If the promise of the Internet for the meeting industry is efficiency, then one of its success stories is certainly housing for citywide events. No, the online systems aren't perfect yet. No, a definitive standard hasn't emerged. But with several players taking a lead in the online housing world and new ventures promising further competition, it's a good time to assess where this segment of the housing management industry stands and what it can offer.

First, some history: In the mid-1990s, organizations were asking for standard procedures, reasonable and consistent fees, and a high level of service from their housing providers. Planners wanted accurate, timely pickup reports throughout (and after) the registration process, toll-free numbers, and a system that would allow attendees to register for a meeting and make housing reservations with a single call.

At that time, the industry made a meaningful attempt to standardize convention housing services with the Centralized Convention Housing Reservation System (CHRS), which was backed by the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus, but in the end, the idea never took off. While its failure seemed to stem from a lack of industry support, perhaps it never had a chance. Broad consumer use of the World Wide Web was on the horizon.

The Revolution The first online group housing service, Quincy, Mass.-based Passkey.com, had its first demo at the January 1997 meeting of the Professional Convention Management Association. What made its business model extraordinary--and soon imitated--was that planners, hotels, and housing bureaus (convention bureaus or third-party vendors) each had 24/7, real-time access to inventory reports. At the click of the mouse, planners could check the status of particular housing blocks and make changes to those blocks.

What now seems relatively commonplace was then a revolution: Working with the planner, Passkey created a customized Web site, incorporating negotiated room rates, defining sub-blocks, and stating policies for deposits, cancellations, and credit-card processing. Attendees could make reservations on the event Web site or through a call center. As reservations came in, the central online reservation database was kept up-to-date.

The system's first real test was a 900-person January 1998 meeting for Sheraton Corp. The American Physical Therapy Association, Alexandria, Va., was next. Rita Pierson, manager of regional meetings and travel for the APTA, considers it a lucky break. After housing problems wreaked havoc with her 1997 meeting, Pierson was ready to try almost anything to improve the system for her 1998 event. She agreed to play guinea pig for an early trial of the Passkey system, and the experience turned her into one of the company's most ardent evangelists.

"Our members like to get in and do things for themselves," she explains. "When they're deciding on housing, it's them making the judgment calls, not an agent somewhere. It gives my people more control over their meeting."

Competitors Emerge Once Passkey launched, it wasn't long before other companies jumped in with variations on the theme. Just six months after Passkey's demo at the PCMA meeting, Plano, Texas-based WynTrac LLP (then called Jade Technologies) was marketing a system for handling housing and registration over the Web. And b-there.com, Westport, Conn., would soon become another noted player.

Each brings a different approach to the market, but there are many similarities. In addition to online real-time housing services, all three companies now offer event registration, and Passkey.com and b-there.com also offer travel booking capabilities.

In all three cases, attendees log on to a Web site, select their housing, and register for the event; everything gets charged to the appropriate credit card. The room is removed from inventory, the planner's block is credited, and confirmation notices are generated. Planners can get an instant look at housing, registration, or any other facet of the event, right down to an individual attendee folio. Hotels know, day or night, how the event is selling, whether it's selling to attendees or exhibitors, and at what price levels. There's no waiting for someone to re-write housing lists or manually update inventory.

"That kind of system allows me to manage a hotel room block without having to worry about the details," says Sarah Raynor, conference operations manager, Internet Events Division, Penton Media, Darien, Conn., who uses b-there.com. "You can plan everything from registration to travel and capture all the data. I can go into the system and request room blocks automatically. If my first-choice property is sold out, I know right away. It isn't just a pretty program; it lets you work more effectively."

The systems don't completely eliminate double booking or infiltration by nonattendees, but the problems are significantly reduced, says Raynor. Attendees who try to register directly with the hotel can't access negotiated rates.

One of the biggest complaints about traditional registration is filling out personal data at least three times: once to register, again for housing, and yet again to make travel arrangements. Moving the process to the Web lets attendees enter personal data, preferences, and payment information just once.

Different Roots Beyond these basics, the three companies are deploying different strategies to go after different aspects of the meeting market.

Passkey.com cut its teeth providing group housing services, and at this point it is still available only to organizations that work through convention and visitor bureaus or third-party vendors. Passkey opted for CVB deals first because bureaus were the key to its initial target--large citywide events. "CVBs are still the front end to 25 percent of the citywide meetings nationally," says Passkey Marketing Vice President Rich Westerfield. "They were the ones who needed the most help first. But there are tens of thousands of smaller meetings. It would be foolish to ignore that market." And he doesn't plan to. While the company's emphasis will remain on meetings with major housing needs, a Planner Direct version of the CVB-sized product is due out by the third quarter of 2000.

