Joan Mahon has been planning meetings at The New England for 25 years, but when she talks about "the old days" of meeting management, she could be remembering just three years back--or any time before late 1995 when her department started using a software program called Great Meetings. The Boston-based senior meeting and travel planner has guided her department from Selectrics to Windows 95 to the Web during her career, but recent improvements in database technology are among her favorite innovations, allowing her to cut her meeting registration time in half.

Broadly, Great Meetings registers and tracks meeting attendees. It's not a program that can help with every part of the meeting planning process. It doesn't create banquet event orders, aid in site selection, automate room setup design, or send out RFPs (requests for proposal). But it does what it does very well.

Better yet, the program was created for an insurance company's incentive travel and meeting department, so the language and agency structure of the insurance industry are woven into the program. Users, for example, can print out reports by agency, click a button to add CLU or ChFC after a name, or track an agent's award club history.

Hands-on Experience The software was developed by Manny Lopes and Joe Casimiro, who both worked for Paul Revere Insurance in Worcester, MA, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Lopes worked as manager of field training not far from the desk of Sharon Gaudreau, director of meetings, travel, and recognition. While Manny's training events were small, drawing fewer than a couple dozen attendees each, he learned much about the meeting and travel industry. He also heard Gaudreau lament the limitations of her meeting planning software. "I was kidding around at first," Lopes says. "I told her that Joe and I could build a better system."

By 1989 Lopes and Casimiro, working under the name JCML Group, had won a competitive bid to develop the new software. Never mind that Windows 3.1 wasn't even out yet. Never mind that there was no Windows database software on the market. They set to work.

A year later, Gaudreau loaded an early version of the software onto her desktop. It wasn't half the product that's available today, but it was far better than what she had. It took several years of debugging, rethinking, and integrating new technologies to create a truly stable product. By 1994, it was Gaudreau, says Lopes, who helped convince them that other companies might be interested in their software.

So in 1995, Great Meetings got its name. Since then, marketing has been slim, limited to two presentations for small educational events sponsored by the Insurance Conference Planners Association. But word of mouth has sent Lopes and Casimiro (both of whom are now independent consultants working in Boston financial firms) a steady stream of inquiries and customers. The New England was the first outside of Paul Revere to buy the software, followed by Allmerica Financial, Nationwide Insurance Enterprise, and, most recently, Chubb Life.

Upgrade Needed For The New England, Great Meetings appeared in the right place at the right time. By 1995, Mahon was eager for something new. Meeting management software installed for her more than ten years earlier left a lot to be desired. For one thing, it was designed for association meetings and had to be largely rewritten by The New England's MIS department to handle incentive programs.

But its main drawback was that every meeting had to be created from scratch. That is, standard information on each attendee--address, spouse information, rooming preferences, and so on--had to be reentered for every meeting. While the old database could reliably churn out about a dozen different reports on a given meeting--rooming lists, arrival and departure manifests, workshop sign-ups--one meeting had no connection to the next. If an agent's address changed, planners had to go in and change the address on every meeting for which the agent was registered.

By 1994, several factors pushed Mahon to start looking for something new. The old-style, nonintegrated "flat file" database system not only saddled the meeting department with heavy clerical duties, but it was slow and had ways of operating that made it easy for a user to lose information. "We had outgrown our old system completely," she says. "We had too much info that we were trying to push through it."

Also, the company's "rightsizing" efforts had shrunk the meetings group, so the department needed to find ways to work more efficiently. From reading the trade press and talking to colleagues, Mahon felt sure that there were new products to consider. Enter relational databases.

These programs allow individual records within one database (say, a company's agents) to be related to another database (say, attendees at the annual convention). Relational databases became practical for personal computer users in the late 1980s, but only in the past few years have they been written in the Windows environment. Some of the best-known meeting registration software packages have just recently upgraded. Peopleware's MeetingPro, for example, has been around since the early 1980s with a DOS-based flat file program, but MeetingPro for Windows, which runs on FoxPro, surfaced only in 1995. While Phoenix Solutions' Meetingtrak was started as a relational database back in 1984 using DataEase as its software base, Meetingtrak/WIN in Microsoft Access came online in early 1995.

What Can It Do? As in Meetingtrak and MeetingPro, relational database technology is at the heart of Great Meetings. Here's a rundown of its basic features. Mahon's first job, she says, is to "build the meeting." On a "new meeting" screen, she fills in as much data as possible about the meeting, including name, location, dates, sessions, awards, room types (cost and number of rooms blocked in each category), billing methods, and so on.

Once the framework of the meeting is established, it's time to add people. The system allows Mahon to select attendees (just double click) from a master list of agents, executives, and other possible guests. Mahon has 3,000 people on her master list, so to make it easier, that list can be displayed by groupings (for example, just vice presidents). Mahon also has the option to download the names of qualifiers from her mainframe. Great Meetings matches the mainframe names to those in its master list and automatically registers those people.

When an attendee is selected, his or her entire record in the master database gets linked to the meeting at hand--professional information, biographical information, and guest information. If an attendee calls to say he's earned his CLU and that his wife has become a vegetarian, those changes are made once and automatically updated for other meetings.

To continue to the registration process, the planner opens each attendee's record to select meeting-specific information like room type, choices for sessions, and awards earned. (Since, for example, all possible room types were entered when the meeting was "built," a planner just clicks on the appropriate room type. At the same time, that room is taken out of the block, so the planner knows how many of each type of room remain.) "Once you've built your meeting, there's very little typing," says Mahon. "This registration process goes at least 50 percent faster than our old system."

Mahon has two favorite aspects of the program: first, the quality of reports. The system comes loaded with 70 report options, which are easy to read and professional-looking. Second, she likes the ease of sending suppliers updated information. Whenever a report is printed, the computer asks Mahon whether or not the version is final for the hotel. If she clicks "yes," all the information is saved in a way that allows future reports to include only changes made to the meeting after the original report is sent to the hotel.

There are two other sub-programs of note. One is for on-site computers that allows attendee information gathered at a meeting to be uploaded to the master list when planners return. Another sub-program allows travel information coming from an American Express travel agency to be downloaded rather than entered by hand.

The New England uses the software to register attendees for its five annual incentive meetings (ranging from 200 to 1,200 attendees), as well as about a quarter of the 30 to 50 other meetings it runs each year. The three meeting planners and an assistant in The New England's meeting department all have Great Meetings on their desktops. The system is on a Local Area Network (LAN), so changes made by one planner are seen instantly by all. Three staffers elsewhere in the building also have Great Meetings, but can access the program on a read-only basis for their script-writing work.

Mahon started in the meeting department at The New England after typewriters went electric. "But not long after," she jokes. She's come a long way, as have her tools, and she's never going back. She works less overtime, tracks her meeting history more accurately, and keeps the customers happier. All she wants to know is, "What's next?"