IF YOU'RE A SMALL INDEPENDENT meeting planner, it helps to know a little about everything, particularly when it comes to office technology.

“What if it's 6 at night, you need to run badges, and something isn't working?” muses Tiffany Danley, president of Success Unlimited, a small independent meeting planning company in Laguna Hills, Calif. “You have to know how to do it.”

Or at the very least, have a very good idea of where to find someone who does.

The challenges facing any business trying to operate in a technology-driven world are immense, says Corbin Ball, CEO of Corbin Ball Associates, a consulting firm in Bellingham, Wash. “Infrastructure, utilizing broadband, wireless access, protecting it … the list goes on and on and on,” he says.

The issues, challenging enough for the largest organizations, are magnified for smaller ones, and “independents are typically small businesses,” says Ball. “They're not going to have a large IT [information technology] department.”

In fact, they are unlikely to have one at all. It's not unusual to find small companies that have one person identified as the IT expert, and an expectation that other employees in the office will develop enough expertise to function in the absence of immediately available technical help.

Success Unlimited spent the first half of its 20 years in business as a larger company, says Danley. In the past 10 years it shrank, taking on fewer, yet bigger, clients. It now has five full-time employees. Over that time, Danley says, the company was forced to update its computer systems and become technologically savvy because its key clients, such as Hewlett-Packard, are technology companies.

“You have to know as much as them,” she explains. “At least enough so you can communicate and send information the way they do.”

So early on the company learned how to e-mail proposals and Excel spreadsheets and other pieces of information that “seem passé now,” Danley says, but were pretty advanced for the time. Now, whether it's a question of maintaining Success Unlimited's Web site, handling online registrations for golf tournaments, or sending out e-broadcasts regarding a meeting, the company is able to function with just five employees, only one of whom is regarded as the “IT guy.”

Fire Your Brother

Unlike Success Unlimited, Empire Force Events of New York started small (fewer than five employees) but has grown so that it now has 10 to 15 people working in its office on any given day.

When Empire Force began, says Rob Hulsmeyer, co-owner, handling the technology needs of the office might involve something like, “Hey, my brother knows something about computers.” Now, “the technology has gotten to the point where it requires dedicated knowledge and personnel,” he says.

Hulsmeyer used to be the de facto on-site IT person, a job that he now gladly outsources. “Now I manage the process,” he says, “rather than do it.”

The IT company that Hulsmeyer hired to handle Empire Force's technology needs helps it to “head off problems before they occur.” This is crucial now that the planning company has grown. The time lost because of technological glitches, he says, “is much more valuable now, when 15 people can't work.”

The IT company performs monthly audits of the state of Empire Force's technology systems, and provides advice on a variety of issues such as virus protection, firewall security, and print servers. Most valuable, Hulsmeyer says, is that the technicians are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Hulsmeyer says two problems face small independents when they are looking for this kind of dedicated technology help. First, it's difficult to find a company willing to take on small accounts. “They want to handle companies with 200 users,” he says. “It's difficult to find someone that will take on a company as small as ours.”

Second, the expense of maintaining office technology is not necessarily in the new hardware, software, and peripherals. “We spend much more money on technical support,” he says. “It shouldn't surprise me. Computer and software prices have been driven down, but you still need a human being with knowledge to come in and provide service.”

Laurie Sprouse, president of Ultimate Ventures of Dallas, agrees that the cost of implementing information technology, such as updating software, is one of the biggest challenges her small company faces. “We spend a lot to upgrade our systems and keep problems to a minimum,” she says.

The company does have a computer consultant it turns to on an as-needed basis, but for the most part, Sprouse acts as the day-to-day IT person. “I came from a management consulting background, so I'm pretty tech savvy,” she says.

Sprouse and a partner formed Ultimate Ventures 11 years ago, and today, the company has about 10 employees. She says that over time, the company's IT needs have become “more complicated, because there's so much more to maintain.” She adds that her company is lucky that it launched “when computers were already prevalent. We started out with databases — we never had to start out with eight different Rolodexes.”

Get the Basics Right

When examining its technology needs, the first thing a company should do, says Bob Walters, is decide if it needs to be networked. “The critical question is usually whether the office is able to share information,” says Walters, who developed the MeetingTrak and MemberTrak software systems and has been in the IT end of the meeting industry for more than 20 years.

Then a company might look at whether its Internet connection is adequate for its needs and has appropriate operating systems in place, he suggests. And creating and maintaining a good Web site is critical. “It should be clutter-free, easily navigated, and should provide a phone number or some kind of ‘request information’ capability,” Walters says.

The most overlooked piece of the technology puzzle, yet one that's critical to an operation, is a reliable backup system. “It's common-sense stuff,” he says. “But you would be amazed how often it's overlooked.”

Walters says a company should do an annual checkup of its systems, asking itself, “How do we compare with the competition?” If help is needed, he suggests looking within the meeting industry — “Talk to someone in the industry in MPI [Meeting Professionals International] or PCMA [Professional Convention Management Association] rather than the computer guru down the street, because there are going to be specific pieces of software out there that can help you do your job better.”

Time for a Tech Audit?

TO KEEP ON TOP of their technology issues, independent meeting planners can consider investing in a tech audit. Performed by an information technology professional, the audit is a complete review and analysis of a company's systems and procedures; e-mail and Internet technology applications; and meeting software and other software applications.

Most computer consulting companies can perform technology audits of a company's IT needs. They can be done for five-person offices or large companies with hundreds of employees, says Corbin Ball, CEO of Corbin Ball Associates of Bellingham, Wash., who performs tech audits as part of his consulting business.

An audit of a small company “can be pretty exhaustive,” and is not necessarily simple, Ball says. As an example, he points to a small company that might have six people, three working on one coast, two on the other, and a sixth working in a remote office. It's an increasingly common scenario, Ball says, and an audit can help that company function efficiently.

The tech auditor can meet with the principals, or if necessary even do a phone audit, Ball says. “I'll ask: ‘What's not working?’” he explains. “Each audit will vary — every outcome is different.”

Most small independent planning companies actually have a ways to go to catch up with today's technology, he says. “If you look at it as a 10-step process, we're at step two. There's been so much thrown at us in the last five years it's been hard to sort things out. Planners, like most people, stick with what they know. But there are so many choices.”

In the end, one of the major goals of an audit is to help a company digitize the business process. “Every single paper,” Ball says, “is a white flag of inefficiency.”