EVERYONE KNOWS THE BENEFITS of online registration, but the costs can be a killer. Depending on the application, your overall volume, and the terms of your credit card processing agreement, pricing tends to average between $8 and $15 per attendee — but many a group has seen much higher costs.

Those dollars may be well-spent, but can you prove it? How do you calculate the return on investment from your online registration system? Could you improve that return by better controlling costs?

Overall, pricing and ROI are dependent upon a system's level of functionality and on how well the registration process is managed and integrated throughout an organization. Optimizing a financial return calls for appropriate technology and solid management principles. To be successful, you need to become a manager of the process as well as an advocate within your organization.

Where the Money Goes

An investment in an online registration application includes both one-time and ongoing costs. After initial setup fees, you can typically expect to pay an annual subscription fee plus a per-transaction fee priced according to volume. All these costs, including setup fees, are negotiable.

There are other ways spending can mount. If you're processing credit card payments as part of the registration process, you may pay an account setup fee plus 2 percent to 3 percent off the top of every transaction, unless those charges are built into your ASP fees. Also, while some training is usually built into an ASP's initial fee, you may need more. At registration provider seeUthere Technologies, Santa Clara, Calif., for example, some online training is included, but if you want trainers to come on-site, that's an added cost. Similarly, some number of support licenses, or seats, is included in a package, but companies may opt to allow additional users on the system simultaneously. Other add-on services that may figure into your investment: integration with an online travel booking system, call center services, and consulting.

Helen Loh, vice president of marketing at seeUthere, says a typical price for 5,000 transactions a year comes out to a total of $50,000 to $60,000, or $10 to $12 per registration.

To evaluate the return on this significant investment, meeting executives — and the bean counters — need to understand both the money they're not spending as a result of the technology as well as the best ways to control costs.

Some Costs Disappear

Labor expenses are where planners see some of their most significant savings. “Online registration is perceived as expensive because many organizations fail to figure the value of staff time into the equation,” says Jeff Rasco, president of Attendee Management Inc., Wimberley, Texas. “When M.D. Anderson Cancer Center studied the time and expense of processing registrations manually, a cost of nearly $25 per transaction was documented. Shifting online saved about 80 percent.”

Todd Bellino, vice president business development at Afficient, the Chicago-based online registration provider, says that in addition to savings on data entry, companies are able to track “a reduction in keying errors, less time spent on account reconciliation, fewer on-site registration requirements, and savings in postage and printing costs.”

Loh adds that organizations may also see hard-dollar savings by reducing outsourcing. “For example, organizations with small planning staffs typically outsource the entire meeting. With the help of an online system, even a small staff can handle registration internally while the event management companies implement the remaining components. This can result in immediate savings.” Loh also argues that online registration offers more timely and accurate reporting, which, she says, “reduces the overage required to cover contingencies, and thereby reduces overall meeting costs.”

Where to Control Costs

While users of online registration systems will see some costs disappear, there's much to be done to keep the costs of the new technologies under control. Here are some suggestions.

Up Your Numbers

Increased volume means lower price. The more transactions, the better your negotiating power, which can affect transaction fees and banking charges. To build volume, suggests Bellino, “consider incorporating tiered pricing to reward early online registrants.”

For smaller organizations, cooperative licensing is an option. “Attendee Management Inc. was founded to help organizations that don't have the volume get their unit costs down,” explains Rasco. “We've become something of a co-op. The combined volume of many clients allows us to negotiate with ASPs for lower transaction rates. Our clients pay a bit more per transaction, but no license fees.”

Review Your Agreements

All third-party agreements are not created equal, warns Julie Fenker, director, conferences and incentives for Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif. “Often vendors define a fee-based transaction differently. Some charge an assessment every time a record is changed; others charge on a per-record basis, regardless of the number of changes to the record. If you are being assessed a charge for all changes, consider renegotiating.”

Credit Card Rate

Fenker also suggests reviewing the rate you are being assessed for credit card transactions. “This rate should drop as the number of transactions increases,” she says. “Consider renegotiating this somewhat flexible rate.”

Credit Card Disputes

Don't forget to budget for credit card disputes. Bellino says meeting executives should expect a minimum of 1.4 percent of all transactions to be disputed. Clarify with your ASP who will manage the dispute process.

Reduce Print and Postage

As you improve your online registration tactics, you should be able to reduce your print budget. “The advantages of e-mail marketing, when integrated with online registration, allow you to register your core block of attendees earlier than when using traditional print-based marketing campaigns,” says Bellino. “The benefit is that you can adjust print-based registration costs.”

Integration

Work to integrate online registration with your meeting management applications. This will reduce processing costs by reducing or eliminating redundant data entry. Additionally, real-time data will help when setting F&B guarantees.

Reduce Travel Costs

When registration is integrated with an online travel booking product, seeUthere's Loh says that planners can control costs by finding out which registrants have not yet booked travel. E-mail reminders can be sent before advance purchase discounts expire, potentially saving the company money.

Measure Twice, Buy Once

Selecting the right technology means understanding your internal registration process, the cost of the current process, and how your attendees will interact with the application. A number of metrics can be tracked to provide benchmarks from which to measure your system. Consider tracking:

  • Number of transactions, broken out by the number of credit card transactions

  • Number of registrations

  • Number of changes

  • Total number of records with valid e-mail addresses

  • Total cost per online registration

  • Total cost for traditional registration



Many users warn against buying more technology than you need. “If you haven't committed to an online solution, shop wisely,” says Fenker at Oracle. “Don't buy the most advanced if all you need is simple registration.”

Leslie DiLeo, director of conferences and meetings at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, New York, agrees. “It made the most sense to us to purchase a system that could handle 90 percent of our needs and then fine-tune it to cover the rest. This approach works only if you know your needs. [We] spent a year evaluating our needs and exhaustively researching software systems. The work paid off.” NMSS chose Boulder, Colo.-based E-conference.

A simple solution works best for Emily Milliot, senior partner for AG Communications LLC, Fairfield, Conn. She says she sees ROI “because we use our own Web site, which was modified for our specific needs. We simply have them [attendees] enter information onto our registration page, which is then downloaded to our MS Excel database.” As a result, the cost of the self-developed system is maintenance and the design of the registration Web pages, minor compared to the cost of some robust, enterprisewide applications.

That said, buying or leasing a meeting-specific product has advantages. You're able to harness years of programming experience without the expense of hiring an in-house Web developer. Additionally, you maintain a degree of cutting-edge technology as a result of ongoing upgrades. If meeting management is not a core business practice at your organization, access to in-house resources may be limited and, as a result, maintenance and redesigns may be delayed.

Evaluate and Monitor

After thoroughly documenting and measuring your registration needs, and performing proper due diligence, select a system that can grow with you.

If you need to make your current system work better, become intimately knowledgeable with your system by applying process metrics, monitoring volume and costs by meeting and registrant. Work at building online adoption and use while integrating with other internal systems. Applying appropriate new technology to well-established systems can often help to optimize savings.




E.J. Siwek, CMP, is president and founder of FLASHpoint Technologies, Bethel, Conn. He is chairman of the Technology Advisory Committee for the APEX Initiative. Contact him at ej@flashpointtech.com.