Sick of sorting through stacks of hotel brochures every week? Or managing your burgeoning file cabinets with all of the promotional materials you receive? There is relief, and it is spelled "World Wide Web."

It is now possible to search the Net for information on nearly all major meeting facilities in the U.S. and around the world. Major hotel chains are building significant meeting planning sections at their Web sites, with information available to you around the clock, around the world, in a format that gives far more information than a brochure could ever provide.

More than 10 million people visited the Web in the last six months of 1997 alone. These surfers tend to be affluent and likely to spend money on travel. Consequently, Web travel purchases are projected to become the top purchase category by 2001. Meeting planners, as well, are turning to the Web in record numbers. In general, hotels are identifying the Web as a major information source and sales vehicle for meeting planners and the traveling public in general. Here are some of the ways to use Web sites for your site inspections.

Gateways There are a number of comprehensive gateway sites for hotel information. Three of them are the Meeting Industry Mall (www.mim.com), All the Hotels on the Web (www.all-hotels.com), and the most comprehensive Web database for North American meeting facilities, PlanSoft (www.plansoft.com). Its database is searchable by city, region, hotel type, hotel chain, climate, size of largest meeting room, number of sleeping rooms, and more. Each listing offers contact information, links to other sites, meeting room specifications, and other details. Plus you'll find a built-in request for proposal (RFP) module that can be e-mailed to multiple hotels of your choice.

Brochure Sites Turnberry Isle Resort (www.turnberryisle.com) in Aventura, Fla., is a great example of how a Web surfer can get a huge amount of information simply. Clicking on the "planner" link on the home page yields a full screen of hyperlinks to just about anything that an event planner would need to know about the property, from floor plans to AV equipment/pricing.

Floor Plans The Santa Clara Convention Bureau site (www.santaclara.org/indexed.html) is a good example of how floor plans (the key documents for many meeting planners) can be delivered in a useful manner. The site uses an Adobe plug-in. (A plug-in is software that adds functionality to your Web browser and can usually be downloaded for free.) The visitor is treated to a clear floor plan of the Santa Clara Convention Center. You can zoom in, move around, and print it out.

Panoramic Views My favorite surround view site is Swissotel's (www.swissotel.com). This uses another plug-in (also free from the site). Click on "virtual tours" and then the New York link. Download and install the plug-in (it should take less than 10 minutes), and restart your browser. Reload the page and choose one of the snapshots--the exterior, the boardroom, and so on--and a full-screen, 360-degree picture will appear, giving you a panoramic view of the space.

Virtual Reality VR is in its developmental stages, but there is great potential here for meeting planners, decorators, production companies, and caterers to be able to "walk through" space yet to be built. At the Virtual New Orleans site (www.virtualneworleans.com), using your mouse for direction, you can "fly" from the Mississippi River over the convention center and through the streets of New Orleans. It requires a plug-in, available free at the site.

Streaming Audio and Video Using a plug-in, you can enhance your Web browser with moving pictures and sound. Go to www.hotelview.com and download the Real Player 5.0 plug-in. Then choose from nearly 90 hotels and get moving pictures with audio of the lobby, meeting areas, fitness center, and more. Depending on modem speed, the picture may be small and jerky, but you still get a far better feel for the space than from a static image.

The Web won't replace an actual site inspection for some time, but it can help narrow your searches, gather venue information, and eliminate the stacks of brochures piled up on your real desktop.*