Meetings management software can increase compliance with organizational policies and give planners powerful reports to share with leadership. But here's the rub: How transparent is that software you're buying to provide you with transparency? Are there indirect costs? Is your buying influenced in subtle and not-so-subtle ways?

Hidden Fees?

One meeting planner using an enterprise system happened to see an e-mail exchange between the software company and the hotel he was booking in which the company informed the hotel that it would have to pay a per-room-night fee to the software company for the booking. The planner — and his procurement counterparts who had made the software purchasing decision — were unaware of this revenue stream from hotel to software company. Questions arose. For starters, could the planner be confident of getting the best rate from the hotel?

There are other issues. For software platforms that include site-search and e-RFP capabilities, how are search results returned? Are there ads sold to hotels that appear on the results page? When planners use one of the supplier databases for free, as they might use Google, they understand that it needs to be supported by advertising. But what if an organization is paying to use the software and all its tools? Shouldn't the organization's planner be able to work in an advertising-free environment for site searches?

For experienced meeting managers with preferred suppliers and long-standing hotel relationships, the question might not matter quite as much. But what about for their less-experienced counterparts? How do they account for a software company's marketing pitch to hotels that they will be more likely to be selected if they buy marketing packages that bump them to the top of search results, regardless of search criteria?

You might not believe that you are being influenced. But someone is. “Everyone believes there's influence,” says one industry observer. “Otherwise, why would they buy the marketing package? Or why buy the highest-priced package?”

Here we profile several companies providing meetings management software and site-search/e-RFP capabilities. We've also included buying tips, which come down to one big idea that should be nothing new: Look beyond the sales pitch.

Test the product with real-world scenarios to know if the reality matches the promise. Look past the initial price tag, and add up the incrementals and options.

The following profiles will get you started, but they just scratch the surface: You still need to dig!

The Integrator

Arcaneo Metron

www.arcaneo.com

Clement Ng, VP, client services

The Story: “Clients had asked us for a central view of meetings data,” explains Clement Ng. “We quickly realized that they needed more than just a central data repository. What was lacking was a single platform that addressed the end-to-end needs of enterprise meetings management, from meeting request to attendee management to supplier management and spend management, while complying with IT policies and data-protection regulations. There were only disparate systems addressing specific areas, and enterprises and their suppliers resorted to cut-and-paste methods to gain insight into their meetings.”

Product Type: On-premises (“shrink-wrapped”) software For Meetings Management:

  • Meeting request and approval

  • Enterprise calendar

  • Resource management

  • Venue database/e-RFPs

  • Budget management

  • Attendee management, including registration, surveys, and e-mail marketing

  • Customizable reports on cost savings, cost avoidance, and spend, aggregated as needed

  • Agenda management integrated with meeting room and attendee allocations

  • Housing and meeting-room inventory management

Supplier Database? Yes, through a partnership with Cendyn, whose database has nearly 90,000 suppliers

Supplier Database Marketing Packages: No. Cendyn acquired its database from providers such as Pegasus Solutions and is continuing to aggregate existing databases. Venues in the database are on a “level playing field,” says Pete Brady, relationship manager.

Do you get commissions or finder's fees from hotels? No.

RFP Customization: RFPs are configured as templates, allowing users to specify their requirements within each template and issue that same template to multiple suppliers to compare responses side by side.

What are the different ways hotels can respond to your RFPs? An RFP can be sent as an e-mail, as a PDF attachment, or via Cendyn's eProposal solution, which allows planners to view RFP responses in a multimedia format.

What do clients pay for? Fixed annual licensing and maintenance fees for their dedicated deployment of the software and complete control of their data, residing on dedicated systems either hosted by the clients or by Arcaneo.

Credit-Card Partnership? Visa; cards issued on a per-meeting basis with spend limits and expiration dates. “The traditional invoice payment model is highly manual and time-consuming, with the potential for inaccurate payments and fraud,” Ng says. “We give planners the ability to pay, allocate, and reconcile charges easily and accurately.”

Enhancements: Quarterly

Support: 24/7 for server monitoring; personnel in Canada and U.K.

