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Mr. Fliess

Group Meetings

Event Tech Evolution

By Kevin Fliess, Vice President Supplier Network Product Marketing, Cvent

Sometimes it takes time for us in the meetings industry to adapt to new technology - or let go of old technology. The telephone, for example, was invented in 1876. One hundred years later, it was still the primary means by which meeting planners were communicating their meeting needs to hoteliers, and hoteliers were responding.

Were there no innovations in the meantime? Of course there were:

  • Westin created the first brand-wide hotel reservation system in 1947
  • IBM produced its first, large-scale computer in 1953
  • SABRE debuted the first real-time global distribution system (GDS) for travel agents in 1962
  • Xerox PARC created the first personal computer in 1972

And all that was decades before the worldwide web (WWW) was invented by CERN in 1989!

Point is: The meetings industry often has trouble embracing technology that could make its work a lot easier. The single exception was planners' use of the fax (facsimile) machine to send out requests for proposals (RFPs) with specific queries regarding attendee registration, conference services, rooming, food and beverage and assorted other aspects of the planning process to hotels - to which the hotel sales teams responded, also by fax.

But not always: Early in his career, when Harold Powell, Jr. was a group sales executive for The Homestead in Hot Springs, VA, a group inquiry would come in, "But you weren't able to quote availability while the lead was on the telephone. We had a function book, which was updated to the minute, and a function book coordinator, who would check the dates and space requested before giving the go ahead." Now a regional vice president of sales & marketing for Benchmark Hospitality International, Powell has an appreciation for the advantages created by technology: He and his team work with an electronic enterprise sales and catering system that confirms availability on the spot. The system interfaces with the property management system. "Whether the dates in question are the next day or not for two years, guest room inventory is live right down to room type, and the same applies to function space," he explained.

A generation or two ago, there was also a clear hand-off from the sales department to conference services and the rooms division. But now, noted Barry Goldstein, chief revenue officer for Dolce Hotels & Resorts, "The technology exists that allows everyone in the meeting on both the hotel and planner side of the table to see the big picture simultaneously. It means that everyone can respond a lot easier to any question that might come up at the same time they have their individual areas of responsibility," he said.

Even back then, however, hoteliers commanded a vast amount of empirical knowledge - compared to a meeting planner, who was often acting in the dark. In the 1980s, Bruce Serlen, who was helping plan sales incentive meetings for New York Life Insurance Company, relied on sales calls by hotel and resort sales managers intent on getting the well-known insurer to book their properties. "A high point of the sales call," he remembered, "would come when the sales managers pulled out the big black binder of photographs they had been carrying. Page by page, sheaf by sheaf, they would use the color photos to illustrate the property's features and amenities, guest room shots, swimming pool complexes, ballroom setups, and breakout rooms."

And what experience prepared Serlen for planning incentives? "The company said to me, 'You go to a lot of meetings to cover them for the company's agent magazine; maybe you could help out with this?'"

Fast forward 30 years, and Serlen is now one of the top journalists reporting on the hospitality industry. Even so, hotel salespeople still call on meeting planners in search of business. Increasingly, the technology that has replaced the dwindling binders has evolved from Powerpoint presentations on laptop computers, to iPads, and, recently, smartphones. "The content of the sales pitch itself hasn't changed. It's the means of delivery-the speed and flexibility-that we could barely have imaged back then," Serlen noted.

In hindsight, even hospitality companies have been slow to develop meetings technology, compared to technology geared to the individual transient traveler, whether business or leisure; and certainly compared to the airline industry.

The economic impact of the group market is less understood or appreciated than the leisure market. And quite possibly, the billions of dollars that meetings contribute to the bottom line of hotels, destination management companies, municipalities, and so on, may have only recently come to light, thanks to new means of data aggregation.

By the '90s, online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity took leisure travel to the next level, generating billions of dollars in revenue within the hospitality industry. Cvent, which was co-founded in 1999 by Reggie Aggarwal and Chuck Ghoorah as an event marketing software provider, recognized that meeting planners had booking needs that could not be met by OTAs, and launched its Supplier Network database in 2008.

Today, the Cvent Supplier Network comprises more than 200,000 meeting and event venues around the world, which receive electronic requests for proposals (eRFPs). eRFPs have significant benefits, such as reduced cycle time, cost savings, and - surprisingly - enabling planners to forge and maintain strong ties to suppliers - and vice versa. According to Shelley Casey, a client relationship lead in Cvent's Client Services Department, the Supplier Network generates "reports at your fingertips that showcase how often you sent the chain an RFP, awarded business to them, and how much you spent with them. These reports help drive the offline conversations with suppliers and demonstrate trends, opportunities and successes."

Sophisticated technology notwithstanding, Powell is not prepared to do away with face-to-face, in-person, pre- and post-con meetings. "Maintaining close relationships with our clients hasn't changed at all, and face-to-face communication is still as important as ever. Consequently, we're still big believers in pre- and post-con meetings," Powell said.

As is Cvent, which concluded the highly successful Corporate Meetings and Association Meetings Summits, held at the The Venetian | The Palazzo in Las Vegas in June. "Sourcing two events at the same time is a bit of a high-wire act," admitted Rachel Andrews, Cvent's manager of Meetings and Event. However: "One of the bonuses of being on the planning team at Cvent is access to a premier planning platform. We use all of the tools Cvent offers when we plan our events. After sending out some carefully prepared eRFPs (I can't stress enough how important this is), we received several proposals." Andrews and her team then compared the proposals side-by-side, conferred with senior leadership and negotiated with a few properties, before opting for The Venetian | The Palazzo.

As a result, of this fusion of tech and face-to-face, The Venetian | The Palazzo was a full partner in the success of the conferences. "Hosting these 'parallel' Cvent summits was definitely a best practice for the industry," said Chandra Allison, vice president of Sales for The Venetian and The Palazzo. "This allowed Cvent to take advantage of the economies of scale of a large conference, while keeping the messages and programming appropriate for each group.

What wasn't anticipated in most projected futurescapes was the advent and power of social media. This new communication stream has created new opportunities for meetings marketing; and thanks to Twitter, hashtags are an important addition to media campaigns. According to Eric Eden, Cvent's vice president of Marketing, "Word-of-mouth marketing has a whole new meaning with the rise of social media. Before, viral marketing would require attendees to actually pick up a phone or proactively send an email to maybe a handful of their acquaintances (if they bothered to make the effort), whereas today, attendees can share your event with thousands of contacts at the click of a button."

Cvent is committed to raising the bar for event technology, the future of which it sees occurring in the mobile area. "Mobile applications are feeding the social media frenzy," said Eden, "by making Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs easily accessible during live events. This not only increases participation of your live audience, but, now, all the people on the web who weren't able to attend the event in person can now follow the live updates and engage."

In the past few years, Cvent has acquired such mobile app developers as CrowdCompass; and CrowdTorch (combining two companies, formerly known as Seed Labs and TicketMob, respectively). At its 2014 events, which included the Group Business Forum, the Corporate Meetings Summit, and the Association Meetings Summit, Cvent deployed a proprietary meetings app to crowdsource content, provide access to meeting agendas and content, and encourage participants to share. Specifically, for its Vegas events, Cvent engaged a service provider, redbutton.tv, to fly a camera-drone over the opening keynote and provide an instantly shareable experience for the attendees. According redbutton.tv's Sam Stanton, "The clip received more than 600 views and reached over 142,000 people. That's a considerable impact, when compared to the 800 people in the ballroom."

At the event, Cvent also featured SocialWall, a program by which attendees' social content (tweets, Instagram photos, and custom posts) can be compiled and displayed in real time at an event; and introduced Blue, Cvent's new interface for its event management platform that will provide streamlined navigation and a greatly enhanced workflow for building and managing events. Said Brian Ludwig, senior vice president of Sales for Cvent. "This platform facelift brings a new simplicity and elegance to the user interface while maintaining the same rich functionality." And while the release is based on more than two years of R&D, moving into "a cloud-based platform has made it very easy for us to roll out frequent planner-driven enhancements," predicted David Quattrone, chief technology officer of Cvent.

Moving forward, how does Cvent see the future? The future is cloud-based, mobile and simple to use. And, surprisingly, the future is face-to-face, in tradeshows and events. "After an organization's website," noted Eden, "tradeshows and events are its most effective marketing tactic."

As for hoteliers, tradeshows and events comprise 30% of all revenue. Does it make sense not to engage with planners in a win-win proposition?

Kevin Fliess has spent the past two decades in leadership positions across B2B and B2C technology companies. He’s led marketing, product management, and general management functions across a spectrum of ventures – from early stage start-ups, to growth companies, as well as established world-class brands. Mr. Fliess is currently VP of marketing at Cvent, where he leads product marketing, demand generation, and customer marketing for the Hospitality Cloud division. This includes Cvent’s Group Marketing Solutions which span three online marketplaces that support a variety of meeting planners – the Cvent Supplier Network, EliteMeetings.com, and SpeedRFP.com – that expose hoteliers to hundreds of thousands of planners. Mr. Fliess can be contacted at 866-318-4358 or kfliess@cvent.com Extended Bio...

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