Meeting management software is great stuff, but it will not deliver benefits without careful attention. Read this before you buy anybody's meeting software.

Giving a medical conference organizer meeting management software is like giving a surgeon a laser knife. A laser knife will not turn an incompetent surgeon into a good one--but it could make him much more efficient at being incompetent. Even a good surgeon will perform incompetently without laser knife training; and, whether or not the laser knife turns out to have been a good idea, the hospital that buys it will have written a pretty large check. And if the laser knife is made obsolete by a better one within a year, whoever signed the check is probably going to be unhappy.

This metaphor can be extended to include the likely probability that the person who really knows how to make that laser knife strut its stuff isn't a surgeon, but a laser knife manufacturer, and that the person who knows the least about it is the one who is supposed to be supervising the

surgeon.

So it is with meeting management software: It can make meeting planning much more efficient, but it can also make life miserable if it isn't efficient in the way you want it to be. Thus the admonishment: Look before you click. Here are ten questions (and a bonus question) to be answered before plunking down cash.

1. Do I Really Need This (Part I)? Medical associations that have depended on the Management Information Systems (MIS) or Data Processing (DP) departments to produce reports sometimes say they want to "empower" their meeting planners by putting the membership database in their hands. This may in fact be the appropriate action, but the planners need to realize that while meeting management software should take the drudgery out of creating meeting specifications, it comes with new responsibilities: They can't ask MIS to create reports anymore--it's their job now. New membership information will not transfer itself from a letter or telephone call--somebody has to key it in. Before making the leap, take the MIS director to lunch and find out who is supposed to do what, then, if necessary, adjust staffing requirements accordingly.

2. Who Accommodates Whom? Does the software work the way your organization works, or are you expected to modify what you do to fit the software? Nearly every meeting software vendor claims operational flexibility, but their definitions vary. The largest vendors offer add-on modules for such functions as accounting and education credit-tracking. Their intention is to have you purchase only as much management power as you want. But if you install a system and later find an important function missing or difficult to use, find out what the vendor's policy is regarding modifications. Some will offer immediate programming assistance (always for a price) to give you what you want; others will take your suggestion for an alteration and incorporate it into the next release (an updated version of the product)--but there are no guarantees. And in any event you may wait a long while for what you want.

A corollary to the question of modification/customization: Always ask whether there is a maintenance contract available. A good contract will automatically send you any updates to the software--and additional training and technical support, if that's what's called for. The price will depend on how much management power you've purchased, but it is almost invariably well worth the investment.

3. What Happens to My Files? What happens to the information you already have? If you have a database of attendees that you've been maintaining on a generic spreadsheet or word processing program, ask the vendor to demonstrate what is required to import that database into the new software. Vendors have been know to trivialize file importation--make them show you how on a copy of your files! Quirky things can happen, like middle initials disappearing from names.

Depending on the size and condition of your original file, data conversion can be a big deal. Some medical society databases have a lot of fields--medical specialty, subspecialty, medical school attended, postgraduate degrees and certifications, CME credits, faculty appointments, hospital affiliations, etc. Remember, when importing files, that every additional field is another opportunity for data to get scrambled--or misplaced. A two-line address field converted to a single-line address field is a silly little mistake, but it has happened, and it can play havoc with your ability to do something as basic as print a postcard. See also "Garbage In, Garbage Out," below.

4. Garbage In, Garbage Out. Databases are only as good as the information they contain. As long as you're converting your old database to work with a new software system, inquire about a full-fledged data conversion. Some vendors will conduct an analysis of the data, including its layout (how records and fields are organized) and its quality (percentage of records that haven't been updated since a certain date). Depending on the age and condition of your original database, the service may cost you some. Get an estimate, and remember that if it looks really high, it may be because your data was in really bad shape. Inquire about such services as de-duping (removing duplicate records and fields) and zip code matching--checking zips against a current National Change Of Address (NCOA) nine-digit zip-code file.

If your organization has plans to expand the number of fields in an individual record to include information like educational preferences or even hotel preferences, the time to bring that up with the vendor is before data conversion.

5. Who Knows How to Run This? The power of a meeting software package is inversely proportional to its ease of use. There is at least one independent planner out there who still swears by DOS (the old Disk Operating System that Bill Gates bought back in the 1980s and turned into an empire)--it doesn't have to support graphics so it can run a lot of functions really fast. If you make a living running registration systems and have a talented programmer at your beck and call, then DOS may be your thing. But if you don't, it probably isn't, unless you are amused

by receiving "abort, retry, fail?" error

messages.

Even vendors who sell software that runs on graphical user interface systems--Windows and Mac OS to the lay person--may suggest several days of training, at a price, for those who will operate it. If that is the case, make sure one of the persons attending the training session is the CME director or director of meetings and conventions. It helps support staff get their minds focused on change when they see the boss struggling with the same issues they are, and if the boss is you, you'll have a much better idea of the system's capabilities.

