Mtg. Euro Tech Demand: Two Supplier Alliances Capitalize On Burgeoning Overseas Market
Europe looks set to embrace meetings management automation following two major partnerships announced last month by leading U.S. players. One pairing saw American Express launch its corporate meeting card in Europe while teaming up with Travent, the European franchisee of meetings management technology firm OnVantage. In the same week, another meetings technology provider, StarCite, announced a strategic partnership with Maritz Europa.
Amex and Travent unveiled a joint product that they claim automates meeting expense reconciliation for the first time anywhere in the world. Called MeetingView Express, the package adds Amex's meeting card to Travent's solution to allow planners to allocate expenses to specified budgets as they enter the system.
The European subsidiary of Maritz, meanwhile, will use StarCite applications to manage its own clients and act as StarCite's general sales agent across the Atlantic.
Industry experts said these latest developments are capitalizing on greatly increased determination by companies in Europe to tackle their meetings spending. "Europe will have to start using meeting management technology more and more," said Sarah Manning, EMEA manager for meetings and events at Cisco Systems, which has used StarCite there for 18 months.
Consultant Ian Flint, who in recent months has helped several businesses in Europe consolidate meetings spend for the first time, said the task is harder in Europe than in the United States. "Meetings are closer to transient travel in the U.S. than in Europe," he said. "There are more combined deals with the same suppliers, and the U.S. is essentially one large domestic market. In Europe, you need more local knowledge and have to deal with very different temperaments. Having said that, I am seeing increasing determination on the part of European companies which spend a lot on meetings to take control of it."
Amex and Travent executives said they decided to launch their joint initiative in Europe before doing so in the United States because Europe presents more challenges, especially for reconciling expenses. "We have not seen such emphatic demand for integration of a card with automated meetings management in the U.S. as in Europe," said Travent managing director Ray Thackeray. "The market is so fragmented that it is hard to get people in the same company to use the same spreadsheets, so they can't roll up the spend." Paul Abbott, Amex head of commercial card for the United Kingdom and Benelux, said there could be releases in other markets, including the United States.
Travent provides meeting managers with automated functions including an online venue and supplier database, automated requests for proposals and a variety of booking tasks, such as pairing up roommates and linking to corporate air reservation tools. Travent and Amex claim that the automated expense reconciliation gained by adding the Amex meeting card will help planners track spend by event, cost center, budget line or any other desired criterion. The two companies said MeetingView Express also will eliminate the need for manual spreadsheets to track budgets or generate management information for vendor negotiation.
"The final element of end-to-end meeting planning automation is now in place," according to Thackeray. "For the first time, a meeting planner can reconcile expenses online in the same way as a traveler."
Abbott added: "If you stand at a meeting planner's desk today, you will see a big pile of invoices that have come in from suppliers. They are difficult to reconcile to different cost centers—we estimate it takes up 20 percent of the planner's time. Now, all the planner has to do is click on to the charge and drop it into the correct cost center."
MeetingView Express initially is being made available in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
StarCite, meanwhile, claimed to generate the largest number of electronic leads in North America for meetings in Europe. It also claimed the deal with Maritz Europa will make it the largest lead generator inside Europe. Like Amex and Travent, Maritz Europa director Shaun Casey believes automation is the key to consolidation. "For the last 18 months, our European clients have been saying they need to consolidate their meetings expenditure," he said. "U.S.-owned clients have told us their U.S. headquarters have seen the savings and now want something similar rolled out in Europe." This pressure has been applied especially by large U.S. pharmaceutical companies.
Part of the problem of extending automated venue searches and requests for proposals to Europe is that large hotel chains have far less share of the meetings market than in the United States. "StarCite has put a tremendous effort into making the product as comprehensive as it can be," according to Casey. "It now has 22,000 European venues. There was a deficiency six months ago but that has been overcome."
Flint observed that "not all technology travels—it's like wine." U.S. meeting automation providers likely will encounter a degree of skepticism, if Ian Hall, Unilever's European director of non-production items supply management, is any indication.
Hall just consolidated Unilever's meetings spend but is yet to be convinced of the merits of technology. "I suspect the Amex meetings card could be useful to capture data," he said, "but I have yet to find any automated solution that really meets our needs. They can only help you so far. It is a bit like buying groceries online. You ask for spaghetti and end up with shells. It's pasta, but not quite what you want."
Cisco's Manning, however, is fully convinced of the merits of StarCite, saying it has enabled her to work with procurement to track spend with meeting vendors much more accurately. Her problem is winning over vendors.
"Some venues aren't up to speed on this yet," Manning said. "It has been quite a battle. Going forward, if they aren't on StarCite, then we may have to stop using them."
Like Manning, Amex is betting on the increasing involvement of procurement philosophies in meetings to help automated management tools prevail. "European companies are turning their attention to meeting spend as the maturity of their transient travel program increases," said Abbott. "The integration of payment information into meeting management software changes the game because it satisfies the needs of procurement, finance and meeting planners. Having all the stakeholders aligned in an organization is critical."
Thackeray said procurement has the potential to play a stronger role in Europe than the United States. He said U.S. companies primarily use meetings management tools for logistical purposes, such as registration, housing and connection to online travel reservation tools. In Europe, he cited a greater focus on spend management, with the greatest priority being the capture and consolidation of data from disparate markets.
Though each country in Europe conducts meetings in different ways and uses different types of venues and intermediaries, Casey said it is important not to overstate the degree of fragmentation. "The biggest challenge in Europe is the cultural variations, but from a corporate point of view, there is not a great deal of difference," he said. "They all need a hotel, a flight and a bus from the airport, even if Spaniards want to eat at 10 p.m. and Germans at 6 p.m."