Technology is reinventing the way you plan meetings and incentive programs. But do you have the right tools for the job? Here's a look at corporate meeting planning software and Internet solutions, as well as a product directory for easy reference.

Corporate Meeting Management Software

Software: MeetingTrak

Company: Phoenix Solutions Inc. MeetingTrak is a comprehensive meeting and conference management package that is suitable for small to medium-size corporations. The system tracks speakers, exhibitors, and events, and provides name badges, confirmation notices, and rosters. Additionally, it allows for multiple payments and on-site meeting registrations. Optional modules track continuing education credits as well as information about members and exhibitors.

MeetingTrak is a shell built upon Microsoft's Access database and, therefore, takes advantage of the development and regular upgrades of this widely used off-the-shelf software. A major point of differentiation for this product is the inclusion of source code, which allows you or your database consultants to make direct modifications to the software. There are numerous customizable reports and fields built into the program from the start. The only disadvantage--and a minor one--is that running a non-compiled code increases the demand on system resources and therefore slows the program's operating speed.

The limitations of this program are primarily the limitations of Access. It is also not scalable for very large groups. MeetingTrak's closest competitor in this market is PeoplewarePro by Peopleware.

Software: PeoplewarePro

Company: Peopleware

Peopleware's PeoplewarePro (formerly MeetingPro) shares much of the functionality and many of the features of MeetingTrak. Its strong accounting functions include the ability to handle complex registration, split revenues, account for refunds, and perform other functions useful for corporate meetings that may include exhibitions. PeoplewarePro receives high marks for its toll-free help desk, customer support, and for its commitment to training. PeoplewarePro's database engine is FoxPro, which, because it is compiled, is faster and more efficient than Microsoft Access in some cases, and can handle more simultaneous users. Rumors of FoxPro's imminent demise are unfounded. The product now features a new Internet module.

Software: Event Planner Plus

Company: Certain Software

For the cost ($495), Event Planner Plus provides features (such as room diagramming) that software packages costing 10 times more do not. It is easy to set up and use. It includes task scheduling, 25 different report formats, to-do lists, seating assignment, room diagramming, nametag and place card printing, accounting, vendor tracking, and budgeting.

The product has three limitations: It is intended for a single user only; it is designed for a single-day, single-event meeting; and it is built on 16-bit Windows 3.1 and Access database architecture, which is well on the way to obsolescence. Plans to roll out a 32-bit, network-ready, multi-day, multi-event version are in already the works. Certain Software is off to a good start--the upgrade will allow larger groups to take advantage of the many well-designed features.

Software: Complete Event Manager 4.5

Company: EKEBA International

This software is at a price point that puts it within the reach of many independent planners. The product's Web site lists such clients as the U.S. Olympic Committee and Cisco Systems. The program has numerous features, but takes some effort to learn--key strokes and layout are not exactly intuitive. That said, the data fields are customizable--although users must be sure to do this at the start. Software features include the ability to set up concurrent sessions, manage continuing education credits, and issue certificates. Complete Event Manager handles such logistical chores as task lists, menu planning, exposition/table assignments, lodging/roommate preferences, tracking speaker travel, and volunteer/speaker/staff coordination. Financial features include the ability to handle invoice/budget tracking and produce financial reports. It can create labels, name badges, and tent cards. Marketing features include the ability to track attendee history and handle mail merge lists.

The software relies on support provided via online tutorials and e-mail. There is no help desk where you can readily talk to someone. I found the e-mail support responsive. However, it replied within four to eight hours. I had difficulty with the setup--it took several e-mails and a phone call to get it fixed, but, once running, it performed in a stable manner. It can import registration data to and from Access and other databases. The staff at EKEBA will perform database conversion for free, but, once done, the money-back guarantee is void.

Software: Gold 2.0

Company: ISIS Corporation

ISIS Corporation's Gold 2.0 is one of the few programs that offers full integration with airline CRS systems. Other travel features include full hotel arrival/departure management and multiple hotel inventory management. It contains 200 built-in reports, including net change lists for travel, hotels, and registration. The online registration module automatically checks for duplicate attendee and company names before downloading into the database. The program also tracks ROI, with budgeting comparisons for things like list prices versus negotiated rates. For larger meetings, ISIS staff will help with data entry.

Room Diagramming Software Software: Meeting Matrix V 5.0

Company: SCLM

I have used this product since the days when it was written only for DOS. As one who believes that only by diagramming meeting space can managers know exactly what they will get in terms of capacities and layout, I can't imagine running a large meeting without it. The Windows 95 version is easier to use than earlier releases. To get new users up to speed quickly, however, I recommend the training package.

I especially like the ability to download floor plans from hotel Web sites--generating the floor plans is the most time consuming part of using any room diagramming product. More than 250 properties are online--the dimensions guaranteed accurate to a quarter of an inch! The basic Silver edition (usable only with participating hotels) is free, but if you are doing lots of meetings, the Platinum version is worthwhile. Meeting Matrix is used by Marriott, Sheraton, Hyatt, Ritz Carlton, and Renaissance hotels, and interfaces with Delphi, one of the major hotel meeting space management programs. This product is also an Alliance partner with Meeting Professionals International and PlanSoft. Other good diagramming products include Optimum Settings (www.optimumsettings.com) and Room Viewer (www.timesaver.com). An advantage of Meeting Matrix is that its vector-based graphics make the diagrams easy to zoom in on.

Web-Based Meeting Planning Solutions Software: Event Wizard

Company: Neology, a Division of Smith Bucklin & Associates

Neology finds a niche in the meeting planning software field--a Web-based product that focuses on educational content. It is appropriate for corporations where programs with multitrack, multi-day educational meetings are the norm. This set of Web tools includes program committee coordination and communication, abstract collection, speaker information collection, and event grid scheduling. There is also a significant e-mail management system. Once the conference is built in the password-protected area, the full program with all of the event details can automatically be made live to the public Web site.

Software: Ajenis

Company: PlanSoft

Ajenis has been the focus of a great deal of attention and controversy, because of what it proposes to provide--the communication of meeting specifications between the meeting organizer and the hotel convention services department in a standardized format over the Internet. In the past, this has been an inefficient process at best. Today, Ajenis can save translation, inputting, and proofing time, reduce the opportunity for errors, and save on paper and mailing costs. It does not, however, provide the registration database, accounting, badge creation, and other features of most of the available general meeting software.

Ajenis has lots of features, and can be intimidating when first viewed. A training program is strongly recommended. This product is the result of efforts by a consortium of partners, including the American Society of Association Executives, Meeting Professionals International, Hyatt Hotels, Marriott Hotels, Starwood Lodging, and GES Exposition Services. The partners hope to achieve the critical mass necessary to bring Ajenis into wide use. Once there,this product has the potential to greatly streamline this crucial communication link. It is designed to integrate into the PlanSoft Network, which is, by my estimation, the most comprehensive source of information about hotel and convention center meeting facilities on the Web (www.plansoft.com).