IF YOU RUN LARGE MEETINGS at which networking is a priority — and you've got budget to spare to make that networking happen — read on. A tech tool called Rio, created by CRG-Total Event Solutions, Seattle, allows attendees to search an online database to find other attendees and schedule meetings.

For Microsoft, the fit is evident, says Daphne J. Meyers, CMM, program manager, partner events, Microsoft Corp. “Our events are so much about people getting together and partnering and doing business.” Microsoft's Worldwide Partners Conference and Business Building Conference have both used the application more than once, and will use it again for the 2004 WPC in Toronto, expecting upward of 8,000 attendees. “I view Rio as a component of a meeting,” Meyers says. “We've got general sessions, concurrents, and now we've got Rio.”

Here's how it works. After registering for a meeting, attendees are asked to complete a “Rio bio,” a series of profiling questions that establish how attendees will be able to search for one another in the Rio system. The questions are tailored to the group — asking, perhaps, for an attendee's name, title, responsibilities, location, company size, product focus, and so on.

Once they are signed up, attendees can search the Rio database for people with whom they're interested in connecting, say, East Coast-based distributors at the vice presidential level. The Rio system returns the names, and the user can invite one or several people to a face-to-face meeting during the course of the larger event.

Several keys make the system work. First is the calendar feature. Users are permitted to create Rio meetings only during designated times during a conference — not, for example, during keynotes or other times that the host company designates. And when an attendee initiates a Rio meeting, the system ensures that the new meeting will not conflict with other Rio meetings — or with times the invitee has designated that he or she is unavailable.

Another key: Rio meetings happen in a specified area, set apart with pipe and drape and outfitted with numbered tables and a CRG employee who checks in users and lets people know when their time is over. Tables can be reserved for 15 minutes to an hour or more, but attendees appreciate having a definite end time — and a monitor to enforce it, says Meyers.

The system isn't cheap. Pricing is based on the number of attendees at the meeting and starts at $10,000 for a meeting of 500 people.

Meyers says that for partners and employees, it's hard to put a price on the value-add of connecting with people they might not have otherwise. At her meetings, between 65 percent and 68 percent of attendees typically complete the Rio profile, which gets them on the system. That translated into roughly 4,000 Rio meetings in 2.5 days at the WPC in October (total attendance: “well over 7,000”) and about 1,000 Rio meetings at the two-day Business Building Conference (total attendance: “almost 900”) in February.

A great benefit, she says, is Rio's ability to manage last-minute meetings. It has, she says, saved her a lot of money at one meeting in particular that was notorious for needing numerous extra small rooms for pop-up meetings, as well as an on-site staffer dedicated to managing them.