Unplugged. Defunct. Plain dead.

From Pets.com to CDWorld to eToys, more than 600 major Internet companies have met their demise in the past 18 months. The same with many of the hundreds of online suppliers servicing meetings: Many have downsized and laid people off (or filed for Chapter 11 protection, as Halo Industries recently did), and others have failed (Remember MeetHead.com?).

What should you ask dot-com suppliers before you sign on? What steps can you take to protect your company? What's the worst-case scenario if your supplier goes under?

Read on.

Start by conducting an online service provider audit — Examining the company history can give insight into its viability. When was the company founded? What was its origin? What is its history? Was it built by people who understand the meeting industry or by technology experts trying to figure it out?

Get clients and references — Who are the dot-com's principal clients? Are these clients doing well financially and using the company's services to an increasing degree? Ask for references from customers who are similar in size and in industries similar to yours. Also ask if the company's technology has been recognized by third-party endorsements.

Learn everything you can about the company's history — Has it been designed as an online provider, or is it converting from a traditional software product? If the latter, ask specifically how the original system architecture has been changed to meet the scalability demands of the ASP service model.

What about the staff? — The total number of employees will give an indication of the company's scope. How does this total compare to similar solution providers? If the numbers are much higher or lower, why? A lean staff will require less overhead but may not be as able to respond to new developments. Ask about the core service staff (people who are most directly responsible for delivering the service you are buying), such as engineers and customer service and support. Is the company's core technology developed by internal engineering staff, or is it outsourced to partner developers? If outsourced, how does the company support the technology and respond to customer issues? Are the engineers certified on the servers, network gear, and software? Is this in the contract? Also find out if there have been recent layoffs; that will give you an indication of any funding problems.

Find out about funding — Now that the Internet bubble has burst, investors are much less likely to spring for new rounds of funding. This will be the key reason that companies close their doors in the next 18 months.

Questions regarding financial viability should include: When was the last round of funding, and for how much? What is the current monthly spending (burn) rate, and when is the next funding round scheduled? How much money has been raised to date? Who are the backers?

Investigate security and data protection — Some questions:

  • What level of data security, backup, and disaster recovery does the company offer to ensure integrity of your customer and event data?

  • How secure is the computing environment? Who audits security? Do I need a firewall on my site for additional security? Is there a firewall protecting the database in addition to the one in front of the Web server?

  • What is the exact backup routine? What is the backup interval and procedure? Is there off-site backup?

  • What are the access control policies and procedures to the servers? What is the level of data encryption?

  • How much data could be lost in the worst-case scenario? (e.g. just the current transaction? the previous hour? the previous day?)

  • What are the fail-over procedures? How long do they take?

  • What are the company's policies regarding purging of data?

  • At the time of data purges, can we receive a CD-ROM with all our data for our archive?

  • How many points of redundancy are there in the system (Web server only, Web server and database, Web server and database and application server, etc.)?

  • How are financial transactions handled? What are the security procedures for handling credit cards? Are credit cards processed automatically and in real time? Can multiple payment types (credit cards, checks, purchase orders) be accommodated?

  • Is secure socket layer technology used? What tangible assurance can the company offer in terms of scalability?

  • What is the highest number of simultaneous users that can be successfully handled? What is the highest number of simultaneous credit card transactions that can be successfully handled? What is the highest number of daily site visitors that can be successfully handled? Has the site traffic been verified by any third party? What are the privacy policies?

  • Does the company disclose the customers' identities to other companies, or market to them internally?

  • Do they read customers' data? What is their code of ethics regarding customer privacy? Who audits compliance? Who certifies it?

The database of client data is the most important intellectual property that most companies have. The greater the extent to which companies entrust this data to online service providers, the greater the risk. Most ASPs allow some means of exporting the data to your own database. Find out what options there are to export the data into your company's database, what export formats are available, and how the export process is completed.

Clarify contract terms — How does the company price its services (e.g. per user/per month? per user/per transaction? other?)?

  • What services are included (fee setup, help desk, software updates, on-line training, etc.)?

  • Lead time: How many days will it take between a signed contract and a customized, working registration site? (Often this can be an important indicator of customer service level as well as the viability of the technology. Well-designed ASP services are designed to be easily customizable and can accommodate a large number of system users at the same time.)

  • What is the guaranteed up time for the applications (i.e. 99.7 percent up time?) What happens if this level is not met? Other than a Web browser, what hardware/software, if any, is required at your company's site?

Understand your exit strategy — What will happen if you or the company decides or is required to exit before the contract states? Ask:

  • What happens if I want to end the contract earlier than the stated length? What are the exit options if I am dissatisfied? What happens at the contract's end?

  • How I will get my data back, and in what form? Assuming the ASP has been providing this service for a year or two, how much data history will it return to me — all of it? Less? Assuming I want to transfer to another ASP, will the company agree to a seamless changeover?

  • Will it manage incoming e-mail during the changeover? If so, for how long?

Corbin Ball, CMP, is a speaker, consultant, and writer focusing on events and meetings technology. With 20 years' experience running international citywide technology meetings, he now helps clients worldwide use technology to save time and improve productivity.

We Need to Speak the Same Language

One of the challenges in data collection is that everyone does it differently. Databases come in all sizes and shapes. Data storage among meeting planners, hotels, CVBs, and ASPs are not standardized, which makes it difficult to share information easily.

If everyone could voluntarily conform to a standard set of data fields, then the issue of disappearing dot-coms would be diminished. If everyone stored raw data in the same way, then it would be much easier to transfer from one online company to another if a dot-com went out of business.

This is where APEX steps in. The Convention Industry Council recently launched the Accepted Practices Exchange Initiative, chaired by former PCMA chair Mickey Shaefer. The goal is to develop and implement industry-wide accepted practices to create and enhance efficiencies throughout the meetings industry.

The subcommittees will concentrate on seven key areas: Terminology; History/Post Event Reports; RFPs; Resumes and Work Orders; Meeting and Site Profiles; Housing; and Contracts.

Technology is likely to have a huge impact on this process. Finally we will have a common interface (the Web) and a data transmission standard (extensible markup language or XML) with which rich data can be transferred from one party to another. With the Web and XML, it does not matter what software or what online service provider is used. On the fundamental level, all that matters is what the key data fields are and in what order they will be transferred.

Look for significant APEX advances in the months ahead. To find out the latest, log on to www.corbinball.com and www.conventionindustry.org/apex.htm.