In our hyper-connected world, consumers have come to expect and rely on the Internet for product reviews. Sites such as Amazon, TripAdvisor, and Epinions, to name just a handful, thrive on the user-generated content at the heart of theexplosion known as Web 2.0. But until recently, meeting planners have been left out, with nowhere online to find opinions on properties from their unique point of view. Sure, researching hotels and sending electronic requests for proposals has become vastly simplified via the databases of convention bureaus, hotel chains, and meeting technology companies such as StarCite and Cvent, but conspicuously absent from these sites is the planner's perspective.
But there's a shift coming, with four, new Web sites focused on property reviews from meeting and event planners.
“All kinds of people are using social networks, and now that the technology is part of people's lives, they want it for their industry,” says John Pino, a former StarCite executive who launched i-Meet, one of the new planner hotel-review sites. “Investors say the next big thing is social networking expanding to specific industries.”
Pino and other entrepreneurs in this space look to eight-year-old TripAdvisor as their model. But the comparison with this wildly successful site for individual-traveler hotel reviews points to a major challenge for each of the new planner sites: getting enough reviews on enough properties to make it useful. TripAdvisor claims more than 20 million reviews covering some 270,000 hotels in more than 60,000 cities. By the end of October, most of the new planner hotel-review sites were still counting their reviews in the hundreds.
Moreover, the universe of meeting planners is minuscule compared to that of transient travelers. Some estimates put the number of planners in North America, including ad-hoc and part-time planners, at 100,000 to 150,000. Still, the new Web site operators claim they will be successful if they can garner reviews from just a fraction of those hotel users.
The new review sites have not set out to replace traditional site-selection Web sites. They offer information and sometimes links to suppliers, but do not offer electronic RFP capability. (i-Meet, however, offers planners the option to send an “RFI,” or request for information — a pared-down RFP.)
Here's the rundown on four new sites focused on meeting planner reviews. All the sites are free to planners but require registration, and all give users the option to post reviews under a fictitious name.
Meetings Intelligence Exchange
The most distinguishing characteristic of Meetings Intelligence Exchange is the customizable dashboard for each registered user. The dashboard provides an overview of the site's functions, including notification of new reviews of hotels on the user's “watch list” and key property personnel.
Reviews are based on 15 criteria that cover not only obvious topics like guest rooms and banquet services but also group billing. For all but two of the 15 categories, reviewers score a series of statements in each category. The scores are then combined for an overall property rating as well as a rating in each category. Reviewers can also add comments.
Everyone who registers on the site is supposed to be a meeting planner. Users complete an online form and then are accepted or rejected for membership. Management reserves the right to delete reviews they consider false or misleading.
Property search results are returned with the highest-rated properties listed first, not properties that have paid for marketing packages, according to the Web site's founder and principal, Tim Ryan, a 25-year veteran of hotel sales and marketing.
When launched? December 2007
How many registrants? About 560 approved meeting-planner members
How many reviews? About 1,000 reviews on about 400 properties; about 1,400 properties listed
As the name implies, Meetings Collaborative attempts to create a community of meeting planners. To that end, the Web site features industry icon Joan Eisenstodt, who moderates the discussion forum and writes a blog.
Hotel reviews are based on three basic questions: whether the reviewer was satisfied with his or her meeting experience; whether the reviewer would use the hotel for a program; and whether the reviewer would recommend the hotel to colleagues. The scores awarded are averaged into an overall rating. The heart of a Meetings Collaborative review, however, is the reviewer's written account of the property, similar to a post on a discussion forum.
Site registrants can submit reviews based on their experience holding a meeting at the property or simply attending an event there in their capacity as a meeting planner, according to John Iwaniec, the Web site's co-founder and chief technology officer. (The other co-founder is Chris White, chairman of the Krisam Group, a hotel representation company.) Reviews are posted immediately but monitored for false or malicious content.
Property search results show the highest-rated hotels first as the Web site accepts no payment for supplier listings. To make money, the company plans to sell market reports to users — buyers or suppliers — based on reviews.
Meetings Collaborative maintains a marketing partnership with Penton Media, parent company of Corporate Meetings & Incentives.
When launched? Beta version in October 2007; major redesign in August 2008
How many registrants? About 1,200
How many reviews? About 1,000 reviews on about 900 properties; about 1,800 properties listed
In a departure from other review Web sites, i-Meet lets planners send suppliers what founder John Pino calls “requests for information.” The short RFI form includes three things: the anticipated number of participants, an estimated or specific date for the meeting, and the kind of meeting — say, corporate versus social. The planner can choose to send the RFI to the local convention bureau as well as to a destination expert and specific suppliers. The destination expert, usually a representative of a destination management company, is contracted by i-Meet to reply within 72 hours if no other suppliers respond within the specified time.
In another departure from similar Web sites, i-Meet allows planners and suppliers to submit reviews. Pino explains that suppliers can surreptitiously register as planners on review Web sites anyway, so there's no point in trying to stop them. A former chief executive of StarCite, Pino says eventually the large number of reviews — the Web site is still in beta — will counteract any negative effects of allowing supplier reviews. In addition, management monitors reviews for false or misleading information.
Reviews are based on 13 criteria such as “value for price paid” and “planner satisfaction.” Ratings are derived from the individual scores. There is also space for planners to add comments.
The Web site includes discussion forums, and users can create their own blogs, post photos and videos, and promote themselves to potential employers forwork.
Search results are returned in alphabetical order, but Pino said that suppliers who buy marketing packages will soon receive a higher spot on search listings than suppliers who don't. To generate revenue, i-Meet will sell display advertising banners on the site as well as enhanced listings and ads that appear in conjunction with search results. It will also charge suppliers for sales lead information.
When launched? Beta version in August 2008; public launch November 2008
How many registrants? About 1,400
How many reviews? 104 reviews on 79 suppliers; 38,000 suppliers, mostly hotels, listed
This site's reviews are extremely detailed, based on the completion of about 70 questions. The ratings are compiled into a total score, and the scores are averaged in with scores from other reviews.
Overall property ratings are based on a compilation of planner reviews as well as supplier answers to a questionnaire. Properties are awarded 1 to 5 stars, with 5 being best, as well as a numerical score of 1 to 100.
No property receives an overall rating unless at least 10 reviews and the completed supplier questionnaire have been submitted, says Web site founder Russell Ridge, who also operates a ground transportation company in Salt Lake City. A disclaimer is posted next to listings that have fewer than 10 reviews. As of late October, only one hotel had received up to 10 reviews.
Only people registered as planners can submit reviews, and then only about properties where they have held meetings of at least 50 participants in the previous 12 months, says Ridge. Management looks at each review before posting it. Property search results show the highest-rated hotels first. Suppliers pay to run ads on the site and must also pay to be rated.
MeetingUniverse.com has a discussion forum, although it was virtually inactive as of late October.
When launched? Originally launched in spring 2006 as hotfireratings.com; relaunched February 2008
How many registrants? About 1,500
How many reviews? 200 reviews on 65 properties, 110 reviews on 100 other suppliers; 165 suppliers listed
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