This year promises to be a tipping point for the mass adoption of meetings technology, caused by a convergence of new market entrants, technological enhancements and a "growing disdain for the status quo," according to a survey sizing up the industry released late last month by Sherman, Conn.-based travel research firm PhoCusWright Inc. Meanwhile, a number of suppliers are launching and updating technology products targeted at facilitating online booking for small, ad hoc corporate meetings.
PhoCusWright estimated that the corporate meetings market will be worth $75.8 billion by 2008, up from an estimated $73.4 billion in 2005. The firm's figures are based on surveys, interviews of 160 corporations and associations and additional interviews of industry vendors. In addition, PhoCusWright estimated 60 percent of travel for all corporate meetings are expected to be booked online by 2008.
Leading the growth are corporate meetings with fewer than 25 attendees, which the survey projects to grow by 13 percent in 2007 against a relatively flat growth rate for other meeting types. Bookings for this segment are also among the first to be moved online because they are more transactional in nature than large meetings, with simple travel and meeting space needs.
"Certainly, the small groups and meetings market will behave similarly to the transient market," said Lorraine Sileo, vice president of information services for PhoCusWright and editor of the survey.
Santa Clara, Calif.-based meetings tech firm OnVantage Inc.—now operating under the name of its merger partner StarCite Inc. and based in Philadelphia (Meetings Today, Aug. 14, 2006)
—first launched an online booking tool for small groups last June. The product, EasyBook, was for sleeping rooms only and was tied to a mandatory standard contract pre-approved by both corporate meeting buyers and hoteliers.
On Feb. 8, bowing to pressure from corporate clients, StarCite will allow customers to load their own pre-negotiated rates and contracts into the tool. The change is important to corporations that can obtain lower rates by negotiating directly with their preferred hotel chains and for customers who are required to use standard contract addenda by their companies.
Cheryl Hoffard, manager of meeting services for Marshall, Minn.-based Schwan Food Co., said at the time of the EasyBook release that she was hesitant to adopt the technology for her small groups. The changes to the tool "will help me make a positive decision," she said.
"It's a major improvement to allow customers to follow their strategic meetings management programs," said Stanley Chin, senior vice president of small groups and meetings and product management for StarCite, adding that the negotiated rates are kept confidential for users, while the standard rates that were loaded earlier in the tool would continue to be available.
StarCite has estimated that meetings of fewer than 50 attendees account for 80 percent to 90 percent of all corporate meetings, and small corporate groups make up 60 percent of group room blocks for hotels (Meetings Today, July 17, 2006).
Though developments in the meetings and events industry "tend to be more evolutionary than radical," the market is quickly reaching a tipping point for mass adoption of technology and new sourcing strategies, PhoCusWright's Sileo said.
One of the biggest opportunities for corporate buyers and suppliers alike is the rapid growth and recognition of small-meeting expenditures, according to Sileo. In 2005, two-thirds of all corporate meetings were for less than 50 attendees.
"The corporate market is very aggressive," Sileo said. "They weren't early adopters of online booking. Getting the transient piece was actually a slow and painful process at corporations, but now to add that group-booking element to it is a lot easier."
The time to redefine what a corporate meeting or group is has come, she added.
"The traditional definitions have been limiting in terms of how suppliers and corporations have been marketing and tracking the groups and meetings opportunities," according to Sileo. "A lot of the reasons for that are the physical limitations, like the global distribution systems in terms of how many segments you can book, and because hotels traditionally looked at groups as 10 or over for yield management."
PhoCusWright has partnered with the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International to market and disseminate the report. The survey took a multipronged approach to its methodology with 35 in-depth interviews with executives from 24 travel supplier companies, an online survey of meeting professionals and corporate meeting decision makers from 160 corporations and associations, 20 follow-up interviews with participants from leading professional meeting planning organizations, 1,100 event planners and attendees in an online survey and interviews with executives from 17 industry technology providers.
