Throw out your meeting facility guides and hotel brochures. Stop faxing or overnight-mailing your request for proposals. These inefficient paper-based means of finding and booking meeting facilities are rapidly giving way to Web products that are faster, more convenient, and richer in detail.

The first online RFP appeared in January 1996 when the Radisson Miyako Hotel San Francisco offered a simple meeting space request form. Since then, Web sites have sprung up with searchable meeting facility databases, automated RFP forms, "hot dates," and, most recently, online auctions.

Since these sites vary considerably, this two-part column (part two will appear in CMI's March issue) will help you sort them out. It includes all the major sites (and some of the minor ones), with detailed information on site size, usefulness, pricing models, and special features.

AllMeetings http://www.allmeetings.com *Hotel and Meeting Facility Database--AllMeetings lists 4,000 hotels, fewer than half of what some of the larger sites offer. A search for "Seattle area" yielded 42 not-very-complete listings. For example, two major meeting properties in Seattle (the Westin and the Sheraton) didn't come up. Also, many listings had only basic information--no photos, floor plans, or other meeting-related details.

*Filtering--Under "Venue Search," you can filter by U.S. region, state and metro area, minimum capacity, number of guest rooms, star rating, hotel type, and amenities such as golf, fitness center, business services.

*RFP--AllMeetings provides an online RFP form that is sent to its in-house site selection staff. Users request meeting space, sleeping room, catering and contact information, and contact method, and receive a response in 24 to 48 hours.

*Hot Dates/Rates/Space-- These listings are not as complete as some other sites'; for example, searching "The Southwest" for the first three months of 2000 yielded only seven results.

*Additional Features--This site incorporates a "budget estimator" right from the start, asking for air travel information, catering information, and desired room rates. It then prepares a detailed budget for your meeting. The site also offers eight checklists, including information on everything from setup to follow-up.

EventSource http://www. eventsource.com (Also accessible through Trade Show Central http://www.tscentral.com) *Hotel and Meeting Facility Database--This site lists more than 10,000 total properties and is especially good at including non-hotel venues. Searching in Seattle, I found a total of 115 venues. Meeting facility information includes a picture of the property, a profile, and a full list of meeting space dimensions and capacities. Floor plans are sometimes included. A review section allows people to comment on properties they've used.

*Filtering--The facilities can be searched by name, city, region, facility type, number of guest rooms, golf availability, beach availability, and four- or five-star/diamond rating.

*RFP--The "Bookit" RFP form asks for contact information, event dates, desired location, rate, sleeping rooms, meeting space needed, food and beverage, and group history.

The RFP is distributed by e-mail and batch faxed to qualifying hotels. EventSource follows up with the hotel and promises quotes with rates within 24 to 48 hours by e-mail. A special feature allows users to archive and retrieve past RFPs for future events.

*Hot Dates/Rates/Space--EventSource has an extensive search engine. A search on all hot dates for the year 2000 yielded 1,777 listings.

*Additional Features--EventSource offers a destination guide, including links for maps, airports, weather, golf, attractions, restaurants, and event supplies. It rolled out the first online auction for meeting space, which may be just the ticket, especially for short-term, small-group business.

Hot Dates/Hot Rates http://www.hotdateshotrates.com *Hotel and Meeting Facility Database--Includes about 1,500 listings. A search of Seattle yielded 11 properties.

*Filtering--You can search by city, state/region/country, individual property, and hotel chain.

*RFP--RFPs go directly to hotels by e-mail or fax, or users can choose the "Tracker" feature, which submits their RFPs to Helms Briscoe Performance Group, a third-party site selection firm, to do the searching (10-room minimum).

*Hot Dates/Rates/Space--Searchable by city, state/ region/country, individual property, and hotel chain.

MADSearch International, Inc. www.madsearch.com *Hotel and Meeting Facility Database--More than 4,500 meeting facilities are listed here. For Seattle, I found 44. Hotel information includes number of meeting rooms and square footage of the largest room. Some listings include site descriptions, pictures, meeting space specifications and diagrams, menus, and a hotlink to the facility's Web site.

*Filtering--The MadSuperSearch filters for golf, fitness centers, and other amenities.

*RFP--Includes fill-in boxes for contact information and a general comment for meeting request information. Information goes to the hotel for free (via e-mail or fax) and is followed up by MADSearch.

*Hot Dates/Rates/Space--This site offers a free weekly e-mail newsletter that features special rates and dates, but only from properties that pay.

Meeting City Inc. http://www.meetingcity.com *Hotel and Meeting Facility Database--This site claims the largest searchable hotel database on the Web, with 60,000 properties. It's strong on non-U.S. destinations and smaller properties but doesn't include details on meeting space. A non-hotel supplier database has more than 10,800 listings in 59 categories.

*Filtering--The basic search criteria are city and facility name.

*RFP--An online form is fed to a site-selection service that requires a 10-room minimum. RFPs are provided for meeting facilities, corporate cruises, air charters, and Caribbean estates.

*Hot Dates/Rates/Space--None

Meeting Locations http://www.meetinglocations.com *Hotel and Meeting Facility Database--1,000 properties are listed in the online database, with plans to expand to 1,500. I found four hotels when searching Seattle.

*Filtering--Searches can be narrowed by state, city, total meeting space, square footage of the largest meeting room, and number of peak room nights.

*RFP--None

*Hot Dates/Rates/Space--Hotels will have a password-protected area where they can update listings.

Coming in March Site reviews in March will include: MeetingPath (www.meetingpath.com), PlanSoft (www.plansoft.com), Site Search 2000 (www.sitesearch2000.com), SmartRFP (www.smartrfp.com), and StarCite (www.starcite.com).

What to Look For in a Web site 1. Hotel and Meeting Facility Database--The more comprehensive the database, the better. The biggest sites have more than 10,000 meeting facility listings. In this article, I used a sample city, Seattle, as a benchmark.

2. Filtering--The more filtering capability, the better. If you want a four-star hotel with 800 sleeping rooms and a meeting room of at least 10,000 square feet, in a warm climate with a business center and golf, you will need a site that can sort by these criteria.

3. RFP--Some sites allow you to fill out a single request form and send it to selected hotels electronically. Others are nothing more than online forms to generate leads for a third-party firm. Still others distribute leads directly to the hotels or CVB. A few let you save your RFP for future use.

4. Hot Dates/Rates/Space--Web sites are increasingly being used to broadcast rapidly changing hotel inventory, but they can vary considerably in how effectively they do so.