Friday, August 31, 2007

History of Online Registration

MeetingTechOnline called to ask me questions for their upcoming "History of Online Registration" whitepaper. While I've told this story several times over the past 9 years, the framework of this interview made me think again about why certain technologies go from novel to standard practice in seemingly short bursts of time.

My History of Online Event Registration

Scott Curry, a friend from Clemson, started in 1997 while I was in graduate school at Berkeley. His experience registering runners for marathons and 10Ks opened my eyes to the new technology of database-driven web sites and e-commerce, and led me to start in 1998. Scott was moving to San Diego as Enteronline became a part of, and I wanted to apply the technology into a field that was more business-oriented than participatory sports. Offering online registration to professional event planners seemed like a good business model: a transaction-based fee structure, recurring revenue from the repeating nature of events, and substantial sums of money being spent in the existing industry.

In the end of 1998, Regweb had a working registration system, B-There was just starting up, Starcite was announced but not launched, Plansoft was selling mainly Windows applications, and SeeUThere was an eVite look-alike. Interestingly, all of these companies are now part of the new Starcite. At that time, most of us were competing against paper registration and in-house systems rather than each other. Cvent, Acteva, Regonline, and others were all right around the corner.

Right after we started, we tried to exhibit at the HSMAI Affordable Meetings show in San Jose. We couldn't get a booth, but we did land a demo with the show manager, George Little Management, who was looking for a vendor to replace their in-house system for the annual International Hotel, Motel & Restaurant Show. I'm proud to say that we've provided online registration to GLM and HSMAI ever since.

Why Then?

Advon asked why so many online registration companies started between 1997-1999. That time period was really a perfect storm for new technology development:
  • Microsoft's Active Server Pages (.asp) and Allaire's ColdFusion (now an Adobe product) changed the World Wide Web by allowing developers to (relatively) easily create web sites and forms that could interact with databases. Thus we could collect registration data online, store it in a database, and then deliver it to meeting planners as reports on demand.
  • More people began to use email and Netscape in their daily life. These attendees asked for event web sites, online registration, and instant email confirmations.
  • Cybercash (now a part of PayPal) and other processors made it easy for developers to integrate online credit card processing into registration forms, without investing in direct connections with the credit card payment network. Now payment for event fees could be collected and confirmed prior to delivering an email confirmation, thus greatly improving events' cash flow and collections.

The result was a situation where people wanted it, technology could deliver it, and the cost to deliver the service was less than the clear benefits. Throw in a few hundred million dollars' worth of venture capital money chasing anything ".com" and you had dozens of start-ups entering the market for online event registration.

Overcoming Early Hurdles

Of course it wasn't that easy, or we wouldn't have seen all of mergers and bankruptcies in this market since 2001. Trust was one of the biggest hurdles I experienced in the early days, as we tried to tell people that we would hold their data for them, but deliver it to them at any time when they needed it.

Back then, the mindset in IT was that security revolved around a physical location - your data was secure when it was stored on your computers, which were safely locked in your office. The idea that someone else should hold your data on their computers was like early banks trying to get people to take the money out of their safes and put it into an "account", which had only a small percentage of cash reserves behind it. Every time I thought we had moved past the trust issue, someone like would close shop in the middle of their customers' events and strand both their money and data in bankruptcy court.

From 1997 to 2007 the trust issue has declined in importance because (1) customers have had ten years of experience with web-based services such as travel reservations, online banking, eBay, and Amazon to get comfortable with the web hosted model, and (2) suppliers like Certain Software have provided service to event planners for over 10 years without stranding their customers.

What have you done for me lately?

Before 2001, the emphasis for meeting technology seemed to be, "What can you do for the attendee?" Thus our business was geared toward providing event web sites with a custom look-and-feel, posting FAQs online instead of answering questions one call at a time, linking to online registration forms with integrated credit card processing, and delivering e-mail confirmations and invitations.

After 2003 the question from most event planners is, "What can you do for me?" They take for granted attendee-facing technology and now focus on back-office processes, security, reliability, and full-functionality (i.e., one system that fits all needs). Thus meeting technology is moving towards integrated registration, housing, travel, program management, budgeting, meetings approval, and RFPs.

What happened between 2001 and 2003 was that 9/11 crushed the travel industry and many event people were let go while budgets for new hires were frozen. Since the group travel business recovered in 2003, work loads have increased while human resources have stayed the same. Online registration products matured to the point that they are expected to take care of attendees, so meeting planners focus on back-office efficiency and productivity.

The effect on registration budgets and full-service vendors

The past decade of work has naturally effected service providers who were in the meetings industry before the Internet technology existed. In many companies, registration technology budgets are going down as organizations strive to replace multiple separate systems (membership management, on-site registration, call center technology, online registration, meeting planning software, etc.) with an integrated system. While they are willing to pay more for the integrated system than they did for any one older system, they expect its cost to be less than the sum of the legacy systems.

Also, full-service event registration companies continue to thrive. There will always be a market for whom a single contact is more important than a single system. These people will pay more to a full service provider who delivers an integrated service that hides the complexity of multiple systems and processes. Our business at Certain sees this in the relationship between some of our customers and resellers. We have customers with their own product license who do everything themselves, while other companies contract with a reseller who has a license with us and provides service on top of our application. But a third and growing group of customers follow a hybrid model, where they have a license with us and manage some events themselves, but also contract with a full-service provider/reseller for other events where the reseller uses their clients' license with us.


Unknown said...

Nice work Rick. Congrats on 10 years!

Stephen Nold said...

Great article. Thanks for the time to document your history and thoughts on the evolution of online registration tools.

I appreciate your depiction of the current market, but wonder if the automation of the online tools will begin to eat away at the full service providers? Business is full of examples of discontinued full service solutions - gas attendants, airline ticket counters, and even eCommerce are examples where consumers have become empowered to reduce costs.

Why pay full service rates for stock brokers, bankers, even realtors when I can utilize self serve tools that provide the full functionality? Could online registration become the demise of the full service registration organizations?

Unknown said...


Good stuff. You did a good job bringing up relevant progress to where we are today and how the market is adapting.

Rick Borry said...

Stephen Nold asked,

>>> Could online registration become the demise of the full service registration organizations?

I don't think so. While cost-cutting is important, the ultimately irreplaceable resource is time. Most professional meeting managers find that they have a lot of events that are "routine", some that are "special", and a few that are "truly unique". Our experience is that many companies are using self-service tools to manage their routine events, and some are even trying to handle all of their events with these tools. But the truly unique events often require a combination of systems (on-site registration, high volume, city-wide housing, etc.) which an organization only faces a few times a year. They would rather replace the complexity of bringing these systems together in-house, with a single call to someone who has already put all of those systems together.

That said, full service vendors are going to be changed by online tools. Gone are the days when they could charge $30 per attendee for routine events - they will need to handle those for $6-10 per person. (Compared to the $3-6 fees charged by most online registration tools.) And they will need to internally have multiple systems that they can flexibly bring together on an as-needed basis to handle a variety of "special" events. This is their value - with one phone call you get on-site registration, call center support, web site and registration form building, reporting, housing management, etc. So registration service vendors must pick best-of-breed systems, work on integrating them together to increase internal efficiency, and drive down their costs by negotiating volume discounts with the vendors.

We have some very successful full-service vendors as clients who charge smaller clients about the same price that we would were they to contract with us directly. The full-service vendor produces enough volume across all of its clients to justify a discount in our fees, which allows them to provide service to the client at almost no net cost.

I see this practice continuing as technology becomes even more complicated and integrated. Full-service companies who adapt to the new reality will thrive, and those who don't will decline.