Like a lot of technology-based tools, meeting management software is sometimes hyped as a solution to meeting management problems. It can make meeting planning much more efficient, but it can also make life miserable if it isn't efficient in the way you want it to be. Here are nine caveats (and a bonus tenth) to be considered before plunking down cash.

1. Do I Really Need This (Part I)? Associations that have depended on their management information systems (MIS) or data processing (DP) departments to produce reports sometimes decide to "empower" their meeting planners by putting the membership database in their hands. Planners need to realize that while meeting management software should take the drudgery out of creating meeting specifications, it comes with new responsibilities: They can't ask MIS to create reports anymore--it's their job now. New membership information will not transfer itself from a letter or telephone call--somebody has to key it in. Before making the leap, take the MIS director to lunch and find out who is supposed to do what; then, if necessary, adjust staffing requirements accordingly.

2. Who Accommodates Whom? Does the software work the way your organization works, or are you expected to modify what you do to fit the software? Nearly every meeting software vendor claims operational flexibility, but their definitions vary. The largest vendors offer add-on modules for such functions as accounting and education credit-tracking. Find out what the vendor's policy is regarding modifications. Some will offer immediate programming assistance (always for a price); others may incorporate your suggestion into the next release--meaning you will have to wait.

Always ask about maintenance contracts. A good one will automatically send you updates to the software--and additional training and technical support. The price is usually well worth the investment.

3. What Happens to My Files? What happens to the information you already have? Vendors have been know to trivialize file importation--make them show you how it works on a copy of your files! Quirky things can happen, like middle initials disappearing from names.

Depending on the size and condition of your original file, data conversion can be a big deal. Every additional field is another opportunity for data to get scrambled--or misplaced. A two-line address field converted to a single-line address field is a small mistake, but it can have grave consequences in terms of your ability to do something as basic as print a postcard.

4. Garbage In, Garbage Out. Databases are only as good as the information they contain. As long as you're converting your old database to work with a new software system, inquire about a full-fledged data conversion. Some vendors will conduct an analysis of the data. Get an estimate, and expect it to be higher than you think. Inquire about such services as de-duping (removing duplicate records and fields) and zip code matching--checking zips against a current National Change Of Address (NCOA) nine-digit zip-code file.

If your organization has plans to expand the number of fields in an individual record

to include information like educational preferences or even hotel preferences, bring that up with the vendor before data conversion.

5. Who Knows How to Run This? The power of a meeting software package is inversely proportional to its ease of use. Even vendors who sell software that runs on graphical user interface systems--Windows and Mac OS--may suggest several days of training, at a price. Make sure one of the persons attending the training session is the meetings director.

Ask to see the support documentation.

Will you be expected to refer to it with any regularity? If so, can you understand it?

6. Do I Really Need This (Part II)? Organizations that hold meetings at a single hotel or conference facility may not need a full-fledged meeting management program. If the idea is to provide badges for a day-long seminar and tickets to the networking reception afterward, look at badge-making systems. They cost less, they're easy to run, and many will also produce sign-up sheets and other attendance-listrelated documents.

7. Can I Make Annual Reports? When it comes to report generation, never assume anything. Vendors may say they have 100 reporting functions built into the software, but if they don't create the report you need, there might as well not be any. Make a list of all the reports you need; classify them by what information needs to be presented and when they need to be produced. Include even such pedestrian activities as sending confirmation letters, creating sign-up sheets, and invoicing attendees.

8. Will It Work at the Hotel? If you are planning to register attendees on site, find out first whether you'll need a network version of the software that will connect several screens, so attendees can be processed quickly. If you plan to print badges and give out individualized tickets for sessions and meal functions, be sure to have enough printers to handle demand. When you're looking at software, ask for a badge-and-ticket demo.

Consider also who will be sitting at that screen when registration begins. Staff who can work on member records at their

desks may find themselves suddenly error-prone while working with a different computer setup in front of a dozen impatient attendees. Use only your most proficient computer jockeys on site.

9. Do I Really Need This (Part III)? Meeting software packages may be built from one or more of three basic components: A relational database program such as DBase, FileMaker, or Access; a scheduler/calendar based on a spreadsheet or other program with a function to catch conflicts; and a computer-aided design (CAD) program for room setups.

Some vendors specialize in one of these; some offer modular systems that promise to integrate all these functions. Before investing in any of them, think about whether you really need to create an editable schematic of the grand ballroom at your favorite hotel.

Bonus Caveat: Can I Connect to the Web? What happens when your organization begins accepting online registrations? Can you integrate information gathered from your Web site to your meeting management database? The answer has to do with the programming language used to write your software. Your vendor knows--or you can call Microsoft and ask them which vendors support Web/database interfaces. n