The Convention Industry

Council, an umbrella group of 32 meetings and exhibition industry associations, has spent the past six years on a project called APEX (Accepted Practices Exchange) and spent nearly $1.9 million raised from industry suppliers toward the endgame: an electronic handshake between planners and venues. The goal is one step closer with the October 31 release of APEX Version 2, a package of dirt-cheap, comprehensive electronic templates for RFPs, rooming lists, event specifications, and more.

The story of APEX is one of big-picture perseverance. It started in 2000 with the formation of seven “panels” that were given the task of coming up with voluntary standards for post-event reports, event specifications, housing and registration, requests for proposals, industry terminology, meeting and site profiles, and contracts. It has taken years, but the volunteer panels created forms, checklists, and best-practices reports, and invited the industry to comment. Then, based on the feedback, they created the finished products. (Final reports from the contracts and meeting and site profiles panels are due by the end of this year.) On the CIC Web site, APEX has made Word and PDF versions of the results available for free. This work was the first step toward getting hotels and planners in sync electronically.

The Toolbox

It's a long way from PDF forms to an e-handshake, so the next step for APEX was to create electronic templates of the new agreed-upon forms.

Partnering with KMT Software, Cambridge, Mass., which creates and sells business templates for Microsoft Office, CIC published the APEX Toolbox, powered by OfficeReady, in July 2005. Version 1 of the Toolbox includes six APEX-specific templates: a rooming list, single-facility RFP, and four sections of the event specification guide. It also includes about 200 business templates that KMT sells as part of its OfficeReady product (name badges, tent cards, and so on).

The Toolbox, which sells for $99, improves on what is downloadable for free at the CIC site by automating the process: Planners fill in the blanks and use drop-down boxes to complete forms that can be duplicated and saved, and that work in conjunction with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The Toolbox also includes all panels' checklists.

Of course, Toolbox templates still don't do what every planner wants them to do: allow data to be communicated directly to venues. However, it's progress. “The Toolbox was created to begin to change behavior,” says E.J. Siwek, CMP, chairman of the APEX Technology Advisory Council, president of FlashPoint Technologies, Hague, N.Y., and one of the evangelists of the APEX vision. The sooner the industry adopts the APEX standards, he explains, the sooner the electronic handshake will be a reality. “APEX is a canoe trying to slip into a fast-moving stream,” says Siwek, referring to the challenge of integrating APEX voluntary standards with hotels' fast-evolving sales and marketing and catering management systems. However, he could just as easily have been referring to the challenge of getting meeting planners to adopt the new templates. For planners with a full plate, the old adage, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it” rings true.

That said, about 6,500 copies of the Toolbox are in circulation, and many planners are enthusiastically adopting the standards. “I can't wait for the next upgrade,” says Mary Anne Bobrow CAE, CMP, Bobrow & Associates, Citrus Heights, Calif., who has been using the Toolbox for the 15 or so meetings she plans each year since it came out in mid-2005. “Standardization is absolutely the way to go.”

The Next Step

Toolbox Version 2 has major navigation changes; major wizard changes; and RFP templates for show contractors, destination management companies, audiovisual providers, and transportation companies, according to Siwek. It also is downloadable and has a free trial version. And registered Version 1 users can upgrade for free.

Toolbox now moves from the development phase into the implementation phase. In October, APEX kicked off its Education Advisory Council, charged with improving training and awareness, and in January, Siwek will launch a Toolbox user's group. Both Meeting Professionals International and the Professional Convention Management Association are expected to run training labs at their January conferences.

Behind the scenes, Siwek says that templates for meeting profiles and post-event reports will eventually be added to the Toolbox. He also expects to make significant headway in the next year on the ultimate goal. The group is starting to recruit the 10 companies it needs to test the electronic documents that will pass between hotels and planners. He hopes that by the end of 2007, he will see the first workable electronic communication. “Everyone wants this so fast, and they have no idea what goes into it,” says Siwek, who is enthusiastic about his chances for success, but realistic that it is a project that will take years before it is fully adopted.

But with a small but steady stream of new adopters each month, the momentum is gaining. In Bobrow's view, why wait? “You might as well get on board now,” she says, “because this will be the standard moving forward.”