Friday, April 20, 2007

3rd Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum

I participated in a panel discussion on "The Future of Meetings Technology" at the Center for Business Intelligence (CBI) 3rd Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum on March 27, 2007 in Philadelphia. My co-panelists were Michael Boult (CEO of Starcite) and Rick Borovoy (CTO of nTag). Gaze with me into our crystal ball...

Question 1. Why hasn’t the meetings industry adopted technology tools at the same rate as other industries?

My perspective (since Internet tools became available in 1998) is that meeting professionals have adopted "public-facing" tools such as online registration, event web sites, email marketing, and web-based meetings (webinars) as quickly as other industries. They have not adopted "back-office" systems, however, at nearly the rate seen in other service departments such as Travel, Finance, Procurement.

I think this adoption pattern has several causes:

  • The traditional event planner has been a "people-person" who loves to focus on the attendee experience rather than learn new technologies.

  • Available tools have not been both powerful enough and simple enough to meet most planners' needs.

  • Investment in and development of back-office tools for meetings has lagged that of Travel, Finance, and Procurement because there was not a critical mass of centralized corporate meeting departments and large meetings organizations willing to spend on IT at the same levels seen in the other areas. This situation is changing rapidly.

Question 2. Is the current electronic RFP system working for hoteliers?

Michael Boult took this question from the audience. His view is that current web-based RFP systems (such as Starcite's) are simply digitizing the existing RFP-based sales process. Some planners or companies may have abused this efficiency gain on their end by increasing the number of facilities who receive their RFPs (in hopes of driving costs down via competition), but most systems like Starcite have learned and now send an RFP to an average of 7-8 hotels (which are previously matched against the event criteria). This shouldn't create more burden on the hotels' sales offices than they had before the Internet.

His question to the audience was why don't meeting planners move away from the RFP process and move to a "shop & transact" marketplace, for example, one similar to the manner with which you purchase plane tickets or shopping carts of books and electronics. None of the attendees had a good answer, but my perspective is that both sides of the industry are averse to such a marketplace being controlled by a single company, like Starcite, who would profit handsomely from transaction fees, while all of the suppliers would be forced into a cost-cutting mode that would commoditize the products (hotel services and meeting experiences) which the industry is determined to keep unique. I believe that such a marketplace built upon open standards such as APEX will have a niche in the future.

Question 3. Why is integration so key to meeting management technology?

Most meeting professionals realize that event management applications will not be primary data tools from the perspective of a large organization, relative to enterprise applications such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM), employee databases (HR), Finance, Procurement, and Corporate Travel. Thus meeting management applications will either have to work with these primary systems, or their users must continue to manually export/import and re-enter data from the primary systems.

Question 4. How will Web 2.0, Second Life, etc. affect the way planners hold meetings (if at all)?

Web 2.0 is vaguely defined as the "Internet of You" -personal web sites, Blogs, social networking, and online personas that in some cases are better known than your physical self.

People often ask why video-conferencing isn't more widely used, after all, AT&T created the PicturePhone 40 years ago. Anyone who spends a few hours a day on webinars and conference calls knows that it isn't because the video quality is too low (it still is) but rather it's because we simply don't look as good as we think we do.

Copyright The Economist - www.economist.comEnter Second Life - a virtual world where you create an online persona who interacts with others for you. I can see a future where you combine Internet telephony, instant messaging, webinars, and a realistic computer representation (at the quality of Pixar movies and video games) of yourself into a "Second Life" meeting room. This is being done on the fringes of technologists, but it could become mainstream. I would much rather have a moving representation of my best picture making a presentation in a webinar than to have an actual live video-conference picture of myself - and the technology is easier without the live feed anyway.

Here is a great picture from the September 28, 2006 issue of The Economist, showing grandmother Donna Meyer and her Second Life avatar. Which would you rather watch presenting a seminar on punk rock music?

Question 5. Do you any of you share the opinion that the use of technology in site selection and social networking (before and at meetings) affects the human interaction and will evolve or come full circle (driving more person-to-person interactions)?

I think that the quality of the face-to-face meeting experience is going to increase. Otherwise, there is no point in spending the travel time and costs to leave your office, when you can have a basic meeting of minds via conference calls and webinars. As work teams become globally distributed and people have more choice about where they want to work, face-to-face meetings will be reserved for the most valuable personal interactions and experiences. I think the overall number of physical meetings will stay about the same, but the value (and cost) per person is going to grow in order to deliver this higher level of quality.

Question 6. How do you see the APEX initiative entering planners’ everyday lives?

I've spoken about APEX repeatedly, and I see it being the plumbing that makes the water flow. Meeting planners won't know what APEX really is until they see the technologies that come out of its implementation - the elimination of "Changes Reports" (because planners and hotels will keep their systems in synch electronically and automatically), an electronic marketplace of events and services (see Question 2), and event resumes stored as "e-books" on your PDA instead of 3-ring binders. When these things become commonplace, event planners will appreciate that the water is indeed flowing, even though most still won't care about the plumbing that got us there. And then, of course, after a few years they'll just expect that the water always flowed when you turned the faucet handle.

Question 7. What are the "next big things" coming for meetings technology?

  • "One system for all meetings" - big conferences, small meetings, all different event types will be managed within a single system

  • Integration - behind the scenes your "single system", which works seamlessly for you, will be tightly integrated with many other systems both inside and outside of your organization

  • Simplicity - technology will just work, or you won't use it (we'll see...)

  • Migration from RFPs to "Shop & Transact" - at least for some products and services

  • "Web 2.0" - technology will customize your events to you

  • Social Networking - computers will aid person-to-person interactions and introductions, allowing you to collaborate locally and globally in an online community that is an extension of your physical one

No comments: