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Enhancing the Meeting as an Experience

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October 26, 2006
Meeting | Technology
Shawn McGowan - smcgowan@newmarketinc.com

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© 2006 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

When you recall the last off-site conference or meeting you attended, what stands out in your mind–the post-lunch speaker or the contact you made over dinner?  The general session or the special event with an important client?  Hopefully, it was the impeccable service and not a glitch in the menu.  It’s how all the elements of the event come together that define the experience.

 We are all consumers of meetings and events in addition to having roles as hospitality providers or meeting planners so we know firsthand that meeting content is only one part of the equation in creating a compelling experience.  Differentiating your meetings and events demands preparation, and for venues of all shapes and sizes, from hotels and conference centers to restaurants and function facilities, this translates into focusing on the venue selection and planning process itself as a service. 

Today, meeting planners are moving more and more of their venue searching and selection online, prompting a fundamental shift in the scope of the meeting as experience.  In the emerging world of online planning, the initial planning phase must include an efficient procurement process, including the ability to respond to electronic bookings and requests for proposals (RFPs), give real-time availability status, and provide information on function room capacity and set-up options. At this phase of an event, meeting planner collaboration is the key to a differentiated meeting experience.

Plugging In to Online Procurement
Meeting planners today can take advantage of a multitude of online procurement tools, including:
• Integrated procurement applications that allow for budget planning and approval processes
• Online portals such as StarCite Marketplace, mpoint from OnVantage and PlanIt Online 
• The Web sites of hotels and meeting facilities themselves
To be considered in online procurements, focus on connecting your facility to the planner’s tool of choice.  Having a clearly identified audience and an understanding of their online procurement preferences is important, since these factors will determine where to invest.  For example, targeting large corporate clients means aligning with the procurement applications they are using.  Fortunately, since the number of vendors serving this market is small, it is relatively simple to purchase marketing packages to improve search ratings on these tools, and there are creative ways to feed actualized spend from past meetings back to the tool to become a preferred vendor. 

Your own Web site offers an excellent opportunity to create a unique and efficient planning experience.  A complete strategy includes creating distinct opportunity capture forms with tailored messaging and incorporating the ability for planners to create profiles, generate new requests based on previous meetings, view availability and book function space in the same manner as travelers have grown accustomed to doing with guestrooms.

Raising the Bar on Event Planning Services
The availability of online tools to support the procurement process has raised the bar on client expectations. Interactive room diagramming and improved collaboration enhance the procurement process, while going far to ensure that the complete meeting experience goes off without a hitch.  Detailed room diagrams allow the meeting planner to visualize the layout prior to arrival and gain confidence that the event can be delivered as promised.

Another important way to enhance the pre-event experience is to improve how you communicate and collaborate on changes to the event requirements.  While many RFP sites and hotel Web sites offer basic capabilities in this space, the emerging trend is to more fully enable change order management online and reduce the reliance on faxes.

The Proof Is in the Process
All of the online procurement and planning service options do little to improve the meeting experience unless they’re fully integrated with the technologies and processes in place at the hotel or facility.  While this might seem obvious, research has consistently shown that hospitality providers are not doing a good job of responding to online RFPs in a timely fashion. New processes call for an integrated approach t
• Tracking business by source, whether online or traditional telephone/e-mail inquiry
• Ensuring that all relevant information is captured with the booking
• Assigning and escalating incoming leads to facilitate faster and more complete responses
• Creating a proposal that incorporates all of the key planning elements
This requires a fresh look at how the sales staff is organized, trained and compensated.  In order to incorporate a new channel into their day-to-day activities, they need tools to alert them to new business, to set and maintain standards for responses, and to deliver appropriate online proposals.
Redefining the Meeting as Experience
The shift to online procurement and planning is underway with associated opportunities and risks.  Whether your facility is large or small, whether meetings and functions are a primary or secondary part of your business, new technologies can improve how you deliver the full meeting experience.  By focusing on how you access new business, communicate with clients, and improve processes, you have the opportunity to serve your customers better. 

Shawn McGowan is vice president of product development for Newmarket International. He has extensive experience in CRM and distribution applications. He can be reached at smcgowan@new marketinc.com.

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