As meetings become ever more complicated, with more third parties and new technology products and services entering the marketplace, a ground swell of support has arisen in the last two years for the establishment of "standards"--or in the safer legal parlance, "accepted practices." The Convention Liaison Council (CLC) is leading the effort (see news story, page 16), focusing on seven key areas for development of accepted industry practices. These include housing, contracts, meeting profiles, terminology, meeting history reports, requests for proposals (RFPs), and meeting resumes/event orders. Considering the diversity of the players involved, it is a daunting undertaking, but an important one in the evolution of the profession. We gathered a group of industry leaders earlier this year, during the American Society of Association Executives annual meeting in Nashville, for a frank discussion of the possibilities--and the challenges.

Richard Green: Looking at the seven areas being considered, I'm seeing that technology is starting to drive standardization. For instance, technology is driving new ways of handling housing, such as Passkey. And if PlanSoft's Ajenis is successful, that's another technology-driven product. The willingness of people to wait for these kinds of products shows there is a desire in the marketplace to reach a common platform. Our clients are even asking us for one contract within our company--and we have 1,600 hotels.

Jacy Hanson: You're right, but our threshold of patience is very limited at this point. PlanSoft has been in discussion for as long as I can remember. [Ed. Note: PlanSoft's Ajenis was launched in August.] Many planners are tired of waiting--we're standardizing our own processes electronically, internally. I've spent $25,000 this year bringing my software up to speed, and I've got another $50,000 to get my database management logistics up and running. As a teacher of meeting professionals, I'm giving students my standardized specs and hoping they'll use them, so that we'll be starting our standardized processes.

Jonathan Howe: A problem with any effort to standardize is that every meeting is unique, and there is no way you can have a contract or terms or conditions that deal with everything. So I believe not so much in standard contract language as in a checklist.

Joan Eisenstodt: As a former CLC delegate and as a teacher of people in this industry, I know that only a fraction of people in the industry have any understanding of standardization. So, unless suppliers embrace the concept, it's not going to matter what anybody else decides to do.

Regina McGee: I want to bring up a related point. We published an article in 1995 on the recommended post-con report that CLC delegates--suppliers and planners--had developed after two years of research. The report was very thorough, and it was available on disk, and in short and long forms. But no one used it and we were curious why not. The answer was that CLC had no power to enforce its use, the hotels preferred to use their own, and while planners liked the form, they expressed a fear that if they insisted on its use, they would lose some negotiating leverage. I'd like to ask the two hotel people here if that CLC post-con form is anywhere in your systems?

Green: Jim Luce, a Marriott salesperson, helped to design that form, so it was very embedded in Marriott's culture when it was created. What happened to that post-con form as an industry accepted practice? There were no marketing dollars put up to push its use. The form was created up here--on the corporate level--but there was no pull down to the property level.

Christie Hicks: It's the same thing in our company. It is in the system, but inconsistent at best. And I think clients should insist on its use, but then customers say, "Well, you don't ever give us the [pick-up] information." So, there's a shared responsibility. Hotels aren't living up to our end of the bargain.

Bill Peeper: The post-con form isn't the issue, it's the post-con mentality. IACVB [International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus] has been in the post-con form business for 83 years. And for 83 years, bureaus have taken hits because the goofy information [that we get back] stinks. Well, let me tell you where the goofy information comes from! And now IACVB sends the forms back to planners so that they can comment on them and we don't get them back.

McGee: Christie, what's the bottom line on the post-con info?

Hicks: The reality is the contract is for 1,000 rooms, and we figure that somewhere along the line you pick up 900 or 875, so that's what we block internally. And we take 1,000 reservations and they're washed down to 875. And the hotel's full because you've got every [room] in town--but [the overflow rooms] are in this wonderful category called "transient," which is really "displaced group." And so we say you picked up 875 rooms. And then you go to the next city, and you say you need 1,000 rooms, and they say "No, you don't--you only picked up 875." So we play games with the numbers because it's worth more money. That's the reality. We'd be lying if we said anything else. Transient pays a higher rate. And after your cutoff, if we can sell you at $230, why would we sell you $130?

Jim Daggett: Christie, thank you for being honest. That practice by hotels is really causing us problems. Just a couple of other points: Number one, the people sitting around this table are probably representative of five percent of the market, if that. I do a tremendous amount of training, and it's incredible to see the number of people involved in planning who have no clue when somebody mentions post-conference report. They glaze over. "You mean I can ask for that? IACVB has got that information?"

