It's one thing to do manual registration for a couple hundred people at a single meeting. Registering some 60,000 participants for a year-long series of more than 200 meetings across the country is definitely "another story," says Debbie Boschee, CMP, Prudential's director of meeting management. Faced with this mega-project, Boschee sought an online solution. The result is the Automated Response and Tracking System (A.R.T.S.), an online registration system Boschee's department now uses for all meetings.

"We had been mulling over some kind of online registration for a long time. As meeting planners, we need to be ahead of the curve and change the way we work in response to what everyone is telling us," she says. "People are using the Internet more and more. It's exciting for them. They can respond in the middle of the night if they want."

Boschee and her Minneapolis-based team plan meetings for Prudential's human resources department and other departments that have no dedicated meeting staff. They had taken a small step in the paperless direction by creating a registration form that they e-mailed to employees. But administrative staff still had to enter and track all the responses manually.

The perfect catalyst for creating a comprehensive online system was One Prudential Exchange, a year-long series of meetings aimed at increasing employees' "business literacy" and preparing them for the possibility of Prudential going public. (See ICP March/April 1999.) To create the online system, Boschee enlisted Will Colon, director, technology. It was his job to take Boschee's wish list and work with Prudential's technology specialists to make it happen. The result: A.R.T.S.

A meeting planner sets A.R.T.S. in motion by entering all the parameters for a meeting, starting with the text of an initial e-mail invitation (which, by the way, can look as if it has come straight from the office of the CEO). The planner inputs all the specifics for the registration form, and also enters instructions for the system to send a reminder e-mail to nonrespondents a given number of days after the invitation goes out, and to send a reminder e-mail to confirmed attendees a given number of days before the meeting starts. The text of an automatic hotel confirmation e-mail is also customized, and goes out to attendees once their hotel reservations are completed.

For attendees, the process starts when they receive the e-mail invitations. A link within the e-mail takes the user to the registration form, which includes questions about hotel and travel needs. If employees answer that they need hotel and travel arrangements, the system brings up separate sections for each, with questions on arrival, departure, seat preferences, and special needs. The attendee clicks "submit" and the completed form is sent to the database server, where Prudential's meeting department and its air partner, American Express, can access it.

Online registration cuts down on errors and makes creating rooming lists more efficient, says Lisa Brighenti, associate manager, meeting management. Because all the fields must be filled in before an attendee can submit the form, the common problem of incomplete registration forms is eliminated. That means no endless follow-up phone calls. Attendees type their own names, so spelling errors are eliminated, too. And instead of a pile of faxes waiting to be input, up-to-the-minute rooming lists are created at a click of the print button.

"The system also allows us to track attendance in several ways: by business group, date, or location," Brighenti says. "It gave us a great opportunity to improve our service to both our internal and external business partners."

The meeting department registered some early One Prudential Exchange attendees the old-fashioned way. "We did paper registration for about 10,000 participants," Boschee says. "For this process, we had three fax machines going nonstop, including evenings and weekends. Then we had to manually confirm those people and print out and send hotel confirmations. We were receiving registration forms without employees' names, addresses, phone, or hotel information. It was a nightmare."

The A.R.T.S. project is ongoing. "Based on our own use, feedback from other users, and changes in meetings, we're continually enhancing the system," Boschee says. Up next: adding ground transportation to the form.

Boschee and Brighenti haven't measured how much time and money they've saved. But they have a good idea. "When we were doing things manually, we were spending substantial dollars on temporary staff, not to mention the overtime and stress on full-time staff," says Boschee.

"And," Brighenti adds, "we probably saved an entire forest when we replaced all those faxed copies with e-mail forms."

CUNA Mutual's Online RFP Takes Over When Steve Clark, CMP, began his meeting planning career with the Madison, Wis.-based CUNA Mutual Group 14 years ago, the highest-tech option he had for sending out RFPs (requests for proposals) was to choose overnight mail instead of "snail" mail.

Clark, CUNA's assistant vice president of conference and travel services, is now firmly entrenched on the cutting edge of technology. Two years ago he started e-mailing RFPs and today he and his staff e-mail 95 percent of their RFPs for the 350 meetings they plan every year.

"As more hotels and individuals came online, we would try it and then we realized how well it worked," says Clark. In fact, he adds, "one of the best things about planners using e-mail RFPs is that it forces hotel companies to bring their properties online. The company's national sales office, for instance, may have to fax an RFP to a particular property that doesn't have e-mail, and the hotel company itself may wind up avoiding some of its own properties because they're not online. Today e-mail is not something you should have; it's something you must have to compete." In Clark's experience, about 80 percent of hotels have e-mail systems that allow them to receive and handle RFPs.

