More than 1,500 pre-scheduled appointments between 110 meeting managers and 90 suppliers took place February 20–23 at Meeting Professionals International’s MeetDifferent 2010 conference in Cancun, Mexico. This marks MPI’s first foray into a hosted-buyer program, which offered complimentary hotel stays and airfare or registration for qualified meeting planners who committed to meet with 15 suppliers. While the program got more participants than expected, it took time for some of the buyers—and suppliers—to get used to the system.

FaceTime, a software program developed by Elite Meetings International, facilitated the matchmaking. “Planners select the time, day, and supplier they want to meet with. The supplier gets an e-mail when each appointment is booked. After a certain period, the suppliers—hotels, convention and visitor bureaus, and other vendors—can request appointments from planners, based on their business needs,” says Kelly Foy, CEO of Santa Barbara, Calif.–based EMI.

FaceTime allows suppliers to sort through the profiles created by participating planners, including information on future meeting needs. The pre-set appointments took place in a ballroom during regularly scheduled education sessions each morning.

Hosted-buyer Marla R. Shaw, CMP, corporate meeting planner, ConocoPhillips, Bartlesville, Okla., who was interviewed before the conference, said when she first visited her FaceTime “dashboard,” many of the suppliers she wanted to meet with already had filled their appointment schedule over the course of the three days.

”I think the hosted-buyer program is great in that it allowed me to go to a conference in a year when my budget would not have allowed me to attend. It makes sense as an added value for both the planner and supplier,” said Shaw.

“As a planner, by the time I opened up my dashboard, I was overwhelmed with supplier messages. And all the appointment calendars for suppliers I wanted to meet with were already filled up. So I am going to meet with suppliers I originally didn’t want to meet with. That’s not terrible. Perhaps I will do business with them down the road or can recommend them to a fellow planner,” she said.

Madelyn Marusa, DMCP, vice president of industry relations for PRA Destination Management Inc., Carlsbard, Calif., took part in the hosted-buyer program for a fee of $4,600 and believed the investment was well worth it. "I will have ten solid leads coming out of the appointments," she said on Monday. "You never know if they will come to fruition, but it really justifies my sponsorship."

MPI staff was also encouraging appointments outside of the regularly scheduled times to facilitate more business and will allow those meetings to count toward a planner’s 15 required appointments if the planner was unable to fulfill his or her regular schedule.

MPI’s goal for the hosted-buyer program was 100 planners, according to Kristen Kouk, public relations specialist for MPI. “We reached our goal of 100 planners and have actually overbooked at this point with 110. We will have 90 suppliers participate in the program this year, and all of them will be guaranteed 15 appointments. MPI is thrilled to see this kind of reaction as we are always looking to provide the best attendee experience, and FaceTime has helped us do just that.”

This is the first time in many years MPI has not had a traditional exhibition or trade show associated with its February conference.

FaceTime will be put to the scalability test at October’s Motivation Show in Chicago, says EMI’s Foy, where it was first introduced in 2009. “We could potentially have 3,000 people using it there,” he says. Pete Erickson, managing director of The Motivation Show, including ITME, says “last year, in an introductory program, we used FaceTime for approximately 150 hosted buyers and 75 suppliers, and it worked great. This year we plan to make it available to all buyer registrants and exhibitor contacts in order to improve pre-show appointment planning and on-site networking. We’ll have to wait to see what level of engagement we get from the 2010 Show community, but it’s very likely that we will involve at least 3,000 individuals making over 30,000 pre-scheduled appointments.”