Take a moment from promoting your own company's tech solutions through meetings and events to consider whether you've got the coolest tools to make your own job easier. Here's a look at four general meeting planning programs, an event management program, and three Internet solutions for meetings.
General Meeting Planning Software software name: MeetingTrak
company name: Phoenix Solutions Inc.
MeetingTrak is a comprehensive meeting and conference management package for small to medium-size corporations, travel departments, and associations. The system tracks speakers, exhibitors, events, and provides name badges, confirmation notices, and rosters. Additionally it allows for multiple payments and on-site meeting registrations. Optional modules track continuing education credits as well as information about members and exhibitors.
MeetingTrak is a shell built upon Microsoft's Access database and, therefore, takes advantage of the development and regular upgrades of this widely used off-the-shelf software. A major point of differentiation for this product is the inclusion of source code, which allows you or your database consultants to make direct modifications to the software. There are numerous customizable reports and fields built into the program from the start, however. The only disadvantage--and a minor one--is that running a non-compiled code increases the demand on system resources and therefore slows the program's operating speed.
The limitations of this program are primarily the limitations of Access. It is not scalable for very large groups. MeetingTrak's closest competitor is MeetingPro by Peopleware, reviewed below.
software name: MeetingPro
company name: Peopleware
Peopleware's MeetingPro shares much of the functionality and many of the features of MeetingTrak. Its accounting functions are particularly strong. They include the ability to handle complex registration, split revenues, account for refunds, and other functions useful for association or corporate meetings with exhibitions. MeetingPro receives high marks for its toll-free help desk, customer support, and a strong commitment to training. MeetingPro's database engine is FoxPro. It is faster than Microsoft Access in some cases but these days is considered an obsolete database language. As such, users cannot expect regular upgrades. The plus side is that, as it is compiled and somewhat more efficient, it tends to be faster and can handle more simultaneous users.
software name: Event Planner Plus
company name: Certain Software
For the cost ($495), Event Planner Plus provides features (such as room diagramming) that software packages costing 10 times more do not. It is easy to set up and use. It includes task scheduling, 25 different report formats, to-do lists, seating assignment, room diagramming, nametag and place card printing, accounting, vendor tracking, and budgeting.
The product has three limitations: It is intended for a single user only; it is designed for a single-day, single-event meeting; and it is built on 16-bit Windows 3.1 and Access database architecture, which is well on the way to obsolescence. Plans to roll out a 32-bit, network-ready, multi-day, multi-event version are in the works. Certain Software is off to a good start--the upgrade will allow larger groups to take advantage of the many well-designed features.
software name: Complete Event Manager 4.5
company name: EKEBA International
This software is an interesting entry into the market, at a price point that puts it within the reach of many independent planners. The product's Web site lists such clients as the U.S. Olympic Committee and Cisco Systems. The program has numerous features, but takes some effort to learn--key strokes and layout are not exactly intuitive. That said, the data fields are customizable--although users must be sure to do this at the start. Software features include the ability to set up concurrent sessions, manage continuing education credits, and issue certificates. Complete Event Manager handles such logistical chores as task lists, menu planning, exposition/table assignments, lodging/roommate preferences, tracking speaker travel, and/speaker/staff coordination. Financial features include the ability to handle invoice/budget tracking and produce financial reports. It can create labels, name badges, and tent cards. Marketing features include the ability to track attendee history and handle mail merge lists.
The software relies on support provided via online tutorials and e-mail. There is no help desk where you can readily talk to someone. I found the e-mail support responsive, however: It replied within four to eight hours. I had difficulty with the set-up--it took several e-mails and a phone call to get it fixed, but, once running, it performed in a stable manner. It can import registration data to and from Access and other databases. The staff at EKEBA will perform database conversion for free, but, once done, the money-back guarantee is void.
Room Diagramming Software software name: Meeting Matrix V 5.0
company name: SCLM
I have used this product since the days when it was written only for DOS. As one who believes that only by diagramming meeting space can planners know exactly what they will get in terms of capacities and layout, I cannot imagine running a large meeting without it. The Windows95 version is much easier to use than earlier releases. To get new users up to speed quickly, however, I recommend the training package.
I especially like the ability to download floor plans from hotel Web sites--generating the floor plans is the most time consuming part of using any room diagramming product. More than 250 properties are online--the dimensions guaranteed accurate to a quarter of an inch! The basic Silver edition (usable only with participating hotels) is free, but if you are doing lots of meetings, the Platinum version is worthwhile. Meeting Matrix is used by Marriott, Sheraton, Hyatt, Ritz Carlton, and Renaissance hotels, and interfaces with Delphi, one of the major hotel meeting space management programs. This product is also an Alliance partner with Meeting Professionals International and PlanSoft. Major competitors include Optimum Settings (www.optimumsettings.com) and Room Viewer (www.timesaver.com). An advantage of Meeting Matrix is that its vector-based graphics makes the diagrams easy to zoom in on.
Web-Based Meeting Planning Solutions software name: Event Wizard
company name: Neology, a Division of Smith Bucklin & Associates
Neology fills a unique niche in the meeting planning software field--a Web-based product that focuses on educational content. It is aimed at associations, user groups, or corporations where programs with multi-track, multi-day educational meetings are the norm. This set of Web tools includes program committee coordination and communication, abstract collection, speaker information collection, and event grid scheduling. There is also a significant e-mail management system. Once the conference is built in the password- protected area, the full program with all of the event details can automatically be made live to the public Web site.
software name: Ajenis
company name: PlanSoft
Ajenis has been the focus of a great deal of attention and controversy, because of what it proposes to provide--the communication of meeting specifications between the meeting planner and the hotel convention services department in a standardized format over the Internet. In the past, this has been an inefficient process at best. Today, Ajenis can save translation, inputting, and proofing time, reduce the opportunity for errors, and save on paper and mailing costs. It does not, however, provide the registration database, accounting, badge creation, and other features of most general.
Ajenis is robust, with lots of options and features, and can be intimidating when first viewed. A training program is strongly recommended. This product is the result of efforts by a consortium of partners, including the American Society of Association Executives, Meeting Professionals International, Hyatt Hotels, Marriott Hotels, Starwood Lodging, and GES Exposition Services. The partners hope to achieve the critical mass necessary to bring this product into wide use. Once there, Ajenis has the potential to greatly streamline this crucial communication link. It is designed to integrate into the PlanSoft Network, which is, by my estimation, the most comprehensive source of information about hotel and convention center meeting facilities on the Web (www.plansoft.com).
software name: BlueDot Event Tools
company name: BlueDot.com
BlueDot offers a variety of Web-based event and exhibition management tools. The heart of its product line is vMap 1.3, a program that allows exhibition organizers to post floor plans to the Web showing reserved and available space for exhibitors and allowing attendees to search for exhibitors and products. It includes graphical and data editing tools, allowing changes to be made to the Web floor plan. By the time you read this, vMap 2.0 is scheduled to be released. It will include an accounting and contact management system as well as floor planning functions. Other BlueDot products include:
* Online Exhibit Hall--an online product directory with virtual booths including exhibitor links, e-mail press releases, and product descriptions
* Seminar Planner--an online conference calendar which is fully searchable by the attendee
* Kiosk Systems--brings a Web-based exhibit hall planner, seminar planner, messaging system, e-mail system, and people locator to the show site
* Direct E-mail--an e-mail tool including list-serv functions with the ability to segment, target, and personalize e-mail messages to event participants.
Competitors are Expocad and Expoventure (www.expoventure.com) for the exhibition floor management tools and Neology for the seminar planning tools.