Following are observations on the evolving online registration scene from Jeff Rasco, president of Attendee Management Inc., and a past speaker at RCMA.

RCM: Are group demographics the most important factor to successfully implementing an online registration system?

Rasco: We thought that if you had a young, professional group you'd get a higher adoption rate, and if you were dealing with doctors or older people, you'd get a lot of faxes. While that's true, it's not nearly as bad as we thought it would be.

For example, for a program at the beginning of 2003 that was highly medically oriented, we had a goal of 20 percent online [registration], but we went to 58 percent. One factor, obviously, is that more people are online. The other is the strong use of e-marketing. People respond the way they are approached. If you mail out a registration form, people are going to mail it or fax it back. If you announce the meeting electronically and give them a quick link back, then they are going to tend to register online.

The demographics are important, but we have been surprised. We've gotten nearly 100 percent response from car dealers, who often still work with computer systems that are DOS-based.

RCM: What techniques help to increase the percentage of attendees using online registration?

Rasco: One of the easiest is to tell attendees that if they register online, they'll pay a discounted registration fee. Some groups tell attendees that they'll get something extra in their pickup bag. Discounts, however, are the one thing that everyone can understand.

We do find that if there is payment involved, it's better to give attendees the option to send a check — go ahead and register now, and send us a check at a later date. People aren't afraid to register online, but some are still reluctant to give out personal information, such as credit cards or Social Security numbers.

We've also found that a simple little e-mail that says, “Hey, don't forget!” does wonders. We were doing a group of promotional meetings for a computer supply company and, as is common with no-fee meetings, people would say, “Yea, I'm coming,” but they didn't show up. We were seeing 70 percent to 80 percent no-shows. So we asked, what if we started e-mailing reminders a day or two before the meeting? Well, we went from 70 to 80 percent no-show to 50 percent or less, with just that one extra e-mail.

RCM: As online registration technologies evolve, where do you see the biggest improvements?

Rasco: The technologies are talking together better. With the ability to tie together what had been very divergent processes — registration, housing, transportation — you now have all the data in one place. Now you have one set of data that you can share with the people who need it — instead of three, four, or even five sets of data. By having all the information in one place, you can start doing useful data mining. Now you can do things such as see who is registered but hasn't booked a hotel room.

What you want is to be in control of your data. That is the key. Registration, housing, air technologies are evolving into one software that will allow you to do all of it — and to turn functions off and on as you need them, a more modular approach.

One thing we're watching, out of self-preservation as much as anything, is the interest that Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, and other online discount travel sites are showing toward the meeting industry. … They're the world's best at getting users the cheapest flights, hotel rooms, rental cars. Meetings are not a big stretch for them. What happens to the meeting technology companies if they're going up against Expedia?

I think what you're going to see is more of the meeting technology companies banding together out of self-defense.

RCM: If you use a third-party registration company, how can you be sure that your data is secure and is not being sold or shared?

Rasco: You need a solid understanding of the vendor's Service Level Agreement and its privacy policy. Have your lawyer look them over. The SLA basically says how the security is established, the kind of encryption, and the physical security at the server site. If a vendor won't or can't provide a Service Level Agreement to your satisfaction, break off negotiations. The privacy policy needs to guarantee that your information won't be used in any other way, and should explain what happens to the data if the registration company goes out of business.

I've done consulting with a couple of major Fortune 500 companies looking at adding online registration, and their biggest concerns are security. They don't want their data on someone else's server. They want the data in-house. That limits your options. Only a handful of the online registration ASPs will do it.

Other ASPs started out offering those services but found it wasn't practical. They weren't just managing one software, but software on every server that their product was installed on. If they had an update, they had to get the update out to everyone. And these companies aren't Microsoft. They're relatively small and don't have the resources.

The question I have to ask is, are you even sure of your own data security? Even if you're housing your data yourself, that's no guarantee that it's secure. Most hacking is facilitated by internal people. If you're going to lose a group of credit card numbers, you're just as apt to lose it off your own server as that of your registration provider.

RCM: How are the pricing models used by online registration changing?

Rasco: With most ASPs, users pay a license fee, an annual renewal fee, and some transaction fee, plus something extra if there is credit card processing. The license fee preferably covers the entire organization, but sometimes fees are based on individual users (known as seats) or simultaneous users (meaning that, for example, five people in a 10-person department can use the system at any one time, but that all 10 people have access to the system). Every company is a little different. E-meetingsonline, for example, said just pay us a license fee and you can do as many meetings with as many attendees as you want.

Know what your organization looks like. If you're doing more than 5,000 transactions, chances are good that you're going to want a license. If it's fewer than 5,000, you may want to look at the service side. That brings me to another pricing model. Some ASP companies aren't making the billions of dollars they thought they would selling transactions, so they're ramping up the service side — building out clients' registration Web sites, training, etc. — and selling smaller numbers of transactions without having users buy an annual license. This is pretty new. Before, if you talked to any of these companies, they'd say, “We're a technology company.” Now they're saying, “We're a technology company that also offers some services.”

RCM: When do you see costs falling?

Rasco: They already are. Transaction costs are lower, especially as companies provide service along with transactions. They see money they can make on the service side, so they are willing to cut their transaction costs. Competition is forcing these companies to bid on jobs that they never would have before.

RCM: What advice do you have for meeting professionals as they get started with online registration?

Rasco: Define terms. Make sure your vendor spells out, for example, how it defines a transaction: Is it per registrant or per visit to the registration site? That is, does a change to a registration count as a new transaction? How are seat licenses counted? How are financial transactions charged? How much service and training will you get? Are you charged for calls to the help desk?

What Do You Need?

What services are you expecting from your online registration provider? Know your needs before you go shopping for a vendor. Here's a list to consider.

  • Customized Web registration site

  • Web links to meeting and destination information

  • Integration with an online travel booking system

  • Integration with a housing service

  • Integration with meeting management applications

  • Call center services/customer service calls

  • Manual entry of mail and fax registrations

  • On-site registration support

  • Online credit card processing

  • Roommate matching

  • Pre-meeting e-mail marketing

  • Compliance with ADA standards for the visually impaired

  • Different forms for different kinds of attendees

  • Store attendee database for future events

  • Registration for breakouts and meals in addition to meeting registration

  • Confirmation letters

  • Electronic reminders

  • Create and send surveys

  • Custom reports