may start testing the software with customers. Individual copies of the software for planners will probably be priced at under $500, according to Tromczynski, $6,000 for network versions for hotels. He cautioned that there was still no published price. As of early May, 130 hotels were on board.
MXI was scheduled to launch a Web site on May 1, according to Esch, where meeting planners can do in-depth site visits of cities, hotels, and other suppliers. At press time, planners could see the site, at www.mxi.net, but it was not yet functioning. The site is to incorporate Optimum Settings, a combination computer-aided drawing and event scheduling/budgeting program (for PCs only) created by CEO Software, Tucson, AZ, for planners to use in creating banquet event orders (BEOs); HotelView, a service providing full-motion video of hotel properties offered by HotelView Corporation, Boca Raton, FL; a custom meeting resume creation service; a site database; and a meeting industry news service called @MXI Tribune. The site's software will work with standard Web browsers, standard communications protocols, and both PC and Mac platforms. Online, full-motion video will be available only to those planners using cable modems or those who are able to download files via satellite; for everyone else, video will be supplied via CD-ROM.
Planners will be able to subscribe to MXI.NET for $15 per month, explains Esch. Members of PCMA, ASAE, MPI, and the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives will receive complimentary subscriptions. Esch will also charge suppliers for listings and sell advertising space at the site.
Passkey: Housing Solution? Passkey, a new system for automating housing, caused yet another stir at METCON, with planners questioning whether the product was being positioned as a competitor to the newly launched, and IACVB-endorsed, THISCO UltraRes.
The answer is "No, no, no," clarifies Robert W. Motley, president of the Cohasset, MAbased Passkey Systems, and a 25-year hotel industry veteran.
THISCO UltraRes is an automated data transfer system that allows housing vendors to download rooming lists directly into participating hotels' databases. (See "IACVB Endorses UltraRes System," page 19, in our April issue; and "Is UltraRes the Answer?," page 26, February issue.)
Passkey, however, is an interactive, centralized database, explains Motley, that will allow housing vendors, meeting organizers, and hotels access to a meeting's reservations information. All parties can share information past the troublesome cut-off date and until the day of arrival. Planners will be able to get pick-up reports anytime they choose, and be able to catch those attendees who are holding multiple reservations. Convention histories will be available the day a meeting leaves the hotel--and will be more accurate.
Delegates will benefit as well. Viewing online maps, attendees can choose a hotel room by comparing rates, locations, and amenities--and can make online room reservations directly with the hotel. This eliminates the usual--and sometimes contentious--step of having the housing vendor collect money and then pass it to the hotels. If Passkey works, it could be an automated answer to some of the issues addressed in the 1992 PCMA White Paper on Citywide Housing, because, for example, by providing a system for accurately tracking attendees it will make managing room blocks much more efficient.
Motley plans to market Passkey to whomever is handling convention housing, whether it be the CVB, the meeting organizer, or a third-party vendor. The cost will range from three to six dollars per actual reservation, with no charge for cancellation. Front-end costs will depend on the computer systems the housing vendor has in place.
"My vision is to automate the task of housing so the housing companies will spend more time on service and not get so bogged down with tasks," says Motley. At press time, Passkey was being beta tested with 30 New Orleans hotels and three housing companies. Motley hoped to be out of the test phase by the end of May.
As for THISCO UltraRes, Motley says once he has the housing data, he can download it to the hotel through UltraRes, if that is the data transfer system the hotel is using.
Will he go after endorsements like the IACVB endorsement of UltraRes? He is presenting his product to industry associations in the hope they will endorse it as "a good way, but not the way," he says.