Two months after StarCite's acquisition of B-there again changed the competitive landscape of the meetings technology industry, StarCite CEO John Pino spoke with Meetings Today editor Chris Davis about B-there's integration, as well as the opportunities and threats presented by other travel technology companies.
Meetings Today: Do you see future relationships between meetings technology providers and travel agencies, global distribution systems, online booking systems or online agencies?
John Pino: I absolutely do. Agencies will get heavily involved in this because they have to. The group side is getting under the spotlight. People have to have a solution they feel comfortable with and can adopt in the short term. Some agencies will try to do it on their own. Some agencies will look for a proven solution to buy. We hope for the latter. When StarCite came out, there was no focus on third parties or agencies. Now, there is a lot more momentum there. They see a way to make money and a need to be more efficient. RegWeb has been our strongest segment with travel management companies. There's a screaming demand to deliver those costs efficiently. It costs a lot to do offline.
MT: Do you talk with GDS companies and online agencies?
Pino: We talk to everyone all the time. If they say the next big thing is group, is there interest on their part? Absolutely, positively, but I can report no pending deal. I don't think we're at that point. But it may not be too long.
MT: How do you define StarCite's competitive set today?
Pino: I tend less and less to define it traditionally with the terms you and I have used like, event portal, attendee management companies, process folks, you know who they are. They are still there, but we have to expand that to new entrants—anyone doing anything with procurement, group RFPs and attendee management or registration online. Are GDSs our competitors? Not necessarily, but the model could be some day. Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz could be one day, not that they are today.
As our sales get bigger, we have to figure out how to contrast ourselves to much larger players than we're used to. That's the thing that keeps me up. The competitive set is apt to change, and it will include larger, more well established companies than StarCite. I don't know which could emerge, but there is no doubt there will be large players here, and sooner than later.
MT: How do you counter that?
Pino: We're not trying to head it off. We're trying to build StarCite as fast as we can, all the things you would expect me to say. We must grow to a certain size and scale. If not, we won't be able to compete when the large players come in. We have to do a terrific job and grow if the industry is to consider us among the major competitive players when that time comes. I'll worry about the big guys when they emerge, but I believe those that challenge us will have a similar customer-related philosophy, instead of simply supplying technology.
MT: Do you see any parallels between the rise of online booking technology and the future of attendee management technology?
Pino: Yes. I feel pretty strongly that anyone in this business with any degree of seriousness and scale will have to adapt to it. At some point, companies will begin to get the value of this, like segments in the GDS. That's how they will measure it in terms of cost and service. We are at the beginning of a tremendous adoption cycle; maybe we're in the middle. It's no longer an uncertain possibility. We know how this story will end. There are a number of companies that want to try to consolidate this stuff.
MT: If attendee management technology has taken off, why hasn't consolidation technology?
Pino: I've been quoted for so many years now saying, "This is the year it will take off," and I've been dead wrong, but every year it gets a little better. Originally, people were curious and put out RFPs to buy a piece of functionality for a department. Now, we're getting full enterprise RFPs for all technology. I'll stick to my statement, and one of these years I'll be right.
MT: Now that you are a few months past the acquisition of B-there, how has the integration of their tools progressed?
Pino: On the customer side, it's reenergized the spirit of cooperation. B-there's customers are happy with the expanded model, more than registration and housing. Their people view this as a positive, and one of the reasons we did this was because of the quality of their folks. On the technology side, we've made customers understand that we will fully support all platforms out there. We will come out with new technologies, enhancements and upgrades next year. The hardest part is behind us. Now we're working to get more customers and partners. We're farther along than I thought we'd be in becoming synergistic.
MT: Is StarCite now what you've wanted it to be?
Pino: I will never be satisfied, but we're getting closer to what we have envisioned. The value propositions that we felt were essential and crucial have come together. With the group request for proposal and the number of registrations we process, we're making a lot more progress. Our work is not done, but I feel good. I hesitate to talk about end-to-end solutions, and there is still work to be done there, but I think we have something very complete for the buyer and seller sides.
MT: Given that the term "end-to-end" tends to mean different things to different people, what needs to be added to or developed by StarCite to achieve that?
Pino: The focus is less on adding more functionality, because that is a perpetual job, and more on the quality and number of integrations on the buyer and supplier side. Until those things are expanded, we won't be able to say that we're the most incredible thing on Earth. But there is a lot more attention paid to the group side now. Suppliers and customers are very engaged. They look at functionalities and modules, and they want to exchange information faster and better.
MT: When the time comes for new technology or innovation, will StarCite have the resources to bring it to market?
Pino: There is no concern at all about how our business model works. Our economy works, and all of our technology investment is set for such work. We're stronger now than we've ever been. We no longer have that concern, as long as we keep getting customers and doing what we do.
MT: How are your customers judging the effectiveness of meetings tech?
Pino: Traditionally, it's been cost savings and cost avoidance, because they're tangible. Now, response times are much more important, as is the preferred supplier management function and its tracking and reporting. They really look at the quarterly reports we send them, and they want to know response time and to be told their spending and booking patterns with suppliers. It's a procurement strategy, and it's the only way you can judge it.