The redefinition of the meetings industry is happening during, and probably caused by, a very interesting time in the growth of the Internet, Sileo said.
"The online travel agencies are looking at how they redefine themselves and stay competitive in light of other new entrants and sites. There are also the mega-agencies that have woken up to the opportunities, and, third, are search and social networking sites. You can't assume that the same companies that have succeeded in the transient market are going to be those that succeed in the group market because unless they change their thinking and functionality or combine with some of these more group-related companies, they are losing traction," she said.
Sabre's GetThere also has unveiled a design this month for its DirectMeetings tool, with many changes aimed at booking small, ad hoc meetings. A new budget forecasting and comparison tool, open registration accessibility and wizard functions are aimed to help users plan small events within the boundaries of company policy but without extensive training on a complicated sourcing tool.
Jeremy Stubbs, director of meetings management for GetThere, said customers had been asking directly for more control and more usability from the tool. For example, customers previously had to log into their corporate travel site before continuing with their travel booking for a meeting, making it necessary for external attendees to create a profile before booking travel arrangements. The new version allows external attendees to book travel through the host company's internal online booking tool without registering a transient profile, but still capturing that data within the system.
Concerns about data security and traveler authentication are the big challenges for open registration technology, which GetThere said the new version of DirectMeetings addresses.
"Every single registration site has a unique sign-in page," Stubbs said. "It does the same as the corporate travel sign-in page does, but in a more elegant process."
A new budget-forecasting tool also allows a planner to quickly compare up to five different destinations with attendees from up to five different originating cities, while a wizard tool guides novice users through the approved meeting-sourcing process.
"We had a lot of success taking novice meeting planners through the system," Stubbs said.
The forecasting tool compiles data from all bookings through the Sabre global distribution system over the past 12 months, Stubbs said. The GDS relationship also gives GetThere an edge in the competition for direct online bookings for small meetings, he said.
StarCite's Chin said the EasyBook tool also is aimed at ensuring that administrative assistants or meeting buyers who fall outside of a centralized department book within company guidelines.
"Not all of them are aware that they might have a specific contract with a particular chain, so when they do book it through the tool, they will automatically utilize that particular contract," he said.
Pre-approved contracts still mean booking is negotiation free and direct without a request for proposals process, Chin said. The tool works best for up to 30 sleeping rooms but is capable of booking up to 100. Hotels in about 18 cities currently are loaded into the system and additional destinations would be added as customers demand them, Chin said.
Conference center chains also are getting into the act. Ann Marie Moayedi, national director of sales for Aramark Harrison Lodging, said the conference center chain is in talks to begin listing Aramark properties on EasyBook.
"It's to capture that end-user market that traditionally would not be going through the procurement department," Moayedi said. "We will have to sell a la carte as traditional hotel pricing for EasyBook."
Traditionally, conference centers have used a per-attendee, per-day pricing model called complete meeting package pricing. Flexibility in breaking up the complete meeting package also helps conference centers to capture the ad hoc meeting planner by being more user-friendly, she said.
Technologies and services aimed at the groups and meetings market still are disparate, PhoCusWright's Sileo said, but over the next two years a wave of consolidation and partnerships are expected to give buyers more tools to carry out new initiatives in strategic sourcing for groups.
"Everything came together at the right time. We have this convergence in the corporate space of the Internet and the booking tools and the motivation in terms of cost savings and Sarbanes-Oxley. Then you have Travel 2.0, which is all the capabilities of sharing information—and you have an economy robust enough in terms of people traveling," Sileo said, adding that suppliers have to get their acts together to meet the demands of this growing market.
"A lot of it now is on the side of the suppliers. Buyers know what they want. It's the usual. They want the best deal and the most comprehensive offerings and ease of use," according to PhoCusWright's Sileo. "It makes sense that what they were looking for regarding transient travel is the same as what they're going to be looking for in their group travel."