Our Differentiators:

“Our solution is highly configurable and easily integrated with enterprise systems to maintain data integrity and track meetings with relevant enterprise financial codes, HR, and other key information,” says Clement Ng. “We maintain a transparent business model that allows clients complete insight into actual meeting costs and savings. With our end-to-end solution, clients can implement enterprisewide processes and standards to truly scale their SMMPs.”

The Moveri

Cvent

www.cvent.com

Chuck Ghoorah, EVP, sales and marketing

The Story: Launched in 1999 as an online-registration provider, Cvent has evolved into a software system for strategic meetings management. “Cvent has grown from four to 497 employees worldwide, with 14,000 users in 22 countries,” Chuck Ghoorah says. “We were recently awarded PCI Level 1 Compliance, the payment card industry's highest data-security standard. And as of the fourth quarter, HelmsBriscoe and ConferenceDirect have named Cvent their official e-RFP platform.”

Product Type: Software as a Service (SaaS)

For Meetings Management:

  • Meeting request and approval

  • Enterprise calendar

  • Resource management

  • Venue database/e-RFPs

  • Budget management

  • Attendee management, including registration, surveys, and e-mail marketing

  • Customizable reports on cost savings, cost avoidance, and spend

  • Integration with Webex that allows registrants to more easily attend Webex meetings

Supplier Database? Yes. “The Cvent Supplier Network took three years to build with a dedicated staff of 120 people,” says Ghoorah. Suppliers get free basic listings. All suppliers are able to update their own accounts. Cvent staff also updates the database monthly.

Supplier Database Marketing Packages: Three types: two- , three- , and four-diamond listings. The packages offer varying degrees of increased exposure, from ads on search-results pages to listings that appear first in search results. Cvent also provides additional marketing opportunities in its e-mail newsletter, Destination Guide, and blogs. Packages cost $2,500 to $18,000 annually.

Do you get commissions or finder's fees from hotels? No.

RFP Customization: Planners can create highly customized RFPs and ask “custom questions” as part of the RFP process. Planners may attach documents to RFPs or include standard contracts. Planners also can copy previous RFPs to reduce data entry.

What are the different ways that hotels can respond to your RFPs? Suppliers can log in and respond through the Cvent system itself. Cvent offers free, live, online training 10 times a week to hotels and venues. Cvent is also integrated with Newmarket International's MeetingBroker, which routes RFPs to hotel customer-relationship management systems such as Delphi. This lets sales execs respond to RFPs within the hotel CRM system itself.

What do clients pay for? Annual license fees for different modules; clients choose which they need. The primary cost is for the attendee-management module, priced on a per-registrant basis.

Credit-Card Partnership? No

Enhancements: Three to four a year

Support: 24 hours on weekdays via phone and e-mail; daytime weekend support; based in McLean, Va.

Our Differentiators:

“The primary differentiator is our scale,” says Ghoorah. “With a global presence and our 497 employees, we offer a world-class level of customer service, security, and responsiveness. Second is the affordable price point for our SMM software suite. Third, we are the second generation of SMM. The first generation SMM systems are stuck with inflexible legacy architecture. We entered the market and asked customers what they liked and disliked and then built a better, more nimble system.

“Our software has been guided by the same team over the years (11 of our 12 senior managers have been with us since we started the company),” he continues, “so that every component seamlessly speaks to the other parts of the software. We believe this makes for a better user experience and provides the most reliable service for our customers. Fourth is the size and accuracy of the Cvent Supplier Network — 100,000 suppliers, including restaurants and venues such as museums and aquariums.”

Editor's Note: MeetingsNet has partnered with Cvent to offer its supplier database at the Web site, http://meetingsnet.com.

The Marketing Experts

Lenos

www.lenos.com

Patti Tackeff, president and COO

The Story: Lenos Software was founded in 1999 to develop software solutions to manage meetings and events; in particular, says Patti Tackeff, “to track and report ROI, since meetings and events are critical for building strong, more meaningful and profitable business relationships.” As a dedicated software company, Lenos has its product management, engineering, and support centralized in San Francisco.

