Each in its own way, two companies with new software offerings represent the evolution of strategic meetings management technology as SMM concepts continue to blaze a trail through corporate America.

“Technology is a requirement, but technology is not the silver bullet,” says Nick Romano, founder and president at SignUp4 in Atlanta. “You need a plan. You need sponsorship from executives. Implementing an SMMP is a large change-management project.”

As if reading from the same playbook, Casey Cote, president of Meeting Consultants, also based in Atlanta, says, “It takes more than a software platform to make an SMMP. It’s a cultural change that must be supported by executives and by procurement.”

Each company is offering a new collection of software tools that facilitate meeting requests, approvals, budgeting, attendee registration, workflow, and customizable reporting—the technological framework for an SMMP. But each also emphasizes that launching an SMMP is so big a task that training on software is just the beginning. Here are their stories.

Meeting Consultants
Meeting Consultants was founded in 1979 by Casey mother, Carol Cote (who had gotten her start at a destination management company called Tour Gals, which ran tours of Atlanta for the spouses of meeting attendees). An emphasis on technology has been there throughout the meeting planning company’s evolution because of its intimate relationship with its first (and ongoing) major client, IBM.

Part of that relationship involved Meeting Consultants working closely with Core Lan, the vendor that partnered in developing and managing the software tools that IBM has been using for more than a decade to drive its own SMMP. In 2008, Meeting Consultants acquired Core Lan and its 20 software developers. Those developers have spent the past two years enhancing the existing software applications that Meeting Consultants has been using with its clients for resale to corporate and independent meeting planners. The collection of applications will be released as Portfolio Master in the third quarter of this year. That’s actually phase two of the release. Phase one is a standalone product for online attendee registration called Event Registration Master, which launches April 1.

“We are not just a tech partner or meeting planner. We are both. We not only have the software applications, but we use them,” says Cote. In 2009, he notes, “we registered more than 200,000 people in 34 languages, and our tools tracked more than 6,000 events from the planning stage to measuring ROI.”

Core Lan began with tactical tools (such as a Web site for meeting registration) then evolved toward the strategic side of things with a meeting request and approval process, objective setting, and a meeting calendar. The latter was among the most important developments, Cote notes, allowing different meeting sponsors to see conflicting events and make decisions on whether to combine them or schedule them differently. Next was the evolution of post-event reporting.

All of those capabilities will be part of Portfolio Master, Cote says. But he does not see that as the end of the story. Once a company begins working with the tools, “we want to migrate them to our enterprise solution,” he says. “Typically we would go in with a discovery process, do a gap analysis, and apply best practices. It’s a consultative process at that point, when we get to know them. Then we custom-design the solution for them. When we talk ‘enterprise,’ we are talking about customizing code, really integrating with large corporations’ business practices.”

The most valuable integration, he says, is with a company’s customer-relationship-management system to better manage leads from events and therefore be able to measure the return on investment from those events. “Sales leads from the show floor are captured by our tools, rated, and put into the CRM system(s). They are worked that very next business day while they are fresh, then monitored throughout the sales process, so ultimately we can attribute sales revenue to a particular event,” Cote explains. “There are two sides of ROI: the cost-saving side and the revenue side.” Current technology in the SMM “space” has concentrated on the cost-saving side. “We are focused on fostering revenue—on getting the leads and turning them into sales,” Cote says, “We want to provide management with validated sales from events. I can’t tell you how many leads are left on the show floor or are worked by only one salesperson and do not find their way into the company’s opportunity database.”

One question Cote can’t answer yet is how Portfolio Master will be priced. “We are trying to create a good algorithm,” he says. “We do know there is a lot of frustration out there on the different pricing methods. We are trying to balance simplicity and flexibility, and we expect to finalize the pricing structure in June, well in advance of the launch of Portfolio Master.”

As for the function that has been the centerpiece of many SMM software companies up to now—e-RFPs and a hotel database for site searches—Cote says that Meeting Consultants will partner with one of the existing products. “We believe there are already capable products available to fulfill that requirement that it makes more sense for us to find a partner,” he says. “It’s not our core capability. It’s a whole different business model.”

