It'll be a while before you throw the specs for your major meeting into the ether, choose a property, negotiate a contract, and make all your hotel room reservations with nary a fax or phone call in the process. But the big hotel chains, which have spent lots of time and money going after the individual guest online, lately have been allocating serious resources to online group sales. All have hired new executives to head up "e-commerce" programs or have given the e-commerce title to someone already on the management roster. Internet-based group sales brings a slew of advantages, from time and cost savings to better service for big customers to the ability to reach part-time meeting planners otherwise slipping through the sales cracks. Here's a look at the individual chains' plans to let you plug in.

Hilton Hilton Corp. is already trumpeting nearly $2 million in group business booked online through September of this year. What that means is $2 million worth of group business came from electronic leads--requests for proposals delivered via www.hilton.com--not that the whole buying process took place online.

The number has made Hilton sit up and take notice. "The Web site has done a great job capturing visitors and revenue, so that has changed the thought process throughout Hilton," says Bruce Rosenberg, the chain's newly named vice president, e-business. "We want to Internet-enable the enterprise."

If you go to www.hilton.com now, it's a piece of cake to compile a detailed RFP for your meeting and submit it. The goal for 2000, however, is much more far-reaching. "It is to let you have real-time access to hotel inventory," Rosenberg says. "We want to take the tools available at the site today and ratchet them up a notch to cut down the time it takes for the planner's information-gathering process."

For now, when you send an electronic RFP, it gets funneled through sales specialists at the chain's Hilton Direct operation in Dallas. "We may modify the process to send it to the individual properties and to Hilton Direct," explains Keith Hymel, Hilton's managing director, sales technology. "At this time we send it only to Hilton Direct for two reasons. First, some customers want one consolidated response versus individual hotel responses. And second, the specialists qualify the business since many of the customers are not experienced planners and need some direction to ensure that the specs are clear, important questions are answered in the RFP, and so on.

In fact, Hymel notes, "There's research that says there are thousands of part-time meeting planners out there" who would benefit from this kind of service.

Once a lead is fully qualified by the Hilton Direct specialist, it is sent electronically to the appropriate hotels. A reply is then sent by fax or e-mail (the customer chooses) within the next 24 hours.

The process continues to be refined by Hilton, and eventually RFPs may be downloaded directly into the chain's global sales system without an intermediary. Once they're in the system, customer specs could be maintained there and used for meeting after meeting.

These enhancements would mean major time-savings to Hilton's regular customers. Of course, many of these customers now work through national account reps.

"There have been many attempts to replace people with technology," says Steve Armitage, vice president and managing director of sales in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Our customers tell us that technology enhances the experience. But they want the option to work with salespeople for recommendations, guidance, and support.

"We're committing a lot of time and resources [to technology-driven sales], but we're not doing it to replace our sales organization," he continues. "We're in the hospitality business." [Editor's note: See our cover story on page 38 for some different viewpoints on national sales representatives and the impact of technology on hotel sales.]

Hyatt "The emerging distribution channel is groups," says Joan Lowell, Hyatt's vice president, electronic distribution, who has been working for years on electronic sales through travel agents. "We're moving toward the ability to check for rates and availability for more than one guest room. For now, it's limited to small meetings." (Small meetings are generally defined as those using 50 sleeping rooms or fewer.)

More than an electronic RFP system, Hyatt's initiative will give meeting planners the ability to search availability throughout the Hyatt portfolio. Planners with flexibility can look for hotels with "need periods" to fill. Those looking for a specific property can check availability and rates on their desired dates.

This search capability should be available to planners by the end of the year. "At this point, we're targeting the nonprofessional planner," Lowell says. "That's why we're focusing on small meetings."

When a planner finds a promising property, he or she can send a customized e-mail directly to that hotel and get a response within a designated time frame.

At this point, the small-meeting search engine is connected to Hyatt's central reservation system, not to its group sales reservation system, and only sleeping rooms can be checked, not meeting rooms. However, the goal is to let professional meeting planners plug into the group sales system and check availability of sleeping rooms and meeting space for large meetings as well.

Not that this means you'll be cutting off your relationships with your Hyatt sales contacts. "We're just making it convenient to check on space, so you don't have to find salespeople in their offices," Lowell says. "But you still haven't negotiated rates or done your menus. I don't see where the Internet will replace salespeople or the relationship between the customer and the company. The Internet is a tool for collecting much better information about properties."