Product Type: SaaS

For Meetings Management:

  • Meeting request and approval

  • Enterprise calendar

  • Resource management

  • Venue database/e-RFPs

  • Budget management

  • Attendee management, including registration, surveys, and e-marketing

  • Configurable reports on registrants, cost savings, cost avoidance, and spend consolidation

Supplier Database? Yes, created by Lenos. Supplier listings link directly to hotels' Web sites. “The Lenos Supplier Database is free of supplier fees and advertising to eliminate potential conflict of interest and bias and to ensure transparency for compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley,” Tackeff says. “Clients (licensees) can add their own suppliers to customize and expand the Lenos database for their specific accounts.”

Supplier Database Marketing Packages: None. “Lenos does not solicit or accept payments from suppliers to be listed or advertise because it is an inducement to purchase for enterprise clients,” Tackeff says. “It has inherent potential conflicts of interest and creates bias.”

Do you get commissions or finder's fees from hotels? No.

RFP Customization: “Lenos clients create their own RFP templates to reflect different meeting types and lines of business,” says Tackeff. “Each template can be copied, modified, and reused as needed.”

What are the different ways hotels can respond to your RFPs? Hotels receive Lenos-generated RFPs via e-mail. The Lenos RFP engine enables negotiations, cost-avoidance tracking, benchmarking, and reporting. RFPs are branded by the licensee client as a qualified lead.

What do clients pay for? An annual license based on the number of users, programs, geography, and modules selected. For corporate enterprises, the preferred payment is a monthly or annual subscription. Partner organizations may elect preferred payment that is transaction-based.

Credit-Card Partnership? No.

Enhancements: Bimonthly, based on client feedback and the Lenos product road map

Support: 24/7, based on service level agreements; support personnel based in San Francisco

Our Differentiators:

“First is our ease of use for creating custom Web sites, RFPs, budgets, and meeting request forms without the need for coding or knowledge of HTML,” says Tackeff. “They get custom-like capabilities without the software engineers.” Second is flexibility. Lenos is scalable, from small meetings to large-conference management. Third is the advertising-free environment. Fourth, Tackeff says, “Our core competency is innovative software solutions for the meetings and events industry. We partner with service providers for their complementary expertise. It's the same as when a corporation licenses enterprisewide financial management software — the management expertise is in house.”

The Original

StarCite

www.starcite.com

Kevin Young, SVP, worldwide marketing and partner management

The Story: StarCite jumped out in front in offering meetings management consolidation tools and site selection. “We see ourselves as a platform to support strategic meetings management,” says Kevin Young. “We don't just provide tactical planning tools.” Launched in 1999 as a spinoff of meetings management firm McGettigan, StarCite acquired a few companies early on, such as B-there and RegWeb, to add attendee registration, meetings management, and budgeting tools to its online marketplace and e-RFP offering. In late 2006, StarCite merged with OnVantage (itself a merger of PlanSoft and SeeUthere). The combination resulted in a new StarCite platform.

Product Type: SaaS

For Meetings Management:

  • Meeting request and approval

  • Enterprise calendar

  • Resource management

  • Venue database/e-RFPs

  • Budget management

  • Attendee management, including registration, surveys, and e-mail marketing

  • Standard reports plus customizable reports on, for example, cost savings, cost avoidance, and spend, aggregated as needed

  • Small Meeting Solution to book smaller meetings

Supplier Database? Yes, with 93,000 suppliers, created by StarCite and updated by both StarCite staff and hotels themselves

Supplier Database Marketing Packages: Several packages are available. “We offer suppliers many opportunities to promote themselves,” Young says. “They can come up higher in the search list, add enhanced content to listings, banner ads, a host of opportunities. Suppliers who invest in Search Engine Optimization see better results when they make themselves easier to find.” (StarCite declined to offer pricing information.)

Do you get commissions or finder's fees from hotels? “We never collect commissions,” Young says. StarCite charges a per-room-night fee to hotels and conference centers booking business from StarCite RFPs. However, Young notes, “We will be moving away from transaction fees on RFPs to suppliers. Those fees will end beginning in 2010.”

RFP Customization: “Our clients can customize the cover page of their RFPs and highlight critical information or instructions,” Young says. “There is also a section of our RFP for custom questions.”

What are the ways hotels can respond to your RFPs? “StarCite provides every supplier in our marketplace access to the Group Lead Center to manage and forward RFPs,” Young says. “We also have several lead-management technology products that are used by chains and national sales offices to manage RFPs for their properties. StarCite is integrated with Newmarket International's MeetingBroker. We also have integration partnerships to allow several major brands to respond directly from their internal sales systems.”

