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Consider this scenario: competent meeting planner makes perfectly good travel arrangements, airline bungles said travel arrangements, meeting planner makes late-night calls to off-duty travel agents and attendee waits patiently, but not happily, at the airport. Does this sound familiar?
Carrie Mahoney, CEO of Event Production Concepts in Southbury, Conn., has found a way around this nightmare—she has her own travel agency. With seven full-time, trained and certified travel agents on staff and access to universal flight booking system Amadeus, Mahoney’s travel agency, Travel Concepts, has full oversight of all travel arrangements, 24 hours a day.
“I’ve been at meetings where the phone rings because someone got stuck at the airport and is being rerouted, and he has to wait in line behind 10 other people trying to book another flight,” she said. “We can get him another flight right away, so he doesn’t have to wait in line.”
Having your own travel agents on staff comes in handy more often than you’d think.
A few months ago, at the end of a conference, Mahoney’s client and one of the client’s biggest buyers were waiting to board a plane home together. They’d been bumped from the previous flight and the airline overbooked their replacement flight. The airline wanted to let Mahoney’s client fly, but bump the buyer to a later flight. Mahoney’s client was perturbed and called her office for help.
“We were able to remind the airline agent of an industry rule that proved they would have to accommodate him,” said Denise Wallace, Travel Concepts lead agent. “It was a legal requirement.”
In essence, Wallace told the airline to go mess with someone else’s plans.
Even when travel plans don’t get bungled, the system makes clients happy, because Mahoney can immediately answer any questions about departures and arrivals, and can also make last-minute changes when necessary.
The best practice of “doing it yourself” extends to all facets of meetings and events.
At Impact Unlimited in Dayton, N.J., for example, business is running much more smoothly since the company designed its own convention management software. The program, dubbed ConventionsWithImpact, encompasses front-end functions, such as registration, information and publicity, as well as back-end functions, such as maintaining a database of attendees and their housing choices.
Sandra Pizzarusso, Impact Unlimited’s director of meetings and events, says in the past, her company was forced to use several off-the-shelf products in order to get the mix of services it needed.
“It was ridiculous,” Pizzarusso said, pointing out that Impact organizes a lot of large association conventions and that it needed a more comprehensive solution. “These Web sites are great for central registration, but when you get to convention management there are so many more steps involved.”
Finally, Impact took the plunge. It hired an outside software company to design a program with help from Impact’s IT department. Pizzarusso concedes the tool was a major investment, but says it has been worth the cost.
Not only has the software made staffers lives easier, because they no longer have to fiddle with three different systems, but it has also helped boost productivity and reduce errors.
In December, for example, one of Impact Unlimited’s clients, a large pharmaceutical company, used the Web site to register 150 sales representatives who were attending a trade show to work the booths. The system allowed attendees to register for the show, order their badges and pick their housing. The Web site also allowed the client to type in guidelines that their sales representatives were expected to follow—such as travel restrictions and rules for accepting gifts—so they would be easily accessible from the road. The client also entered detailed instructions on the booth’s location and tasks to be performed once there. Finally, the client could see where attendees were staying, and the charges they were racking up—in real time.
Most importantly, however, because the system allows Impact Unlimited to offer a higher level of service, it helps with cutting costs and retaining clients.
“The system allows Impact’s convention planners to manage attendance and attrition, so we save money for our clients by not having to pay unnecessary cancellation fees,” Pizzarusso said.
Plug it in Meeting planners often talk about the logistical challenges of organizing external events. But at some companies, organizing internal meetings can be a big headache.
Take JC Penney, for example. More than 55,000 meetings take place at its 2 million-square-foot headquarters in Plano, Texas, every year, within its 50 meeting rooms, 8,000-square-foot ballroom, 7,000-square-foot rotunda and 50,000-square-foot atrium.
Kay Burke, company meetings senior manager at JC Penney, says two staffers were dedicated full-time to scheduling these meetings in the past. They spent countless hours trying to solve the shifting puzzle of which rooms were available at what time.
Last year, the retailer found an off-the-shelf solution called Meeting Room Manager. Though not cheap (almost US$50,000), it’s a plug-in for Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail program that adds a function to the calendar system allowing users to reserve appropriately sized rooms if they are available.
“It relieves us of being a call center,” Burke said. “Next to the tab that says ‘Here’s the time of the meeting and here are the people attending,’ there’s a third tab that allows you to select from available meeting rooms in the system.”
Burke says she found out about the program after hearing industry peers at a neighboring company rave about it.
On the other side of the globe in Melbourne, Australia, a plug-in that works with Microsoft’s PowerPoint has brought huge benefits to one of its users.
Karine Bulger, CEO of The Meeting Planners, says she used a program called ePresenter at the Transplantation Society’s International Congress at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre last year, which attracted more than 4,300 attendees and 40 exhibitors.
In essence, ePresenter allows conference presenters to turn their poster boards into electronic formats and enter them into a searchable database that conference attendees can browse on the event’s computer system.