Eisenstodt: If they even know what IACVB is.

Daggett: Right. Number two, CLC doesn't have marketing dollars. The arbitration option [also developed by CLC] might have been a great thing, but you can't create something and then forget to tell anyone! Having served on the PCMA [Professional Convention Management Association] standardization committee, and with MPI [Meeting Professionals International], I think the other issue is the mentality of the planners. They're thinking about standardizing the form rather than, as Jonathan is suggesting, the information. So let's standardize checklists of post-con info. I don't care if this information comes to me on a napkin.

Hanson: I do almost 200 meetings a year, and I see a few post-con reports if I'm lucky. And that's after begging and pleading. So that's challenge number one. I get an IACVB report every quarter and we go through it very carefully, but we never get anything from the actual bureau of the city. We don't care if rooms are booked at the transient rate as part of our group, but we still need to get a report that we used those rooms. There's no reason why a hotel system can't still track those.

Eisenstodt: Let me backtrack for a moment. I know we're talking more about association meetings, but I think you have to look at the world of meetings. NBTA [National Business Travel Association] is not a member of CLC?

Howe: Correct.

Eisenstodt: They represent an incredible number of corporate meeting and travel managers. I'm going out to a corporation in Indiana in two weeks to meet with their staff of 20 meeting planners, none of whom belong to MPI, PCMA, or ASAE [American Society of Association Executives], and only two of whom belong to NBTA. I don't think that anybody has a clue what the universe of meeting planners is in this country. So it's wonderful to say we need to put some practices in place, but you've got to ask how to reach all the people in planning who aren't represented in any of the industry organizations.

THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY Viveca Kimble: There's an aspect of that [PlanSoft] that doesn't help me because the majority of my meetings are convention-center-based and rather than hotel-based.

Tamar Hosansky: What would help if not PlanSoft?

Kimble: As many people have indicated, all groups are different. In fact, we have four major meetings that have trade shows--and all four of those shows are different. So even I can't have a standardized, independent form for the things I do [within our own organization]. I would agree that the list or menu approach is the way to go. Another point is the technology issue at the convention centers--many of them don't have the technology. Period.

Eisenstodt: And hotels are not technologically where most of us are in organizations. There are still hotel companies that don't get e-mail, internal or external. I agree with what Richard Green said earlier about technology driving standardization across the industry, but until everybody is technologically even on the lowest plane, we can't do this [standardization]. We need to continue to look at standards, but once they are set, they're going to change the next day.

Christine Shimasaki: That's a very important point. We can spend the next year and a half focusing on what these accepted practices are. But then as soon as we get there, the dynamics of the technology that suppliers and planners are using will have changed. And that's frustrating. So I think that it is unrealistic to think we can come up with all of these standards at once. The PCMA Standards and Recommended Practices Committee asked the question, "Where would be the easiest place to start?" and terminology came up. But when you start looking at something as simple as an RFP, every customer has a different need, and even though I would love as a supplier to be able to take a standardized approach--just for the efficiencies gained on the operations end--there is no way we could.

Hicks: It's funny, Richard [Green] and I had dinner with a customer last night. We were talking about this and her response was, "I think standardization is a wonderful thing as long as they do it my way!"

Peeper: It goes back, Christie, to what you said--we're not going to get standardization until everybody decides they want to do it the same way, because when IACVB was trying to do CHRS . . .

Howe: Do you really want to bring this topic up, Bill?

Peeper: It's embedded in my brain forever. Meeting planners said, "Great, but you don't do it my way." The hotel community said, "That's great, but it's not the way we do it." So everybody wants it their way. And the only way you can do that is at Burger King.

ANTI-TRUST ISSUE Hosansky: Andrea, you work for a real estate association, and the real estate industry has managed to develop standard forms for conducting business. Can you tell us about that and what we might learn from this industry?

Andrea Payne-Savely: Well, we have various types of standard real estate forms, and they are online and free to our members. We also have a broker office policy form, a 100-page document available for a fee on disk. Purchasers can adapt the language, write in their own names, delete sections, etc., and save it as an office policy [manual]. . . . Yet when I came to my association, they didn't know what an RFP was. Many planners spend a great deal of time putting together their own manuals on things like RFPs. If we had a standard RFP and meeting planners used it, we would have a higher level of professionalism, and it would make it easier for planners like me to be out in the field, to be creative, which is what I like doing. Instead, we're spending our time creating timelines and manuals for RFPs.