What do clients pay for? An annual subscription fee based on “the depth and breadth of a client's meetings program and the total meeting spend a company will be managing in the system,” Young says. “There is an implementation fee (which varies with the level of integration deployed within an organization's internal technology). StarCite also provides additional consulting services for those that want help creating strategic meetings management programs, or establishing preferred-vendor programs, a meetings policy, or a standardized contracting process.”

Credit-Card Partnership? American Express. Meeting planners can automatically upload their AmEx meeting card charges to easily reconcile to the event budget.

Enhancements: Quarterly

Support: 24/7; personnel are based in StarCite's headquarters in Philadelphia and offices in Dusseldorf, Germany, and Shanghai, China.

Our Differentiators:

“First, our technology itself,” Young says. “We are an end-to-end technology platform designed for SMMPs. We have 400 clients who have been using us for years. Second is our experience. Our team members can consult on any piece of the process. Third is that our software has been designed for global deployment. We can handle multiple languages and currencies. Finally, StarCite's Global Meetings Marketplace and e-RFP tool are the most widely used in the industry and have set the standard for managing meetings and events. One thing that sets StarCite apart from others is that all of the information contained in StarCite's e-RFP stays within its database to be managed by both the planner and the supplier. This enables faster responses, as information does not have to be rekeyed. It also enables planners to instantly compare results side by side online.”

The New Player

Certain Software

www.certain.com

Brett Weigl, director, product management

The Story: Certain was launched in 1994 as an online registration and meetings management provider. A merger with Australian company Amlink Technologies in 2008 gave Certain additional event management and continuing education capabilities and a global footprint, says Brett Weigl. This past summer, Certain launched its supplier-search and e-RFP tool, Certain Sourcing.

Type of Product: SaaS or on-premises enterprise installation

For Meetings Management:

  • Meeting request and approval

  • Enterprise calendar

  • Planner resource management

  • Venue database/e-RFPs

  • Budget management

  • Attendee management, including registration, surveys, and e-mail marketing

  • Custom reports on cost savings, cost avoidance, and spend

Supplier Database? Yes, of about 40,000 hotels, provided by relicensing the database maintained by Meeting Evolution (profile below)

Supplier Database Marketing Packages: Offered through Meeting Evolution

Do you get commissions or finder's fees from hotels? No.

RFP Customization: “Users customize RFPs based on their own preferences, their client's preferences, or on a per-RFP basis,” Weigl says. “In addition, planners can make sure the supplier contacts they have worked so hard to cultivate are automatically chosen when working with preferred chains and properties.”

What are the different ways hotels can respond to your RFPs? Hotel contacts, either in global sales offices or on property, respond to RFPs through a supplier-specific URL included in the e-mail they receive from Certain Sourcing.

What do clients pay for? Certain Meetings is available in either a standard or a professional edition, with per-registration and per-meeting charges. Certain Sourcing is available on an annual subscription basis in standard, professional, and enterprise editions; these editions include unlimited users and RFPs. Certain eventsPro is available in on-premises and hosted editions, with charges for base modules, user licenses, and optional components.

Credit-Card Partnership? Under consideration

Enhancements: Quarterly; yearly for Certain eventsPro

Support: 24/7 with support personnel in Seattle, San Francisco, the U.K., and Australia

Our Differentiators:

“Our registration tool has strong branding capability. We don't force anyone into a canned view,” Weigl says. “We can tie into existing corporate sites and leverage employee or membership databases. We are adding the ability to enter and track data for meeting requests on branded forms that can be incorporated into the corporate intranet for easy access and standardization of process across the enterprise.” Clients using Certain Software's Certain Meetings Professional Edition receive private databases, which offers the benefit of SaaS with the advantage of additional data security and data segregation.

The In-House Solution

Meeting Evolution

www.meetingevolution.net

Rob Wilson, president

The Story: Launched in February, Meeting Evolution grew out of an internal sourcing system developed by meetings management company Meeting Sites Resource beginning in 2001. “We've been refining strategic capabilities over the past seven years, with feedback from account executives, planners, and hotel partners,” says Rob Wilson (who is also executive vice president at Meeting Sites Resource).

