Not quite. It'll be a while before you throw the specs for your major events into the ether, choose a property, negotiate a, and make all your room reservations with nary a fax or phone call. But the big hotel chains, which have spent lots of time and money going after individual guests online, lately have been allocating serious resources to online group sales.
Here's a look at the individual chains' plans to let you plug in:
Hilton Hilton is already trumpeting nearly $2 million in group business booked online through September of this year. What that means is $2 million worth of group business came from electronic leads-- requests for proposals that came in through www.hilton.com--not that the whole process took place online.
The number has made Hilton sit up and take notice. "The Web site has done a great job capturing visitors and revenue, so that has changed the thought process throughout Hilton," says Bruce Rosenberg, the chain's newly named vice president, e-business. "We want to Internet-enable the enterprise."
If you go to the company's Web site now, it's easy to compile a detailed RFP and submit it. The goal for 2000, however, "is to let you have real-time access to hotel inventory," Rosenberg says.
For now, when you send an electronic RFP, it gets funneled through sales specialists at the chain's Hilton Direct operation in Dallas. "We may modify the process to send it to the individual properties and to Hilton Direct," explains Keith Hymel, Hilton's managing director, sales technology. "At this time we send it only to Hilton Direct for two reasons. First, some customers want one consolidated response versus individual hotel responses. And second, the specialists qualify the business since many of the customers are not experienced planners and need some further direction." In fact, Hymel points out, "our initial focus has been on new corporate business. There's research that says there are thousands of part-time planners out there." (Hilton Direct is not a purely online system. Leads come in by phone and fax as well.)
Once a lead is qualified by the Hilton Direct specialist, it is sent electronically to the appropriate hotels. A reply is then sent via the client's preferred communcation method within 24 hours.
The process continues to be refined, and eventually RFPs may be downloaded directly into the chain's global sales system without an intermediary. Once they're in the system, customer specs could be maintained there and used for meeting after meeting, with whatever modifications are necessary.
Hyatt "The emerging distribution channel is groups," says Joan Lowell, Hyatt's vice president, electronic distribution, who has been working for years on electronic sales through travel agents. "We're moving toward the ability to check for rates and availability for more than one room. For now, it's limited to small meetings." (Small meetings are defined as those using 50 sleeping rooms or fewer.)
More than an electronic RFP system, Hyatt's initiative will give meeting planners the ability to search availability and rates throughout the Hyatt portfolio. Planners with flexibility can look for properties that have "need periods" to fill.
This search capability is expected to be available to planners by the end of the year. "At this point, we're targeting the nonprofessional meeting planner," Lowell explains. "That's why we're focusing on small meetings. We assume that large meetings have professional planners."
When a planner finds a property that looks promising, he or she can send a customized e-mail directly to that property and get a response within a designated time.
At this point, the small-meeting search engine is connected to Hyatt's central reservation system, not its group sales reservation system, and only sleeping rooms can be checked, not meeting rooms.
However, the intent is for professional planners ultimately to be plugged into the group sales system and be able to check availability of sleeping and meeting rooms for large meetings.
Hyatt's next step forward in technology will be online attendee registration, Lowell says: "We'll provide a URL with all your meeting information so attendees can register online, and we'll send a confirmation back to them."
Marriott "It's an evolution rather than a revolution," says Marriott's Debbie McGrath, who has been overseeing the chain's electronic sales for 13 years but whose purview only recently became known as "e-commerce." What has evolved is the target of the chain's electronic sales systems--from the travel agent to the public and the meeting planner.
McGrath says Marriott already gives planners the ability to search its portfolio of properties and send RFPs by e-mail. But in the business-to-business realm, she believes, "we need infrastructure in place that recognizes you as the customer." In other words, an online research and booking system that knows something about X Company, its meetings, and its history with Marriott. McGrath recently began working with Marriott's new vice president, interactive sales and marketing, Shafiq Khan, who joins the company from US Airways, where he was senior director of electronic commerce and distribution.
Now that the focus has shifted from the leisure customer to the meeting customer, McGrath says, Marriott intends to allow group booking online by the beginning of the second quarter. Also on the drawing board for the re-launch of Marriott's Web site next year is the possibility of offering online attendee registration by providing a URL that would link to a booking form.
Starwood Whatever initiatives Starwood Hotels & Resorts hired Tad Smith, senior vice president, e-commerce, to implement remain a mystery for now. The White Plains, N.Y.-based chain, which encompasses the St. Regis, Westin, Sheraton, and W brands, declined to discuss its plans.