In a free-ranging discussion of association management software and meeting planning needs at METCON '98 in early April, developers took heat on support and functionality, but when the talk turned to standards, the heat changed direction.

The following speakers took part in METCON's panel discussion on association software:

* Clark Hamilton, president, L. Clark Hamilton Associates, a software consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.

* Jay Dennis, vice president, Consulting & Technology Services, MEI Software, an association software firm based in Reston, Va.

* Hap Ehringer, manager of sales, Hyatt, Imler, Ott & Blount Technologies, a business software reseller in Atlanta

* Bob Walters, president, Phoenix Solutions, a meeting management and association management software supplier located in Fremont, Calif.

* Chuck Piel, senior vice president, Smith Abbott, Inc., Lutherville, Md., a well-known association management software firm. Piel was in the audience and contributed to the discussion.

Following are edited excerpts from their exchange:

Why Is Meetings Management the Weak Link?

Q: Association software packages want to be all things to all people. Membership and publications are the big applications, and the meeting stuff is an orphan.

Walters: I think that's changing as your organizations realize the importance of meetings.

Ehringer: Typically, the membership piece and the subscriptions piece get all the bells and whistles. If you haven't seen the meeting planning modules lately, go back and take a look--there have been enhancements.

Dennis: If you've got to rewrite 20 modules to run on a new platform, you start where your bread and butter is. That's membership.

Hamilton: On top of all that, clients now want customer service capability. When an association says to us 'We're a customer service organization, not a membership organization,' that calls for software reengineering.

Are You Working with a Legacy System?

Q: Arthur Esch [consultant and keynote speaker at the METCON '98 opening session] said that everyone will be going to Windows NT networks. I'm on a Novell system. What happens to me?

Walters: We still have DOS legacy systems to support. We use multiple platforms. As long as the system and software that you use are functional, you should be okay.

Q:In 18 months will my $17,000 Novell investment be out of date?

Ehringer: You've got to choose a system and stick with it. You can't second-guess yourself.

Q: But vendors are telling me they won't support two-year-old systems!

Ehringer: That's a valid point.

Dennis: Can the vendor you pick get you from A to B? Look at its history. Can it support older systems?

Walters: Any hardware has a two- to three-year life. You need a vendor who has migrated across platforms, and who will take you forward. You may have fears that you don't own the source code to access all your data. As part of any evaluation, tell potential vendors what you use now, and ask whether they can get to your data without having the source code.

Q: What Web-enabled functions should we expect?

Hamilton: More virtual exhibits. The ability to lay out your exhibit floor, online registration. It falls under customer service.

Q: People can register at our Web site, but we have to print out their registrations and key them in. We'd like to be able to dump registrations into our membership database.

Walters: You don't really want to dump registrations into your database! [Our system] has an accept/reject button so you can review them first.

Piel: A problem is matching up the names. How many Jack Smiths are there? Did the person register as Jack or John? Did he register using a home address or office address? Often, there isn't a clean match, and this requires manual work.

System Integration Issues Hamilton: We're seeing the emphasis change from software development to system integration--getting the desktop, database, network, and Web to work together. These days, we have rich software and poor systems stability. The way networks go up and down would have been intolerable years ago. We put up with it to achieve increased functionality.

Q: Will we see integration of the housing and travel functions into our current systems?

Walters: Regarding automated ticketing and housing, each system has its own format. Apollo is different from Sabre. I can't write and rewrite [software programs] for each one. If Passkey works as a common interface, then that's where it will go. Consolidation of utilities like these is the next big trend.

Dennis: The EDI [Electronic Data Interchange--a standard for electronic commercial transactions among manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of goods] industry has really standardized. The meeting industry is not there yet.

Q: Standardization is a great idea, but where will it come from? In whose interest is it to do this?

Dennis: It's you. You guys are in charge. The American Diabetes Association did it by agreeing that name fields would be 35 characters, and so on--it's a lot of work.

Walters: You have to make this an issue. Years ago industry wanted impartial software evaluation. The only organization that raised its hand to do this wanted to charge us $10,000!

Hamilton: The initiative has to come from within the meeting section, not from the technology section.

Operational Issues Q: How much downtime should I expect for data conversion?

Walters: It should be zero.

Ehringer: You need total ownership of the move to a new software system. It can't just come from some members on the board.

Dennis: The vendor has a responsibility, but there has to be a project manager on the association side.

Q: I'm the MIS director in a small association. When I want to add a new query about nonregistrants, I get charged for three to four hours of programming.

Walters: Most of us don't write our software to exclude records.

Q: But I want to exclude! I want to send messages to those people who haven't registered.

Dennis: Indexes are built for things that are there.

Ehringer: We need to know what the important reports are ahead of time. It's difficult to get a fixed cost because you don't know what's involved until someone asks you for a particular report.

Hamilton: Today, you can prototype software. This process gives you greater specificity in choosing the final product. *