With at least 170 meeting planning software products on the market, offering help with everything from pre-meeting budgeting to post-meeting analysis, how do you choose the best product for your company? I suggest four steps.

Start By Considering Your Office Environment The first step is to look at your company's current level of computerization. If you answer "yes" to any of the following questions, you will need IS (Information Services) support:

* Do you work on a corporate-wide network?

* Which database are you using, and is it used throughout the company?

* Do you wish to integrate any new software products with this database?

Many meeting planning software products are built around databases. Most can export and import into other company-wide databases, but this may be difficult. Your IS department or an outside consultant can help you. If you are interested in tackling a specific problem--room diagramming, for example-- you may not require as much IS support.

Take a Look at Your Current Software The next step is to consider your current software, and identify places where automation can help. Analyze your workflow and see where the bottlenecks are. Ask yourself these questions:

* Which general business software (Access, Excel, etc.) do you use now?

* Which meeting planning software products do you currently use?

* What problems exist with your current network, database, or software products?

* What is necessary to streamline your meeting planning tasks?

* What works well and what doesn't?

* What is your budget and timeframe for any changes?

* Which specific tasks and product categories will help the most?

What Are Your Specific Requirements? Now that this groundwork has been done, it is time to focus on exactly what you will need. On the high end, corporate and general meeting planning suites handle a wide array of meeting planning and accounting tasks. They can cost anywhere from $2,000 to more than $100,000. These programs will require involvement with your IS and accounting departments, as many are company-wide solutions to data flow and accounting, in addition to meeting planning. However, there are also numerous task-specific, less-expensive meeting planner software products, including badge-making and budgeting, that may not need as much IS support.

What Questions Should You Ask? Once you have focused on specific vendors, questions to ask include:

* How long has the company been in business?

* How many employees are in the company?

* What is the operating system and what are the system requirements?

* What are its support polices?

* Can it provide references?

* What are the costs, and how are they calculated?

* Does it offer a demo version?

Fortunately, many software companies now have Web sites with significant information, product descriptions, screen shots, and even demos. For further information, see "Software Solutions," in the July 1999 issue of Corporate Meetings & Incentives.