Meetings Technology Matures: Buyers Embark On Integration, More Formal Selection - Business Travel News

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Meetings Technology Matures: Buyers Embark On Integration, More Formal Selection

June 13, 2013 - 04:40 PM ET

By Chris Davis

Meetings technology today is big business. No longer a horde of little suppliers fighting for a small number of interested corporate customers, the sector has evolved into a prominent, reasonably stable pillar of the corporate meetings industry. It features long-running suppliers, some of which have grown quite large by providing maturing technology to a growing pool of corporate clients. Be they simple tools for attendee registration, more complex offerings for enterprisewide strategic meetings management or newer options enabling clients to deploy mobile meetings apps, meetings technology has pervaded the upper reaches of the Fortune 500 and left its imprint on the processes of smaller and midsize companies as well.

But with that evolution has come more formal corporate processes for evaluating, selecting and purchasing. That includes a sometimes lengthy request-for-proposals process and rounds of presentations preceding multiyear deals consisting of service-level agreements, incentives and penalties. Key to that selection process is increasing corporate interest in meetings technology as an integrator, not only with existing online travel booking tools but also the client's entire technological ecosystem, which can include enterprise resource planning systems, customer relationship management systems and expense management systems, among others. Sometimes those tools are internally developed or custom-made. And clients often want that integration to be global.

Increased interest in integration widens the circle of executives involved in the decisions to purchase and select meetings technology beyond meetings, travel and even marketing and procurement to include CIOs and other IT personnel. After lengthy discussions with their counterparts at the tech vendors, IT managers will be the ones who determine whether and how the meetings technology would integrate with existing corporate tools, and so their words at many companies are carrying more weight in the selection process than ever before.

"One of the key things I see people miss sometimes is not having the IT person at the table," said meetings management consultant Betsy Bondurant, president of Bondurant Consulting. "They don't realize how important it is. Many corporations have strict requirements and firewall issues, but they also want it to talk to other technologies like CRM. That's a best practice we see more and more: including the IT person in those discussions."

Respondents to a new BTN survey of corporate travel and meeting buyers, however, generally didn't find a great deal of influence by IT departments. When asked to assess on an ascending scale of one to six the influence of individual departments on the selection of meetings technology, 112 respondents rated IT an average of three, ranking it on average below the travel department, senior management, and the finance, procurement and meetings departments, respectively. Only the human resources department on average had less influence in the selection of meetings tech, according to the survey, which was conducted in February and March.

The presence of IT in that selection process typically occurs at larger companies, Bondurant said. "For some of the smaller companies, that process can be driven pretty exclusively by the owner of the meetings department," she said. "They may reach out to other people in the organization, but they are typically the ones making that decision. Sometimes they reach out to their travel manager, because there could be some opportunity there as well."

Of course, "meetings technology" is an extremely broad descriptor, and some smaller and midsize companies in particular aren't looking for a full rollout of enterprise technology as part of a strategic meetings management process; they simply may want to gather data and have the ability to send online RFPs to meeting venues. While that process often starts in the meetings department—or wherever in the organization the responsibility for managing meetings resides—it doesn't always end up there, said Lisa Palmeri, senior director of SMM professional services for meetings technology company Cvent.

"In the small and midmarket, it's definitely the business owners who are driving the decision," said Palmeri. "They have a need. Usually it's more a practical and tactical need, and they can look for a solution that's less all-encompassing that solves their specific needs." She noted online attendee registration, internal meeting registration and venue sourcing as typical targets. However, she added that it "usually grows into something more—procurement gets wind of it, and they're looking at more than just that one stakeholder group."

For wider or enterprisewide deployments, Palmeri said large corporations typically bring representatives from several departments into the meetings tech evaluation and selection process.

"There are three major players at the table," said Palmeri. "There's procurement to do the administrative part and make sure they're checking all the boxes; IT to make sure the solution is sound and integrates with other systems; and the business owners who don't really care about the other stuff but do care whether the technology solves their business requirements. All three have an equal voice, but procurement can trump the business owner and IT can trump the business owner if they find some serious concerns."

