Monday, March 30, 2009

Technology Integration in the Meetings Management Sector

At the end of February, I had a chance to speak with Tom Belden, the "Winging It" business travel columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, about an upcoming article in Business Travel Executive. Here's some of what we talked about:

1. How much meeting technology does the average company really need?

I know this is an obvious answer, but planners need just enough technology to meet the requirements of each component of their meeting.

For example, a marketing road show needs to have email marketing and search engine optimization tools in order to drive attendance to their events. A mandatory employee training event, however, only needs an email broadcast capability in order to communicate with the attendees, and sometimes Outlook can serve those needs. The planner needs to start their analysis with the business requirements and processes, then select technologies that streamline these processes, and then use the features of the best technologies to modify the processes in order to take further advantage of their technology investment. Process requirements drive technology selection, but technology capabilities can drive process changes.

2. Hotels are increasingly providing meeting technology for their clients through their own websites or in collaboration with companies like Passkey. Is that all some organizations need?

Hotels typically limit their technology tool offerings to electronic RFP submission and rooming list management. For some meetings, these are sufficient, but most professional meeting planners must deal with more complicated situations requiring their own technology. For example, if your attendees are going to stay at multiple hotels, you will likely need to have a single system recording your event’s housing reservations, instead of flipping between each hotel’s own housing application. Also, planners need to be aware that hotels’ proprietary tools, such as RFP / meeting space search, are designed to drive business to their properties. You won’t always find the best deal for your meeting by sticking with the hotels’ tools.

3. What's been integrated so far? Why were those areas/ partners chosen and how difficult was it to accomplish?

In general, the industry has seen Registration systems integrated with housing systems such as Passkey, travel systems such as corporate booking tools (GetThere, ResX) and GDS’s (Sabre, Worldspan), customer relationship management systems (PeopleSoft,, employee/human resources databases (Peoplesoft), and credit card processing networks (Paypal, – in addition to many other integrations with niche applications. The effort involved in these integrations vary greatly between partners and processes. Credit card processing, for example, is a fairly mature technology with established standards and so was the first (and easiest integration) for most registration companies.

We need to make a distinction between technical integration and business process integration. For example, if you want to pass a name from your employee database to the registration system, then you will likely need a technical integration between these two systems. On the other hand, if you want to use email broadcast, blogging, and search engine optimization in order to drive traffic to your event, then you can likely use three different applications without doing any technical integration. You only need to synchronize your use of these technologies as you seek attendees.

Lastly, technical integrations must be maintained. Even though we first integrated Certain Registration with credit card processing in 1998, we spend at least one release every year maintaining that integration - adding new processors, dealing with mergers such as Verisign and Paypal, updating to the latest security standards like Payment Card Industry compliance.

4. What's next in integrating meeting technology? How long will it be before we see any of that -- by the end of 2009?

The next phase of integration will be deep support for programming tools loosely called “Web Services”. Web services provide an interface for other applications and computers to interact with our product. For example, if you want to change your last name, a human user can log in and manually update their last name using an online form. Or the employee database, which already has a record of the name change, can contact the registration application and update the last name for a specific person – automatically and without human intervention. Many suppliers, including Certain, offer “Web services” to a limited extent now, but you will see all vendors expand their support to allow integrating systems to do anything that human users can do.

Another longer-term trend will be the adoption of data exchange standards such as the APEX (Accepted Practices Exchange) and OTA (Open Travel Alliance) XML (Extensible Markup Language). This will allow a single application to interact with a wide market-place of other applications, without having to re-write application code and establish business partnerships with one company at a time, as is the time-consuming norm today.

5. What reasons do meeting planners or travel managers give when they turn you down and say they don't need Certain software to help them?

Inertia is the biggest issue if we are competing against an existing in-house system or process. Although managers recognize the inefficiencies in their existing processes, they sometimes cannot generate the internal motivation to change to a better system.

Cost should never be an issue, since Certain Registration as a Software As A Service (Saas) product offers pay-as-you go plans with little up-front expenses.

Some planners cannot adopt our products due to company policies or internal issues trying to integrated with other in-house systems, such as employee or customer databases. Although technically Certain can and has integrated with many types of systems, the internal resources on the client’s side may not be available and put the entire project on hold.

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