With at least 170 meeting planning software products on the market, offering help with everything from pre-meeting budgeting to post-meeting analysis, how do you choose the best product for your company? I suggest four steps: (1) Consider your office environment; (2) look at your software; (3) determine your requirements; and (4) ask the right questions.

Your Office Setup First, take a look at your company's level of computerization. If you answer "yes" to the following questions, you will need IS (Information Services) support:

* Do you work on a corporate-wide network?

* Do you use a particular database company-wide?

* Do you wish to integrate any new software products with this database?

Many meeting planning software products are built around databases. Most can export and import into other company-wide databases, but this may be difficult. Your IS department or an outside consultant can help you. If you are interested only in tackling a specific problem--room diagramming, for example--you may not require as much IS support.

Your Software The next step is to consider the software you are using now and identify places where automation can help in the future. You should analyze your workflow and see where the bottlenecks are occurring. Answer these questions:

* Which general business software (Access, Excel, etc.) do you use now?

* Which meeting software products do you use?

* What are the problems with your current network, database, or software products?

* What is necessary to streamline your meeting planning tasks?

* What works well and what doesn't?

* What is your budget and time frame for any changes to your system?

* Which specific tasks and product categories will help you the most?

Your Specific Requirements Now, focus on exactly what you will need. On the high end, corporate and general meeting planning suites handle an array of tasks and can cost anywhere from $2,000 to more than $100,000. These programs will require involvement with your IS and accounting departments, since many are companywide solutions to data flow and accounting tasks, in addition to meeting planning. But there are also many task-specific, less-expensive meeting planner software products, including badge-making and budgeting software, that may not need as much IS support.

The Questions to Ask * Once you have focused on specific vendors, get these questions answered:

* How long has your company been in business?

* How many employees do you have?

* What are your support polices?

* Can you provide references?

* What operating system does the product run on and what are the system requirements?

* What are the costs, and how are they calculated?

* Is there a demo version of the product?

Fortunately, many software companies now have Web sites with significant information, product descriptions, screen shots, and even demos.

Things are rapidly changing in the meeting planning software field. Many companies are developing or have recently offered Web-based solutions for a number of meeting planning tasks. For example, on-line registration will likely become the standard in the near future. Make sure that the vendors you are considering are developing plans in this direction.