Patrick Payne, CEO of mobile meetings technology firm QuickMobile, said, "We usually are introduced through the director or vice president of events, but we typically go up through and require approval and buy-in from the CIO and the IT department, and often the marketing departments as well because they typically are the owners of the event business. CMOs, vice presidents of marketing, vice presidents of events—those are the ones we typically talk to."

Once the decision has been made to pursue a meetings tech solution and the appropriate stakeholders and business objectives have been identified, Bondurant said that "the more sophisticated programs in larger companies do more of a traditional procurement process," including a request for information or RFP.

She pointed to recommended questions included in the strategic meetings management services buying guide released this year by the Global Business Travel Association as representative of typical meetings technology RFIs and RFPs. That guide recommends buyers as part of the procurement process ask several questions related to the tech's functionality, flexibility, security, customization ability and implementation timelines, among other aspects.

"A lot of the technology has similar offerings, so often it comes down to service levels," Bondurant said. "Most of the tools pretty much can provide a lot of the same support the corporations need. A lot of it comes down to how the service model is with helping to implement and deploy, and then on the reporting end."

Bondurant said another key factor in selecting meetings tech is the tool's ability to integrate with other systems. "Ideally, most technology tools want to integrate as the client wants them to be integrated," she said. "They will try to design a customized solution to the extent that they can with what the corporation wants."

Regarding the ability to integrate as a factor in the tech selection process, BCD M&I director of technology solutions Arnold Lagos said, "It plays a huge role, and more so recently. A lot of organizations already have certain approvals and workflows and systems in place, so they want to see if a technology can fit into their underlying ecosystem and not force a change to processes they may have had for years or invested heavily in.

"The technology they select—and we're noticing this more and more—needs to be a little bit more flexible in order to pass data along into it and capture the things they need to capture," Lagos continued. "Integration is becoming a very large component of this, making sure the technology they land on has the flexibility and that the security is there."

Combining Travel Booking With Meeting Registration 

In the BTN survey, online air booking and online hotel booking, respectively, were cited as meetings technologies used by the largest number of respondent organizations.

The ability to integrate meetings technology with online booking tools to enable such booking at the point of meeting registration has been around for several years, but Bondurant said development in that space continues.

"More mature programs are looking at integration there and looking at making it more user-friendly for the end user," she said. "In the meeting registration process, being able to do hotel and air all in one site is important. People want to have the consumer experience at their corporations."

Integration with online booking tools "has always been the part that's been plug-and-play to a certain extent, but all integrations require a lot more research," Lagos said. "It's not as easy as it used to be. The uniqueness of everyone's own internal solutions is causing it to be not that easy to do."

Cvent's Palmeri cited online booking tools along with procurement systems like Oracle's PeopleSoft and SAP's Ariba as frequent integration targets among clients. "The biggest, most common integration we see is with CRMs," she said.

Some companies look to integrate technology to better manage internal meetings-approval processes as well as meetings expense data, Lagos said.

"We've worked with companies that were looking to integrate their overall procurement systems as a first step of getting anything approved, which carries that workflow approval process for them and drops it into the meetings tech," he explained. "Also, people are putting [spending] information into expense management systems, so why not have that data fall back into the meeting technology, where you really want it to be anyway so you can get actualized costs?"

Such integration, though, can be extremely complex due to the level of customization present in the client's existing systems and the level of data security needed, Lagos said, and can take a year to complete.

"It involves a lot of research," he said. "There are so many levels and aspects of integration. You're seeing bringing together internal IT teams of the organization and the meetings tech company and sitting down to understand exactly what the requirements are. Some systems have been completely custom-built for those organizations. The meetings technology has to have the flexibility to be open to capture data and receive data."

This report originally appeared in the June 10, 2013, edition of Business Travel News. 

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