McGee: Jonathan, can you comment on the possible antitrust issues involved in the various components of our industry creating recommended forms or practices? What do we have to be aware of?

Howe: You've got to be very careful now when you get down to the basic terms of a contract. There are certain things you can agree on, or at least say, "This is a voluntary situation in which you can use this if you want to, but you don't have to use it." When you get down to standardization, the key element that you have to be very careful about is: Have you eliminated the opportunity for competition within the marketplace?

Brian Rounsavill: Just an observation: From my experience in dealing with different hotels, I would say that standards would be good but a lot of times it comes down to [the fact that] each property is independently managed. And you always hear, "Oh, I'll have to check with my boss," or "I don't know if I'm allowed to do that." It's like us saying, 'Our board says we have do it this way.' I think it all comes down to the priorities of the individual properties and who's calling all the shots.

Green: Wouldn't you love a standardized platform [for banquet orders] on your computer, Web-based?

Rounsavill: It would be nice but I don't think every owner would accept that.

Green: The good news is that in chain-operated hotels, the owners don't necessarily get involved at that level.

THE QUESTION OF LEADERSHIP McGee: Is CLC is the best group to lead standardization?

Eisenstodt: There is no other coalition group to deal with this. But the problem goes back to CLC not being representative of every organization in this industry. Until they are, it's going to be a problem. Also, people who are at a different level than those who sit around the CLC table need to be involved. And I don't know that people now in CLC are going to give up their territory for that to happen.

McGee: Explain that last point.

Eisenstodt: The people who sit on CLC, and certainly the executive committee, are the CEOs, not people who work in the trenches doing meeting planning. Unless they come up with people who work at the level we all are, they cannot even begin to tackle this issue.

Hanson: Can I throw something in--that it is not, perhaps, in NBTA's interest to be a member of the CLC? NBTA has a standardized RFP that [many] hotels use. It's a menu of 427 items that you pull down and check what you want. So because they're not bogged down by bureaucracy and politics of CLC, the NBTA has been able to do what we've been talking about.

McGee: Well, I'm hearing that it's very problematic to attempt standardization or the development of accepted practices when the organization leading that effort is not inclusive and its leadership is not involved at the meeting planning level. And there's the whole issue of getting accurate pick-up/meeting history information, let alone coming up with an acceptable format for information.

Shimasaki: And there's the technology issue.

McGee: Technology is driving the creation of new services like Passkey and PlanSoft that might create some de facto standards for housing and site selection and sending meeting specs electronically. But on the other hand, it's felt that even as we begin to codify these technology standards, they change. On top of that, there is great variation in the level of technological sophistication of hotels and convention centers. So the question is, how do we get our arms around this?

Daggett: The general problem with standards is that we can't even agree to what the term means--we've thrown around the table here "accepted practices," "recommended practices," and "checklists."

Hanson: I have a recommendation for the future. All the money that we've spent trying to come up with standardization, that money and significantly less can be spent on ASAE, MPI, PCMA, going into the communities where there are meeting planning organizations, and for 15 or 20 bucks a head, they can offer a comprehensive meeting planning standardization practices or tool kits.

Peeper: We're not going to see standardization until people can derive a direct benefit or perceive that there is a benefit for them. If something doesn't help the show manager, the exhibit manager, or the meeting planner, it's going to collect dust. Education can build a sense of benefit for a lot of people who don't see why they really need this stuff.

Our Panelists James Daggett, CMP, CAE, president, JRDaggett & Associates, Chicago, Ill.

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

Richard B. Green, executive director of association sales, Marriott Hotels and Resorts, Washington, D.C.

Jacy R. Hanson, director, meeting services department, American Diabetes Association, Alexandria, Va.

Christie Hicks, assistant vice president, national sales, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, Chicago, Ill.

Jonathan T. Howe, JD, senior partner/president, Howe & Hutton, Chicago, Ill.

Viveca Kimble, director of meetings and conferences, National Association of College Stores, Oberlin, Ohio

Andrea Payne-Savely, director of meetings, South Carolina Association of Realtors, Columbia, S.C.

William C. Peeper, exec. director/CEO, Orlando/Orange County CVB, Fla.; chairman, IACVB

Brian Rounsavill, meetings and programs manager, The Electrochemical Society Inc., Pennington, N.J.

Christine Shimasaki, vice president sales/marketing, Convention Center, San Diego CVB, San Diego, Calif.

Tamar Hosansky, senior editor, Association Meetings

Regina McGee, editor, Association Meetings