The RFP forms for the meetings Clark plans--larger gatherings with up to 1,400 attendees--are quite extensive, while RFPs for smaller meetings handled by other planners could be one-page, fill-in-the-dates kinds of forms.

An RFP is sent as an e-mail attachment, and generally is sent to the attention of one person in a hotel company's national sales office. With some of the smaller meetings, the RFP might be sent directly to an individual at a specific property, with a copy sent to the national sales office.

"I use national sales offices almost exclusively," Clark notes. "It's like one-stop shopping for my meetings. I've developed great partnerships and working this way also means you don't have to start from scratch for each meeting. The national sales office does the introduction for your meeting to their properties."

Once the sales office or individual hotel receives the RFP, they complete it and either e-mail or fax it back. "The quick turnaround time is the most attractive feature of the e-mail system," says Clark. "E-mail is generally responded to within hours, so by the end of the day your RFP could reach 20 to 30 properties. With a paper process, you can lose days."

Consider the way it used to be: "You may have 30 to 40 pieces of paper to fax, and while the amount of paper itself may be the smaller issue, there's a tremendous amount of time spent in looking up phone numbers and actually faxing," Clark says. "If you fax only to the hotel's national sales office, then it means that on its end it has to fax, in turn, to its properties. Untold hours are saved through e-mail. The e-mail system also allows us to save all our documents, contact numbers, and addresses. We're not reinventing the wheel with each RFP."

Clark and his staff's choice of hotels is affected by whether a hotel can deal with an electronic RFP. One of his two meeting managers, Conference Assistant Jennifer Kloepping, does 100 percent of her RFPs through e-mail (primarily for small meetings).

"Jennifer has never done RFPs any other way," says Clark. "She will not deal with a property that isn't on e-mail. This means she can, for example, plan a 10-city road-show type of meeting via e-mail from her desk. Conference Manager Mary Schneider and I occasionally handle an RFP the old way, by faxing. But unlike Jennifer we have support staff available to do the faxing. Still I'd rather have support staff working on other projects than faxing. Given a choice, I will choose the property that can work with an e-mail RFP."

Clark has also begun online registration and recently used new software, developed for CUNA by a West Coast firm to register 1,400 attendees for a national marketing meeting held in October in Chicago. He sent e-mail to field and home offices inviting them to register and providing instructions on how to access the registration form.

"Staff can register in two ways: by intranet via e-mail or on the Internet at a Web site," Clark says. " We hope by the end of the year to convert to online registration for all of our meetings."

Amica Creates the E-Evaluation Until last year, Providence, R.I.-based Amica Mutual had done conference evaluations the old-fashioned way. But the staggering amount of manual labor (and paper) used in the process had become "so cumbersome," that the company was looking for a better way, says Margaret Munroe, assistant vice president, corporate communications. So Munroe, who handles Amica's Internet and intranet systems as well as conference planning, de- signed an electronic evaluation. It was so successful that Amica now does meeting activity sign-ups online and sends conference information electronically, too.

After Amica's claims and underwriting conferences, which draw 100 to 200 attendees, questionnaires are sent to attendees asking them to rate everything from presentations to meals. "In the past, we had created the evaluation questionnaire electronically, but then we had to duplicate it a couple hundred times, collate and staple the forms, address them, and mail them to attendees," Munroe explains. "They would then fill out the questionnaire, mail it back to us, and we'd sit down and tally the results."

Under the new system, attendees get an e-mail with a direct link to a site on Amica's intranet containing the evaluation questionnaire. Attendees rate conference elements simply by clicking on the appropriate boxes. An area for general comments lets them offer additional opinions and suggestions.

When attendees click "submit," the data is transferred into a central source that compiles it, scores the results, and lists the subjective comments. After a recent meeting, Amica e-mailed 102 attendees and 100 of them responded. Munroe puts the response rate for the old (paper) system at 70 to 80 percent.

Amica's activity surveys also are done electronically now. "Attendees' choices, from boat trips to golf, come back to me as compiled numbers. I can then hand that list--designating 70 participants, for instance, for white-water rafting--to our DMC without any further work. It's beautiful."

TechTips * The first step for any meeting team looking to create an online registration system is to brainstorm absolutely everything you want the system to do, then prioritize that list. Continual upgrades are inevitable, but get as much into the first release as you can.

* Be available to employees and qualifiers who will use the system; walk them through the process.

* Ask for users' input on and suggestions for improving the online process.

* To ensure that people respond to requests for online evaluations, guarantee confidentiality. "We make including the person's name optional," says Amica's Margaret Munroe. "There is no way we can track where the response came from."

* For online evaluations, specificity is especially important. Don't ask participants if they liked the dinner event. Ask them to rate the food, the decor, the entertainment, and then the overall event.