Monday, September 25, 2006

The future of meetings technology companies

Last week, Don Lipper of WRITE THE FIRST TIME asked me some questions for an article he is writing for Perspective Magazine about the future of meeting planning technology.

Q. Technology will only go so far - what services require a human touch? Will that always be the case?

I anticipate that the following services will continue to require a human touch:

  • Creating new business relationships that involve the exchange of large sums of money.

This will always require a human touch; however, the definition of "large sums of money" will continue to increase. For example, in 1995, most people would not buy a book for $50 online because of fears about the security and integrity of the transaction. By 2000, many people were comfortable buying a $500 airline ticket online, without speaking to an agent. In 2005, some people are willing to buy a $25,000 car online at eBay Motors, without meeting the seller. Today, most people would not buy a $250,000 house without meeting someone (the owner or agent) in person, but in the future that may change. But it will be a long time before a business will engage in a $25 million transaction without at least once meeting the owner or agent, looking them in the eye, and shaking their hand.

  • "Greeting" and "Host" positions

You may book a plane ticket online, drive yourself to the airport, ride an automatic train to the terminal, and check-in online; but if there isn’t a human standing behind the counter when you arrive, you’ll think the airline has folded overnight.

In the future, however, the positions where human greeters are expected will diminish. Future chains of budget hotels could run automatically, with self check-in / check-out and automated cleaning. But humans will always be needed to handle the situations that the software programmers did not anticipate.

  • Having fun

"Experience-based" meetings work for networking because they are fun, and you remember people who you have fun with. Even the most die-hard video gamer who lives alone, works at home, has pizza delivered three times a day, and plays MegaQuest 2000 all night will likely have a network of similar recluses scattered around the world who play the team version of the game online and text chat for hours each day.

  • Doing something new

Technology is great at doing the same thing over and over, and advanced technology can anticipate changes in its environment and adapt automatically. But humans are needed to do something truly new and creative. However, after the "new" process, event, or product has been done a few times by humans, watch out because the technology will take over and humans will have to find something else that is "new".

  • Being inspirational

Think of the best motivational speakers you’ve heard at an event. A machine could run a laser sound and light show and chant slogans and display images of what you should do and what you should not do. But people want to see a human standing up there – someone who makes them think, "this person is just like me – and look what they did". That experience inspires behavior change and recharges the soul. Technology will never be able to do this because you can’t relate to technology – instead you would think, "machines have it easy because they don’t face the same obstacles that I do".

That said, technology can help people who are truly inspirational to spread their story faster and to a wider audience.

Q. Where do you see the most consolidation in the future?

  • Group Travel from the attendee perspective: Registration, Housing, Travel.

It will be easier for attendees to confirm that they are going to a meeting, and then have their air, ground transportation, hotel, activities, meeting agenda, maps and FAQs completed and confirmed in a single itinerary

  • Group Travel from the meeting planners perspective

The hotel, the air travel agency, the event planner, and the suppliers will each have their own system that best meets the needs of their business. But their systems will be able to "talk" to each other so that when the travel agent changes a flight from Monday to Tuesday, the Meeting Planner’s system gets the change, and automatically sends it to the Hotel to update the room reservation.

  • Meeting management and attendee management

Information about the event – from the meeting request to the hotel RFPs to the Event Specification Guide – will integrate seamlessly with attendee data management systems. So when a registrant cancels their Wednesday night dinner in the online registration system, the BEO (Banquet Event Order) for the hotel will get the change, and the budget and expense management systems will be updated automatically.

  • Small technology providers will merge to form larger companies

As products and business models mature, the many innovative small companies that were created around event technology in the past 10 years will continue to come together to form a smaller number of larger, more efficient technology providers.

Q. What is driving that consolidation, is it acquisition of territory or technology?

The consolidation of companies is being driven by the maturation of the technology providers’ business models, the desire of early-stage investors to realize a return on their investment, and the market demand for more comprehensive (and thus more complex) applications that will address all of their concerns. Small companies have overlapping overhead expenses that can be eliminated through mergers. Combining customer bases provide increased revenue for greater investment in technology enhancements. And complex software, by its nature, is expensive to develop the first time but very inexpensive to repeat for multiple customers.

Today, it is so easy for technology companies to operate nationally and internationally that local territory strength is not as big of a driving factor for these mergers as are the financial and technology reasons.

Q. When the dust settles five to ten years from now, who will be the winners? Will a single standard platform emerge or will there always be a place for focused standalone best of breed applications alongside with total solution suites?

The big winners will be the meeting planners – unless they allow one company to dominate the marketplace. The meetings technology industry will be better-served by a few major providers then it is now by scores of small players. But competition is healthy for the market as it keeps costs reasonable for planners and drives technology companies to achieve their best.

My hope (and expectation) is that the single platform that emerges will be the set of data communication standards being developed by APEX (through the Convention Industry Council) and OTA (the Open Travel Alliance). Technology providers will build systems that fit their customer base niche, but adhere to the open standards when they communicate with other systems. I expect that each segment of the group travel market will have a few major players who offer a single platform, but that the systems will be different for the different segments. For example, meeting planners will have 2-3 vendors providing integrated meeting and attendee management software – this makes more sense for them then having one meeting management system and another attendee management system. But hotels will have completely different systems (maybe provided by a few different providers), travel agencies will have yet another suite of tools, etc. It makes little sense for a travel agency or meeting planner to have 2 tools in their organization, but it makes less sense for travel agencies and meeting planners to be using the same tool that does everything for everyone. A more practical model is for major technology providers to produce a single best-of-breed suite for each market, and then these suites communicate via open XML standards such as those defined by APEX and OTA. This is why I joined the APEX Technology Advisory Committee and spend hours each month contributing to the development of these standards.

Looking ahead even further, once the major platforms establish a large customer base and adopt the open standards, new opportunities will open for niche applications. These niche applications could use the open standards to extend the core functionality of the major platform in order to provide a specific feature needed only by one relatively small market niche. The major platforms will not be able to invest in development of highly-specific features for small market niches, but a small business could fulfill that need while integrating within the major platform so that the overall experience of the end user is seamless – from the meeting planners perspective they think they are using one application. For example, a provider of photo-ID name badges for events could use the open web services to add their functionality to the 2 or 3 major registration system platforms. Such a function fills too small of a niche for a mainstream registration product to address in its core platform, but it would fit in nicely as an add-on product so that the meeting planners who need it don't have to use a separate application to fill this need.

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