TECHNOLOGY CONSULTANT Corbin Ball, CMP, has made a career out of connecting the dots for meeting professionals. His latest project is a report on the tech tools available to help companies with their strategic meeting management initiatives, such as tracking and reporting companywide meeting spending, enforcing corporate meeting policies, and guiding site selection.
Ball was putting the final touches on the 100-plus page report, which looked at the attributes of seven leading technologies, when news broke in late September of the merger of PlanSoft and seeUthere, which joined forces to form OnVantage.
When CMI spoke to him in early October, he was back at work, revising the affected chapters and crossing his fingers that he would have the publication ready for downloading (for a fee) before the end of the year.
Because the meeting technology marketplace is a moving target, Ball says, his job is both challenging and necessary. “No one has done this kind of analysis before,” he says. “These technology companies are targeting roughly the country's 5,000 largest companies — big enterprises with a lot of meeting spend.” Those companies, he says, have a lot to gain by choosing the right solution — but also a lot to lose. Adopting a meeting management process enterprisewide requires a significant outlay of time and money.
CMI: Why was it important to write this report?
Ball: An organization is going to spend at least a quarter of a million dollars to implement any of these solutions — not just in the cost of the technology itself, but in the overall management transformation and retraining. These are big changes for an enterprise to go into.
I thought it would be very helpful for an independent, impartial expert to look at them [the major meeting consolidation products] and give companies some guidance.
This is a perfect time to do this. There is now a range of reasonably mature products that can make a huge impact on corporations. We've finally gotten to the point that there are choices out there.
How did you do your research?
In most cases, my co-researcher, Dale Weideman, and I were given demo test accounts so that we could peek under the hood, set up basic meetings. In some cases, we just got extended product demonstrations. While we didn't run multiple, heavy-duty meetings on the systems, I think that we provide a pretty good analysis. There's no single product that we suggest is the best of the lot; rather, we analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each tool in terms of the six functional areas: site sourcing, meeting controls, feedback mechanism, meeting calendar, reporting, and ability to integrate into other enterprise systems. (See “The Criteria,” page 102.) I try to give a balanced analysis and make it detailed enough that it will be helpful for planners as well as the procurement people andpeople looking at these tools.
Where did you see the big differences among the technologies?
We focused on products that are all basically trying to accomplish the same goals, but there are a lot of different flavors, different approaches. It was kind of interesting to see what companies will claim as their strengths and how they promote them. Some emphasize how strong their technology platform is, while others focus on the meeting planning experience of the developers and the product's ease of use.
There's also a philosophical difference between tools that are more management-centric and those that are more planner-focused. The management-centric ones tend to want to track all expenses, and if planners have to go through a little more work to make that happen, it's worth it for the overall good of the organization. On the other side of the spectrum, developers have said, “This data collection is not going to happen if there are a whole lot of extra screens, so let's keep it simple.”
Another difference among the tools is that some are more geared to external, larger single-day events and trade shows, while others are more appropriate for managing multiple, smaller corporate meetings.
Did you come across any approaches that stood out from the others?
The product that is the most different from the rest is Lenos. And it's one that many would not often consider in terms of a managed consolidated meeting process. It's developed quite an interesting platform that makes it extremely configurable.
That was one that surprised me. If you had to label it, you'd call it an attendee management product, but it has enough strength in the other areas we were looking at that I was convinced to include it in the report.
What's your advice to meeting executives considering the investment in a consolidation solution?
These tools are too important for a large corporation — and even for a medium-size company — to ignore. The savings can be huge. It's starting with the large companies because they are the ones that can benefit the most. But down the road, we're going to see these same procurement initiatives and efforts to manage meetings in a more strategic manner move into the smaller corporations and associations as well.
My advice to meeting planners is not to fear this. Procurement initiatives are not a replacement for meeting planners. In the most optimal situation, it can be an important partnership. The procurement process can give planners some metrics from which to make decisions. Meetings will never be paper clips. They're the face of a corporation. I encourage planners to think strategically, to embrace the process and to become part of the strategic event management thinking.
