As budgets tighten and corporate meeting managers find they are taking on additional work with fewer resources, many are looking for ways to automate and streamline the planning process. To take advantage of the market opportunity, American Express Business Travel in April debuted Small Meetings eXpert, a booking tool for events of fewer than 50 attendees. The tool is built on a platform developed by White Plains, N.Y.–based Worktopia and contains room-block inventory, meeting space, catering services, and audiovisual providers. Amex clients have access to prenegotiated rates and discounts.

This self-service model is intended to allow corporate meeting planners to decentralize the time-consuming logistics of planning small events. Administrative assistants and sales staff can plan their own meetings, while the company retains control over the spend data and leveraging power. Avoiding the request-for-proposal process with direct booking can also save time.

"We have seen strong initial demand for the solution, especially because companies are able to consolidate this previously unnoticed and unmanaged expense and ultimately drive significant savings to their bottom line," says Issa Jouaneh, vice president of corporate meeting solutions for American Express Business Travel.

The recession has made automated tools more important to companies, despite the initial investment needed to adopt new technology. Because of the huge number of small, untracked meetings, he says, a company’s small-meetings spend may be close to two-thirds of the amount spent on larger managed events. “These factors make it clear there has never been a better time for companies to employ an innovative solution like Small Meetings eXpert to give the power of negotiated rates and an automated solution to control the planning and booking of these meetings," Jouaneh says.

While a number of hotel chains and independent technology providers such as Philadelphia-based StarCite offer online and even real-time booking tools, the Amex/Worktopia tool is unique in that it allows planners to hold space at participating properties. From the time of booking, the property can be placed on hold until midnight of the next business day, Jouaneh says, allowing planners time to obtain internal approval before making a final decision.

The motivation for participating hotels and conference centers is that suppliers can directly offer their meeting services to the person planning the meeting, Jouaneh says. "Ultimately, time is given back to the user by taking the guesswork and legwork out of the planning and booking process," he says.

Another Amex small meetings tool, Preferred Extras: Meetings, rolled out in 2007 by American Express Advisory Services, still exists, but takes a substantially different approach. That program is essentially an electronic catalog of properties with prenegotiated rates for small meetings and does not include an online booking option.