The meetings industry has a big problem, and everyone knows it: Planners cannot communicate electronically with their venues. Event details are spelled out in one format and returned in another. Rooming lists have to be re-keyed. Hotels receive requests for proposals in dozens of formats. Inefficiencies abound.

With today's technology, a solution to this mess isn't all that complicated, but taking the steps to get there — agreeing on shared industry terminology and changing long-standing behaviors — is not for the faint of heart.

The organization that is trying to sort all this out is the Convention Industry Council, an umbrella group of 32 meetings and exhibition industry associations. CIC has worked for 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.

Heads up, folks. They're making progress.

The Long View

This month marks the release of APEX version two, a package of dirt-cheap, comprehensive electronic templates for RFPs, rooming lists, event specifications, and more. But first, let's back up to look at how the project got to where it is.

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. (See timeline, below.)

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. Only when hotels and planners use the same terminology and templates can they begin to consider an electronic flow of data.

Then Came 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 one 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, business correspondence, newsletters, 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.

Blown Away

“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.

Take Donna Tschiffely, president of Conference Inc., Reston, Va., for example. “Yes, we do have it [the APEX Toolbox], she says, “but I have to be honest — we don't use it yet. I support APEX. I like what they've done. But when you've got a busy schedule, transitioning it in is a little tricky.”

Robin O'Neil, CMP, marketing director at ProActive Inc. in Chicago, who is an enthusiastic supporter of the APEX work, has a similar situation. “We own it, but it's on hold,” she says.

However, about 6,500 copies of the Toolbox are in circulation, and many planners are enthusiastically adopting the standards.

“I use it as often as I can,” says Bobbie Connolly, CMP, member services coordinator for hospital group Alegent NPG Health-Link, Lincoln, Neb. She remembers a recent two-day meeting that included 14 speakers, lots of F&B, a charity auction, and several other complex elements. She used the Toolbox's Function Schedule and says, “the hotel was blown away.” Typically, Connolly needs to adapt her records to the hotel's, but once the property got a look at what she was using, it was the other way around. “They totally loved it,” she said.

Connolly doesn't use all of the Toolbox — she doesn't need the housing and registration templates, and the narrative part of the Event Specification Guide is too detailed for her meetings — but “the Function Schedule — that's it for me,” she says with the voice of the converted. She also uses the checklists and looks forward to the RFP templates coming in version two. Connolly's advice: “Get it, but take the time to learn it. If you learn it from the beginning, it'll save you time on the other end.”

Connolly will have to be fast if she wants to download the new version of the Toolbox before MaryAnne Bobrow, CAE, CMP, Bobrow & Associates, Citrus Heights, Calif. “I can't wait for the next upgrade,” says an enthusiastic Bobrow, 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,” she says. Her only complaint is that things aren't moving fast enough. “It's not buggy at all. It's not difficult to use. But give me more!” she pleads. “I want to see more industry tools.”

More Wizards and Templates

Bobrow should have gotten her wish by the end of October, according to the CIC office, although the release date has been delayed through the fall. When it does arrive, the new Toolbox will have major navigation changes; major wizard changes; and RFP templates for show contractors, destination management companies, audiovisual providers, and transportation companies, according to Siwek. Version two will also be downloadable and have a free trial version. Registered version one users can upgrade for free.

Theresa Tronolone is one of those eager for an upgrade. After hearing about the APEX Toolbox at industry events and on listservs, the global events manager for Actix, a Reston, Va., company that provides solutions for wireless network providers, decided last summer it was time to give it a try. “I was hoping to create templates because I was launching a conference globally,” she says. Overall, she calls the product a “good start” and says she “wants to support the cause.” However, the templates in version one of the Toolbox aren't as numerous or as easy to use as she had hoped. The industry knowledge is there, she says, but “a lot of software building is needed.”

While not totally satisfied with the original Toolbox, Tronolone sees the bigger picture. As her company's only meeting planner, she is eager for the efficiencies that common forms and an electronic interface will bring.

What Happens Next

Toolbox now moves from the development phase into the implementation phase. In October, APEX kicked off its Education Advisory Council, charged with improve 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 some 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. “It's going to be ugly out there for a while,” he says. “We're all in that pioneering phase of product development.

“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, maybe “a whole generation of planners” 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.”

The APEX Timeline

2000

CIC forms APEX Commission, naming 10 commissioners from various industry segments. Seven APEX panels are formed to develop accepted practices.

October 2001

APEX launches Technology Advisory Council.

2003

APEX delivers its first product, an online searchable database of nearly 4,000 industry terms.

October 2003

Post Event Report panel is complete.

November 2003

Collaborative work begins with the Open Travel Alliance, a group developing standards for the exchange of information within the travel industry.

September 2004

Event Specification Guide and Request for Proposals panels complete their work. APEX newsletter has more than 5,200 subscribers.

July 2005

APEX releases Toolbox version one.

August 2005

Housing & Registration panel completes its work.

October 2006

Educational Advisory Committee formed; APEX releases Toolbox version two.

November 2006

Meeting and Site Profiles panel expected to complete its work.

December 2006

Contract panel expected to complete its work.

January 2007

APEX Toolbox Users Group scheduled to launch.

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