Hyatt's next step forward in technology will be online attendee registration, Lowell says: "We'll provide a URL with all your meeting information so attendees can register online, and we'll send a confirmation back to them."

Marriott "It's an evolution rather than a revolution," says Marriott's Debbie McGrath, who has been overseeing electronic sales for 13 years but whose purview only recently became known as "e-commerce." What has evolved is the target of the electronic sales systems--from the travel agent to the public and the meeting planner.

McGrath says Marriott has already taken the technological steps that represent "low-hanging fruit," by which she means giving planners the ability to search Marriott's portfolio of properties and send RFPs by e-mail. Right now, she says, those tools are attracting the nonprofessional meeting planner.

In the business-to-business realm, she says, "we need infrastructure in place that recognizes you as the customer." In other words, an online research and booking system must "know" X association or corporation, its meetings, and its history with Marriott when the meeting planner from that association or corporation logs on to the system.

McGrath recently began working with Marriott's new vice president, interactive sales and marketing, Shafiq Khan, who joined the company from US Airways, where he was senior director of electronic commerce and distribution. Her current task is to "break down the process of meeting planning," she says. "It's complex. But our intent is to allow group booking online by the beginning of the second quarter."

Also on the drawing board for 2000 is online attendee registration. Marriott would provide a URL that would take registrants to a booking form.

Starwood Whatever initiatives Starwood Hotels & Resorts hired Tad Smith, senior vice president, e-commerce, to implement remain under wraps for now. The White Plains, N.Y.-based chain, which encompasses the St. Regis, Westin, Sheraton, and W brands, declined to discuss its e-commerce plans with AM for this article.

Helms Briscoe It's not a hotel corporation, but HelmsBriscoe, headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz., is a

central point around which a slew of chains and properties revolve. The company, whose associates represent meeting planners in the site-selection process, had a distinct advantage when it launched its own electronic RFP system this fall.

The advantage: a ready-made audience of buyers--its 182 sales associates across the country. (That number will have increased by the time you read this.) That means that only six weeks after the HelmsBriscoe site went live, more than 200 RFPs had moved through it.

But here's the really revolutionary thing: Instead of your RFP making its way to half a dozen hotels, the hotels come to your RFP.

RFPs get posted at the new HB Meet Market, a Web site exclusively for HelmsBriscoe's preferred chains and properties. (To date, the chains are Hilton, Promus/Doubletree, Inter-Continental, Radisson, Canadian Pacific, Fairmont, Wyndham, Regal, Melia, Delta, and Crowne Plaza. These preferred properties pay HelmsBriscoe an annual marketing fee and they agree to pay half of HB's commission when a meeting is booked and the other half of the commission after the meeting.)

Here's how Meet Market works: You tell your Helms Briscoe rep that you need a site in Florida. Your rep works with you to create an RFP and then posts it at the Meet Market site. An e-mail goes out to all of HelmsBriscoe's preferred properties in Florida telling them that a new RFP has been posted. Only Florida properties can access and respond to the RFP. (Eventually, the geographic selection will be more precise: say, only Central Florida properties.)

A hotel accessing the site must first register and get a password. (So far, 250 properties have registered.) Then the hotel representative views a quick summary of the RFP (rates and dates) and has the option to get more details. After the detailed RFP is reviewed, the hotel representative can fill out a bid form and e-mail it back to the associate.

When an associate gets a bid, he or she has the option to click on a response that says, "Thank you, but I've booked this meeting at another hotel," explains Peter Shelly, executive vice president at HelmsBriscoe. "It improves the communication process immeasurably. In a year's time, this is going to be a huge site. It cuts through voice mail and faxes."

The special twist on how the RFP is disseminated puts some additional power in the buyer's hands, especially a buyer with a little time and flexibility. "An associate posts an RFP for a destination and then sits back and sees who's got the best value," Shelly says. Another benefit: Once an RFP is created, it can be saved and used again for similar meetings.

Hotels see the benefits, too. According to Shelly, Meet Market has prompted a lot of inquiries from nonpartner hotels and has attracted some new properties into the HelmsBriscoe fold.

Another HelmsBriscoe technology initiative designed to improve the transfer of information is a proprietary database of hotel ratings and reviews that can be accessed by all HelmsBriscoe associates. "We touch 3,300 hotels a year in our booking process," Shelly says. "The information we have about those hotels is very valuable."

There are other Web sites you can use to send electronic RFPs to hotels.

A sampling: *www.eventsource.com

*www.iacvb.org

*www.iacconline.org

*www.plansoft.com