Product Type: SaaS

For Meetings Management:

  • Meeting request and approval

  • Enterprise calendar

  • Resource management

  • Venue database/e-RFPs

  • Budget management

  • Attendee management, including registration, surveys, and e-mail marketing

  • Custom reports on cost savings, cost avoidance, and spend

  • Space hold requests

  • Custom contract template

  • CRM system for managing prospects (for third parties)

  • Tool to build preliminary budget as the planner completes the RFP

Supplier Database? Yes, with about 40,000 venues, built by Meeting Sites Resource; now managed by Meeting Evolution. Basic supplier listings are free.

Supplier Database Marketing Packages: Four options: Platinum, for a one-time $5,000 fee; Gold, for $1,500 annually; Silver, for $1,000 annually; and Bronze, for $500 annually. The marketing packages allow richer content and photo uploads, higher positioning with search results, and the ability to post hot-date/hot-rate promotions.

Do you get commissions or finder's fees from hotels? No.

RFP Customization: RFPs are APEX-compliant and can include standard concessions, custom questions, detailed agenda, accessibility needs, and budgeting requirements.

What are the different ways hotels can respond to your RFPs? “With our system, hotels do not need a username and password to respond to an RFP,” Wilson says. “We create a unique link for each property receiving an RFP, and only that property uses that link to respond.”

What do clients pay for? Annual licensing fee varies by version: standard, professional, or enterprise. The professional and enterprise versions add functions such as the ability to create a contract from the information already input into the system.

Credit-Card Partnership? Under consideration

Enhancements: Quarterly

Support: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. CDT, Monday through Friday, based in Kansas City, Mo.

Our Differentiators:

“In addition to being flexible and user-friendly, Meeting Evolution has unique features — in particular, our estimator tools that estimate food-and-beverage costs, sleeping-room costs, and analyze air costs,” Wilson says. “Meeting Evolution's RFPs are also fully APEX-compliant — and as we add more functionality, such as the ability to build and manage banquet event orders, those will be APEX-compliant as well.”

6 Tips for Smart Buyers

  • On-Premises or On-Demand? On-premises software is installed and run on servers on the premises of the organization that has purchased the software. On-demand software (also called SaaS or “software as a service”) is housed on the software provider's servers and accessed on demand by users. Find out if your organization prefers one model over the other.

  • Software or Services? Some technology providers also offer consulting — or even actual staff members. “Some tools are sold as do-it-yourself applications, but the reality is, it's difficult for the average meeting planner to do it themselves — and I'm not even sure they should,” says Mark Jordan, president, Practical Communications Group, a Media, Pa.?based Web design firm, and a longtime industry observer. (He was among those who launched StarCite.) “Building a registration site, for example, takes time that planners don't have.” The cautionary tale, he points out, is that outsourcing services might not have been covered in initial conversations about pricing — or planned for in your budget.

  • Know Your Overall Cost. Low price points might not tell the whole story. Investigate all fees involved in your purchase and use of the software. “Understand the revenue model of the provider as well,” says Kimberly Meyer, principal at consultancy Meetings Analytics in Chicago.

  • Do Real-World Training. Don't make decisions based on a canned demo. Plan a session in which you start from scratch, so you know the time and complexity involved with the tools you need. “Take the time to define your processes and bottlenecks before you investigate technology solutions,” Jordan says. “The technology should have some compatibility with the way you work. Changing how you work to accommodate it is a recipe for unpleasant surprises and unplanned costs.” And look for the level of integrated functionality. Integration means that you avoid double entry and establish an audit trail of approvals to demonstrate compliance with corporate policies.

  • Keep Your Data. If you choose an SaaS product, says Meyer, “own your data — legally, by contract with the software provider — and keep a backup copy on your servers. Also, ask how the SaaS company intends to use your data. This should be disclosed in the contract. Many organizations will not let their data be used — even aggregated — in any way, for any purpose.”

  • Re-Evaluate. “You probably don't have the same cell phone that you had three years ago,” says Meyer. Think of your meetings software the same way. “There are new products hitting the market all the time. If you haven't looked at your options in several years, you might find something that gives you better value, or greater functionality, or both.”