Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, the online travel booking tools, have each in the past year and a half branched into the corporate arena with new travel management tools: Expedia Corporate Travel, Orbitz for Business, and Travelocity Business. Now these online corporate travel agencies are peeking over the fence at the meetings market.

Last summer, Orbitz for Business was the first, partnering with David Green Interactive, a division of Chicago-based hotel lead-generation company David Green Organization, to launch Orbitz Meeting Services. In late November, the news was from Expedia Corporate Travel, which announced a partnership with seeUthere Technologies, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based provider of online registration and meeting management tools. And Travelocity Business also has something in the works.

According to Ellen Keszler, president of the Fort Worth, Texas–based company, a Travelocity Business meeting solution will be announced in the near future. "We've taken a different approach where you won't need to link over to a separate service. We believe that companies that use our meetings solutions can benefit from a true end to end meetings and travel solution."

"We think it [meeting services] is an area of growth for our company," says ECT corporate marketing manager Mitch Robinson. Under the terms of the recent deal, the ECT Web site will offer seeUthere's MeetingView tool to corporate clients, and ECT will itself use the seeUthere technology—attendee registration and management, hotel sourcing, budgeting, and so on—to plan clients’ meetings. Expedia has not made a financial investment in seeUthere, and, says Robinson, the two companies’ technologies are not integrated beyond basic data transfer capabilities.

Meeting industry consultant Mark Jordan, Practical Communications Group, and a former executive at StarCite, calls the online agencies’ steps into the meeting market an "inevitable evolution" in their search for market share. "The online groups have experienced good times over the last couple years, but that’s now starting to tighten up, and they have to look for new ways to put some distance between them and their competition. This is a natural way to do it--on paper--but actually making it produce revenue I think they will find is somewhat different than simply offering online transactions. Everyone else in this space has found that to be true. Travel companies can’t handle meetings because they are organized to process transactions efficiently, and a meeting is more than a transaction—much more."

Robinson agrees, but says experience gives Expedia an edge. ECT jump-started its corporate travel business in summer 2002 by acquiring Metropolitan Travel, Seattle. "Our difference is we have the personnel to do it. We have outsourced the technology."

In addition to online travel agencies, Jordan also anticipates "the GDSs grabbing hold of this [meeting] technology more forcefully." And he predicts the relationships to deepen. "What I expect, rather than a continuing gathering of partnerships, is another sale or two sometime in the next year. There hasn’t been enough proven revenue stream to justify these [meeting technology] companies to remain stand-alone companies. One of the ways to say ‘I’m the bigger guy on the block’ is not to have a partnership but to actually buy and, by extension, become committed to really integrating that technology with the travel offering.

"In the five years or so that technology has emerged on the Internet for the meeting space we’ve seen that just having the technology doesn’t seem to grab the imagination and pull the whole industry online," Jordan says. "You’ve seen Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz have tremendous success in redefining the landscape of business travel, and the big question is whether they can do that on the meetings side."