In addition, in mid-April Pass-key.com made a move to expand its community with a new cross-marketing agreement with PlanSoft Corp. (www.plansoft.com), a leading meeting industry Web site that includes a searchable database of more than 45,000 facilities and suppliers and an online Request for Proposal service. PlanSoft will include an icon on its database entries indicating facilities that are Passkey-enabled and license the Passkey software to offer the housing solution to its customers. Passkey.com will provide a link to PlanSoft's meeting planning tools.

Twenty bureaus around the country have now partnered with Passkey. CVBs can expect to pay $3 to $12 per reservation, depending on services required (the company now offers more than housing; see sidebar next page), plus a one-time $5,000 set-up fee. Fees for the Planner Direct version aren't yet known.

Seattle/King County Convention and Visitors Bureau was among the bureaus that signed on with Passkey.com last year. "We simply didn't have a viable system before Passkey," says Marc Pujalet, senior vice president of marketing at the bureau. "We were not aggressive in driving business into our system because it was basically unworkable. Now we have all the technological pieces in place."

Being There B-there is focused on helping planners manage the entire attendee experience, based on its background in corporate travel management. (Be-there is a technology spinoff of Westport, Conn.-based Lee Travel Group.) It was the first to add travel services to the more familiar housing and registration functions and, so far, is the only one of the trio to offer restaurant or leisure activity bookings. Expect to pay $2 to $5 per transaction with no set-up fee for a template-driven system.

Penton Media's Raynor is a convert to b-there.com. She plans four Internet World productions and four ISPCom shows every year. Each of the shows draws 30,000 to 40,000 attendees, and each was a major logistical headache. That was before Raynor moved registration, housing, and travel to the Web. "Handling logistics online has been seamless," she says, "even though high-tech people are notorious for doing their travel at the last minute and changing their minds almost by the second. Event automation is coming into a market that desperately needs the product. B-there is absolutely keeping up with what I need as a client."

B-there.com aims to provide a single solution for everything from registration to travel to tee times. Company President John Golicz calls it "managing the attendee experience," and he's counting heavily on b-there.com's travel management module to wow planners and attendees alike. For now, he says, b-there has the only engine that can link attendees with airline zone fares and negotiated corporate fares. "A planner's job isn't just planning a meeting," he says. "It's ensuring the attendee's entire experience is useful and positive." He's working hard to push leisure travel components that are gradually coming online. "Attendees have to eat somewhere," he points out.

It seems that venture capitalists like the logic. Since February, the company has successfully raised more than $22 million.

WynTrac's New Alliances WynTrac has its sights on providing housing and registration for the smaller but more numerous meetings that fill in around glamorous citywides. "We're really focusing on smaller meetings and in-house groups," says WynTrac's executive vice president Michael Foster. "When you look at the numbers, 80 percent to 85 percent of the meeting business is small events." WynTrac's biggest client is Las Vegas-based Housing-On-Line/PGI, which manages housing for convention bureaus in Philadelphia, New York, San Diego, and Hawaii, among other locales. The system costs $2 to $6 per registration and a refundable set-up fee.

WynTrac has a relationship with WizCom International to electronically transmit reservations into hotel central reservation engines (primarily for Ramada properties) and, according to Foster, is negotiating a contract with Pegasus Systems (a Passkey partner), which performs a similar service for chains such as Hyatt and Hilton. But the company's big news is a licensing agreement inked in April with Denver-based New Era of Networks. The NEON technology, says Foster, will greatly improve communications among planner, attendee, and hotel by allowing direct, two-way communication of reservations, cancellations, and arrival/ departure changes. Instant confirmations will be possible. However, NEON's software still needs to be implemented at the property level.

Also new this year: WynTrac expects to add a Web site-building service soon, allowing planners to build a housing and registration Web site in just seven steps. It won't win any design awards, admits Foster, but attendees won't wonder why the site takes so long to load or where to click for the next step.

In the dot-com world, you've got to move fast to keep in the game, and last year, online housing provider Passkey.com made a number of key partnerships.

March: Passkey.com aligned with Dallas-based Pegasus Systems, which provides hotel transaction processing. With the Pegasus link, reservations data collected by Passkey.com can pass directly into the central reservation systems of client hotels. (Hyatt and Hilton are among Pegasus' customers.)

July: Passkey.com took its first big step beyond housing services, announcing a deal with Sabre Inc., Fort Worth, Texas, a leader in electronic travel distribution, to allow travel booking to be integrated into its housing booking system. The Sabre alliance went live at the end of January when Passkey opened its new call center (the only one of the three companies to have one) in an alliance with McCord Group Travel Services, Chicago, to process hotel, air, and car reservations, and to provide attendees with e-mail and fax confirmations.

December: The company announced that event registration would be added to its services. Planners have three options. They can design the registration area using a simple template, work with Passkey for a custom design, or link to a registration system they already use.