Technology consultant Corbin Ball, CMP, has made a career out of connecting the dots for meeting professionals. His latest project is a report on the tech tools available to help companies with their strategic meeting management initiatives, such as tracking and reporting companywide meeting spending, enforcing corporate, and guiding site selection.
Ball was putting the final touches on a 100-plus page report looking at the attributes of seven leading technologies when news broke in late September of the merger of PlanSoft and seeUthere, which had joined forces to form OnVantage.
When Insurance Conference Planner spoke to Ball in early October to discuss his research, he was back at work, revising the affected chapters and crossing his fingers that he would have the publication ready for downloading (for a fee) before the end of the year.
Because the meeting technology marketplace is a moving target, Ball says, his job is both challenging and necessary. “No one has done this kind of analysis before,” he says. “These technology companies are targeting the country's roughly 5,000 largest corporations — big enterprises with a lot of meeting spend.” Those companies, he says, have a lot to gain by choosing the right solution — but also a lot to lose if they choose the wrong one. Adopting an enterprisewide meeting management process requires a significant outlay of time and money. “I thought it would be very helpful for an independent, impartial expert to look at them [the major meeting consolidation products] and give companies some guidance.”
ICP: How did you do your research?
Corbin Ball: In most cases, my co-researcher, Dale Weideman, and I were given demo test accounts so that we could peek under the hood, set up basic meetings. In some cases, we just got extended product demonstrations. While we didn't run multiple, heavy-duty meetings on the systems, I think that we provide a pretty good analysis.
There's no single product that we suggest is the best of the lot; rather, we analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each tool in terms of six functional areas: site sourcing, meeting controls, feedback mechanism, meeting calendar, reporting, and ability to integrate into other enterprise systems. I try to give a balanced analysis and make it detailed enough that it will be helpful for planners as well as the procurement people and eventpeople looking at these tools.
Where did you see the big differences among the technologies?
We focused on products that are all basically trying to accomplish the same goals, but there are a lot of different flavors, different approaches. It was kind of interesting to see what companies will claim as their strengths and how they promote them. Some emphasize how strong their technology platform is, while others focus on the meeting planning experience of the developers and the product's ease of use.
There's also a philosophical difference between tools that are more management-centric and those that are planner-focused. The management-centric ones tend to want to track all expenses, and if planners have to go through a little more work to make that happen, it's worth it for the overall good of the organization. On the other side of the spectrum, developers have said, “This data collection is not going to happen if there are a whole lot of extra screens, so let's keep it simple.”
Another difference among the tools is that some are more geared to external, larger single-day events and trade shows, while others are more appropriate for managing multiple, smaller.
Where is the most critical need for tech development for corporate meetings?
What I'm most interested in, and what I think has the greatest potential, is organizations starting to use strategic event management tools that are well beyond consolidation or spend tracking, or even the meeting policy guide rails. The question is, “How do you start tying in these products with the corporation's goals and objectives to make sure that they are tracked?”
I think the great potential here is to use these tools astrackers and as communication devices. Once you have the communication lines established, allowing enterprisewide meeting spend data to be sent up to meeting management, you should be able to reverse that information flow and start sending down the overall corporate goals and objectives and, as a result, managing meetings in a lot more strategic way. Some of these products are working in that direction, but none has fully exploited it yet.
What's your advice to meeting executives considering investing in a consolidation solution?
These tools are too important for a large corporation — and even for a medium-size company — to ignore. The savings can be huge. It's starting with the large companies because they are the ones that can benefit the most. But down the road, we're going to see these same procurement initiatives and efforts to manage meetings in a more strategic manner move into the smaller corporations and associations as well.
My advice to meeting planners is not to fear this. Procurement initiatives are not a replacement for meeting planners. In the optimal situation, it can be an important partnership. The procurement process can give planners some metrics from which to make decisions. Meetings will never be paper clips. They're the face of a corporation. I encourage planners to think strategically, to embrace the process, and to become part of the strategic event management thinking.
Corbin Ball, CMP, plans to have his meeting management product analysis available by the the of the year at www.corbinball.com. In the meantime, visit meetingsnet.com for two useful resources that will get you thinking about consolidation issues: the Managing Corporate Meeting Spend 2004 Benchmark Survey and a free webinar on the challenges of strategic meeting management implementation.
Ambassadors International Inc.
Newport Beach, Calif.
Event Portfolio Management 2.0
OnVantage Inc. (formerly seeUthere and PlanSoft)
Santa Clara, Calif.
Enterprise Meeting Solutions
WorldTravel Meetings & Incentives
(a division of WorldTravel BTI, Atlanta)