The executives behind SignUp4, which began as an online-registration provider, are avowed tech guys, not meeting planners. But they’ve connected to a network of consultants steeped in the world of SMM who partner with them to help clients implement their SMMPs. And when it comes to the technology, they want to hold your hand. “We stress service very strongly,” says Nick Romano, founder and president. “The partnership with a client begins with the sales process, but it doesn’t end there. We are committed to a long-term relationship and service is the key.”

SignUp4 was started in September 1999 by Romano; Doug Wetzel, founder and vice president of new product engineering; and Mark Hubrich, founder and national accounts manager, who had large-event experience stemming from work with the Olympic Games in Atlanta. The first version of the company’s registration tool, the Event Management System, was released in 2000, allowing planners to build customized meeting Web sites, create registration forms, and generate reports.

In February 2007 the company released its second product, the Travel Management System, which tied the attendee-registration page to the corporate-travel process via whichever Global Distribution System (Galileo, WorldSpan, Sabre, or Apollo) was behind the client’s travel-booking tool.

“Other companies were doing integration, but we were the first to go directly to the four major GDS providers—the source of the travel data,” Romano says. SignUp4 also decided to charge clients a fee per administrator license rather than a per-transaction fee. “That’s one of our largest differentiators,” Romano says. “Clients know upfront what they will pay each month, no matter how many registrants come through the system. It’s a flat fee, not a sliding scale.”

In 2008, SignUp4 launched the Spend Management System, which rounds out the company’s suite of products for SMM, says Hubrich. The Spend Management System incorporates meeting request and approval, budgeting, workflow, tracking, and reporting across all of a company’s events. “Most of our clients are purchasing all three products if they are doing strategic meetings management,” Hubrich says. “They want the high-level data. They want to see what they spend on F&B, and what they spend with a particular hotel or hotel chain across all of their events.”

Adds Romano, “More companies are demanding visibility into and control of meeting spending. But they are at different levels of SMM understanding. The industry is still learning when it comes to SMM.” And Romano and his colleagues want to link those companies with the appropriate teachers. “Have we ever sat in the chair of a meeting manager? No. But we will help. We partner with consultants who have been through the SMM process in national and global corporations.

“It can be an emotional situation,” he continues. “You may have a meeting that resides with a VP in a business unit and the corporation doesn’t have visibility into that spend. Now we want to shine a light on them. It’s a situation that requires a lot of change management.”

In fact, SignUp4’s primary goal is for an SMMP to succeed. “We’ve held off on full implementation with companies because they were not ready,” Romano notes. “Some companies needed to crawl before they ran, so we implemented the program in stages. We worked with them to ensure each step was in place before proceeding to the next one.”

Currently in beta testing is SignUp4’s database for site searches. “We do it a little differently,” says Romano. “We don’t want to be a marketplace. We just want to bring the planners and vendors together. So we will not be charging hotels to be listed, there will be no advertising, and no marketing packages to bias the search.”

Instead, SignUp4 will work with the client to be sure the national sales office and global sales office contacts the company uses are in the database (which is currently populated by some 77,000 properties). Romano also notes that SignUp4 will not take commissions. “That’s important. We don’t want to be travel agents, we want to be technology providers,” he says. “We collect data and we facilitate transactions.”

In addition to its ad-free hotel database and its fixed-cost pricing model, Hubrich says SignUp4 differentiates itself by its flexibility and “brandability.”

“We are not an out-of-the-box solution. We completely customize how the work flow occurs in our Spend Management System depending on the client’s internal processes,” Hubrich explains. “Meeting planners can build a registration site and have it look exactly like the corporate Web site. Our system was built for non-tech users—you don’t have to use HTML. But you can use HTML. If you have Web designers, you can be as advanced as you want.”

Romano says that service is the bottom line. “The technology needs to be there, but understanding what procurement needs, what the meeting manager needs, that’s what matters.” Hubrich points out that SignUp4’s first clients are still clients, and that the company’s renewal rate stands at 92 percent.