You started this project researching seven companies, but with the seeUthere/PlanSoft merger, the group is down to six. Do you expect further shakeout in this market?
There may be further shakeouts, but these are all stable companies, and many of them have other components to their businesses in addition to the meeting management technology. The one thing that wouldn't surprise me in the least is if some big player came in and bought one, as we just saw with the recent purchase of Orbitz. These major travel entities want to get a piece of the corporate travel market, and this is part of it.
Where is the most critical need for tech development for corporate meetings?
What I'm most interested in, and what I think has the greatest potential, is for organizations to start using strategic event management tools that are well beyond consolidation or spend tracking, or even theguide rails. The question is, “How do you start tying in these products with the corporation's goals and objectives to make sure that they are tracked?” I think the great potential here is to use these tools as trackers and as communication devices. Once you have the communication lines established, allowing enterprisewide meeting spend data to be sent up to meeting management, you should be able to reverse that information flow and start sending down the overall corporate goals and objectives and, as a result, managing meetings in a more strategic way.
Some of these products are working in that direction, but none has fully exploited it yet. Arcaneo has focused on its “balanced scorecard initiative” — a means for making sure that a company's goals and objectives are passed down to all the stakeholders at a company.
What are the main barriers to adoption of strategic meeting management tools?
There are a couple of major barriers. One of them is cost. That one is very shortsighted if you consider the cost of not doing it. But really the biggest barrier is the drastic change in how things are managed. It's a complete overhaul. In some cases, many departments are affected. It requires alliances among, potentially, the procurement department, the meetings planning department, and the business travel department, and it's tying in the event marketers as well.
Corbin Ball's consolidation product report assesses six competing technologies. (See box, page 104.) While more than six solutions on the market tackle strategic meeting management issues, Ball limited his report to those that take a comprehensive approach, addressing each of the six criteria below. Notably, the list does not include DirectMeetings, the product of Southlake, Texas — based GetThere, but Ball made that decision because DirectMeetings, while fitting his criteria, is “primarily a proprietary system for Sabre clients,” he says. He also noted that Maritz Travel Co. and Carlson Marketing Group have products that, had he the time and resources, might have made it onto the list.
To be included in Ball's report, the technology product had to have a robust sourcing capability, where certain meeting properties could be designated as preferred so that the company could start consolidating its purchasing.
- POLICY CONTROL
Second, it had to offer a series of controls over how meetings are managed. Typically, those included processes for proposing, reviewing, approving, planning, and evaluating company meetings. “For example,” says Ball, “if company policy says that thefor any meeting over $10,000 needs to be sent to the meetings department for review — so the company protects itself from exposure to huge liability — these systems are a means for structuring those levels of approval.”
The technology needed to include an enterprise calendar so everyone can see where and when meetings are happening companywide. “Some of the more advanced systems have the ability to post canceled space,” says Ball, “so that others in the company with plans for a meeting could consider the available space and potentially prevent the company from needing to pay cancellation fees.”
The product needed to offer a system of measurement — survey capabilities at the minimum.
The applications had to be able to integrate well with other enterprise systems. “Rather than a stand-alone system, it needs to tie in with procurement, with CRM [customer relationship management systems], and ERP [enterprise resource planning systems],” says Ball.
Lastly, the product had to have a strong reporting system, especially in the budget area, providing analyses by division, by hotel, or by conference.
Ambassadors International Inc.
Newport Beach, Calif.
Event Portfolio Management 2.0
Toronto Arcaneo Metron
OnVantage (formerly seeUthere and PlanSoft)
Santa Clara, Calif.
Enterprise Meeting Solutions
WorldTravel Meetings & Incentives
(a division of WorldTravel BTI, Atlanta)
Corbin Ball, CMP, plans to have his meeting management product analysis available by the end of the year at www.corbinball.com. In the meantime, visit meetingsnet.com for resources that will get you thinking about consolidation issues.
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