Back in the late 1990s, Prudential Financial created its own online registration system. It was robust, but a few years later it became clear that the investment necessary to continually upgrade and maintain the system would be so large that the company would be better served by an outside vendor, explains Debbie Boschee, CMP, vice president, conference and meeting services.
“At that time, our department handled 400 meetings and 10,000 registrants per year,” says Boschee, CMP. “As we looked to the future, we realized that our in-house online registration system didn't have the capability to capture all of our data. Our needs had grown.”
After an exhaustive search and RFP process, Prudential signed on with a vendor in late 2002. One benefit ofquickly came to the fore: With online meeting management as its core business and with other corporate clients using and tweaking its products, the vendor is continually improving its offerings.
Boschee and her team launched the new system with a lot of notice to attendees and meeting sponsors. “When we first got the system we sent a note to all of our business partners,” explains Erin Longo, CMP, director, meeting planning. “As we slowly piloted the registration system, we sent notes to attendees telling them to expect online invitations to appear in their e-mail boxes in a week.”
Invitations include a link to a Web-based registration form, which the attendee completes at his or her leisure. “We were aware that there would be a learning curve,” Longo continues, “but when we used the system for the first time with our large incentive conference, we got the quickest response rate ever for that conference.”
In addition to making the registration process so much more efficient, the online system also has increased the service level the meeting department offers its internal clients — the people holding the meetings. “We can generate hourly, daily, and weekly reports for meeting hosts with whatever information they need, such as who is registered or who is registered from a particular territory,” Longo notes.
And for attendees, the registration form includes links to the meeting hotel and driving directions, if relevant.
“Our meeting participants have become more accustomed to instant information,” Boschee says. “With this system they get a confirmation right away and they can access their data whenever they want. It shows we're staying ahead of the curve.”
The RFP Process for Online Registration: How to Get What You Need
1. Expect a major time commitment.
Prudential Financial’s team spent nine months shaping the 35-page RFP it sent to online registration vendors.
2. Research what's out there.
The team contacted industry colleagues and searched the Web to create a list of providers. They also found out about vendors through direct- e-mails and sponsorships on industry e-mail newsletters they receive.
3. Prioritize your individual needs.
Each team member created a list of “must-haves” (for example, the ability to dictate required and non-required fields on the registration form), “nice-to-haves” (for example, fully customizable survey/evaluation questions and response types), and “would-be-great-to-haves” (for example, the ability to support multiple front-end devices for future needs; e.g., cell phone access to the service).
4. Do a merge/purge.
The team took the individual needs, eliminated duplicates, and used a rating system to prioritize what was left. Sounds straightforward, but depending on the number of stakeholders involved, it can be one of the more complex parts of the process.
5. Work with your IT department.
The Prudential team called on their in-house technology experts to advise them on the company's security standards. The team also used the IT department's RFP as a shell for its own.
6. Narrow the field.
Start sorting through the field of vendors by determining the exact target audience of each vendor.
7. Call 'em in.
The team invited four vendors to give one-hour presentations explaining their products.
8. Narrow the field again.
One vendor was eliminated after the presentations; ultimately three vendors received RFPs.
9. Go for the must-haves, with flexibility.
The team decided to keep all the must-haves in the RFP and prioritize the nice-to-haves. Erin Longo, manager, meeting planning, says that Prudential “got all of our must-haves and 50 percent of our nice-to-haves.”
10. Evaluate the proposals.
The must-haves came with some “work-arounds” once the vendor was selected, Longo says, which brings us to the next phase of the process — evaluating the proposals. The CDs and three-ring binders that came into the office were daunting. Be careful to dictate requirements on how the proposals should be written, but expect that it will still be confusing, especially because your goal is to compare apples to apples.
11. Do comprehensive demos.
These were more than just the usual online walk-throughs offered by the companies. The team wanted to have the same level of access they'd have if they purchased the products. This can be a tedious way to go, because essentially you'll have to learn the product to evaluate it. But for Prudential, getting the inside look was critical to determining if the products were sophisticated enough to meet the company's needs.
12. Contact references.
This helps primarily in finding out about each vendor's customer service. There are going to be problems with any technology, so you need to know how the vendor will address them. Are they flexible and responsive? Will they work with you to come up with quick fixes as well as long-term solutions?
13. And don’t forget these questions.
• Check the financial stability of the vendors you're considering. During Prudential's selection process, one potential vendor went bankrupt.
• Be sure you fully understand the vendor's payment scheme. For example, if you're charged a “transaction fee,” how is a transaction defined? Is it when each record (meeting invitation) is created? Or every time that record is touched?
• Ask how often the vendor has a new release. That can tell you how often enhancements requested by you and other corporate clients will be folded into the product.
• Find out when you can call customer service. If there is not a 24-hour help desk, The Prudential team advises a workaround, such as getting someone's cell phone number for after-hours emergencies.