Ask to see the support documentation. Will you be expected to refer to it with any regularity? If so, can you understand it? Management gurus say computer software documentation is the Achilles heel of the industry. If the vendor says you won't have to use it, ask why you should take it at all.

Organizations that don't make regular use of meeting management software will be wise to eschew power and speed for ease of use. Let the vendor know whether the software will be used only periodically. All vendors claim that their systems are user-friendly, but if they're only to be used for three or four meetings a year, the interface has to be intuitive. That means not having to go back to the manual every time you want to do something.

6. Can I Use My Old PC? Printed specs for software--any software--are usually straightforward about disk space requirements, but may understate memory requirements. If the fine print says your software will run with eight megabytes of RAM (random access memory), go out and buy another eight megs. Oftentimes this is actually not an issue--when an association is moving over from a mainframe environment, they are usually purchasing new PCs anyway. If you are planning to use your current hardware, however, have the vendor run a demo on your equipment.

7. Do I Really Need This (Part II)? Organizations that hold meetings at a single hotel or single healthcare facility may not need the firepower of a full-fledged meeting management program. If the idea is to provide badges for a day-long seminar and tickets to the networking reception afterward, look at badge-making systems. They cost less, they're relatively easy to run, and many will also produce sign-up sheets, tent cards, and other attendance-list related documents. Make sure you can run badge stock on your laser printer.

8.Can I Make Annual Reports? When it comes to report generation, never assume anything. Vendors may say they have 100 reporting functions built into the software, but if they don't create the report you need, there might as well not be any. CME directors, in particular, may be surprised to learn that their new software won't run out an annual report of Dr. Smith's CME credits. Before you even visit with a vendor, make a list of all the reports you need for your various constituencies. Classify them by what information needs to be presented and the intervals at which they need to be produced. Include even such pedestrian activities as sending confirmation letters, creating sign-up sheets, and invoicing attendees.

9. Will It Work at the Hotel? Do you plan to use the software at your meetings? What are the dynamics of the situation? Do attendees rush in at 7:55 for an 8 a.m. session? If you are planning to register them on site, find out first whether you'll need a network version of the software that will connect several screens, so attendees can be processed quickly. If you plan to print badges and give out individualized tickets for sessions and meal functions, be sure to have enough printers to handle demand. If you're not sure how many that is, time the printer--the number of documents it prints per minute times the number of attendees you expect per minute will give you the number you need. When you're looking at software, ask for a badge-and-ticket demo. Does everything come up on the screen at once so the person registering the attendee can confirm at a glance all the documents the attendee will receive? Do you need special perforated paper for badge-making? Will it fit through your laser printer?

Consider also who will be sitting at that screen when registration begins. Using a meeting management system in your office is a fundamentally different experience from using one in at a convention center or in a hotel ballroom foyer. CME coordinators who are good enough to work on member records at their desks may find themselves suddenly error-prone working on a different machine in front of a dozen impatient attendees, each of whom wants to know if their fax from yesterday was received. Use only your most proficient computer jockeys on site.

10.Do I Really Need This (Part III)? Meeting software packages may be built from one or more of three basic components: A relational database program such as DBase or FileMaker or Access; a scheduler/calendar based on a spreadsheet or other program with a function to catch conflicts; and a computer-aided design (CAD) program for room setups. There may be other "cool little apps," as the computer geeks say, that create prioritized to-do lists or Gantt charts (graphic representations of step-by-step processes with a time element included) or critical path modules that show the consequences of ordering AV equipment late.

Some vendors specialize in one of these; some offer modular systems that promise to integrate all these functions. Before investing in any of them, think about whether or not you really need to create an editable schematic of the Grand Ballroom at your favorite hotel. Ask your friendly hotel account manager what they're able to supply to you--preferably at no cost.

Bonus: Can I Connect to the Web? Some associations have begun to take registrations for their meetings via the World Wide Web. At the recent METCON Meetings and Technology Conference, held jointly by the American Society of Association Executives and the Professional Convention Management Association (see our news story on page 15), only 19 percent of those in attendance said they had offered on-line registration via the Web in the past year. They added that fewer than ten percent of their attendees had actually used the Web to register. Web usage, however, is a moving target, and as more attendees obtain Internet service--and gain confidence in their ability to make secure transactions--it may be reasonably expected that more will choose this option.

One place to learn about using the Web as a meeting registration and promotion device is http://www.event

web.com, where Doug Fox, meetings technology consultant and the man who brought us MPINet, the on-line service of Meeting Professionals International, has links to innovative Web sites. He also produces an on-line newsletter about using the Web to promote meetings and conventions. To learn more, e-mail Fox at dougfox@event web.com or call him at (804) 364-1212.

What happens when your organization begins accepting on-line registrations? Can you integrate information gathered from your Web site to your meeting management database? Can information from your meeting management program be posted, without changing formats, to your Web site?

The answer has to do with the programming language used to write your software. Your vendor should be able to answer this question--or you can call Microsoft and ask them which vendors support Web/database interfaces.