“When the delegates came on site, they had access to an ePoster station with 20 laptops where they could type in keywords, author or university names and search these posters instead of walking around a large exhibition hall filled with poster boards,” said Bulger, whose company has 40 employees and manages events of up to 10,000.
Using an electronic presentation system helped Bulger save money for her client, because there was no need to rent a large room that would otherwise have been needed to house the thousands of poster boards. More importantly, the system also helped bring in more revenue for the society, because ePosters were used as launch pads for mini-oral presentations. Since many potential attendees only receive funding to attend if they are invited as oral presenters, there was an increased conversion rate from submitted abstracts to paid registrations.
“We’re using technology to increase the quality of the meeting that the delegate is getting, but also on the back end it’s helping us reduce our costs, and it’s helping us increase the number of delegates we’re getting,” Bulger said.
Reward attendees Sandra Lindstrom, senior director of conference and travel at VHA, isn’t afraid to borrow a good idea when she sees it. That’s why her company, which offers supply-chain management services to hospitals and other medical facilities, has introduced a rewards system for its event guests based on the frequent traveler programs pioneered by airlines and hotels.
Lindstrom, an 18-year meeting planning veteran, came up with the idea while sitting on an advisory board meeting for Omni Hotels. Here’s how it works: Attendees who come to the annual meeting three years in a row become part of the “VHA Honors Attendees” program and receive a choice of perks when they register for the 2009 conference.
The choices are not terribly fancy: Members can receive a $55 discount on registration fees or select two items from a long list, including free Wi-Fi in their hotel rooms, books from the conference’s keynote speaker, guaranteed rooms at the conference headquarters or Starbucks gift cards. Lindstrom says it’s not the monetary value that excites recipients, but the gesture.
“They’ve been grateful for the personal touch,” she said, pointing out that half of the 135 eligible guests registered shortly after they received their invitations in December, even though the conference isn’t slated until May. “It’s nice for them to see that someone has actually noticed that they’re coming year after year.”
Rewarding attendees has also worked wonders for Diane Williams, manager of meetings and events for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). The association introduced a concierge service two years ago for VIPs from large companies who sign up by a certain date. IAAPA designates one staff member as a liaison for attendees, who can call her at any time to ask almost any question—the wide selection of services offered ranges from personalized help with hotel reservations to arranging supplier meetings to finding babysitters.
Williams points out that the service appeals particularly to those attending an IAAPA show for the first time, since it helps them navigate foreign waters.
“It’s about how you can give back to your membership, and make members feel that you’re really reaching out to them,” said Williams, who has been in the business for 22 years. “You can offer them two trade shows a year and a couple of things to do in between, which is fine, or you can take it to the next level.”
IAAPA also offers special perks to suppliers who have exhibited five, 10 and 15 years in a row, ranging from flexible pricing plans to special floor signage to a virtual trade show floor with an enhanced exhibitor listing.
Williams points out that neither of these services costs very much to implement, but that they offer significant returns in the form of goodwill.
“At the end of the year, when they’re looking at three association memberships and picking one to cut, hopefully they’ll make the decision that we offer the value and stick with us,” Williams said.
Go global For meeting planners who do business around the world, Alex Apthorpe, director of production at The Bridge meeting company in Dubai, recommends the “Explorer” series of books. These books include cultural information and basic advice such as how to rent a car, what taxes might be owed and where to find a translator when working outside of your own country.
“It’s like a Lonely Planet, but it’s for business travelers,” he said.
It’s important for meeting planners to learn local cultures before organizing events abroad, but there’s also a growing trend in the opposite direction: meeting planners who are sopping up all the advances that foreign meeting professionals have to offer.
Ricardo Ferreira, co-owner of Sao Paolo-based event and travel firm Alatur, says he has spent the past couple of years vigorously importing best practices to Brazil.
“There are a lot of multinationals in Brazil, so people know the concepts,” said Ferreira, explaining that Brazilians working for such companies have a good understanding of best practices from around the world. “But when it comes to implementing them, they have all kinds of reasons to say no.”
The Brazilian culture cultivates personal relationships, Ferreira says, and often, industry professionals are reluctant to streamline operations or automate processes that were once handled in more traditional ways.
However, he expects this to change with time. As meetings become more sophisticated, and therefore more expensive to produce, meeting planners will likely begin facing budget constraints that will force them to embrace more rigorous best practices.
Ferreira’s favorite imported best practice is making use of the latest technology. His company boasts large multinational clients such as Grupo Santander and Camargo Correa and is in the process of introducing a program that significantly streamlines event management.
Currently, the system allows planners to centrally store back-end data, such as meeting budgets, supplier reports and client approvals. It also has a front-end function that allows Alatur to easily create conference Web sites that allow attendees to register online.
“We had some very senior consultants talk to us about what the specifications of the system would be,” Ferreira said about the preparations it took to launch the system. “We did a lot of presentations and training, not about the product itself, but about the change of paradigm that it brought.”
Already, Ferreira says, the system is helping Alatur cut costs for its clients, work more efficiently and avoid embarrassing mistakes.
When it comes down to it, Ferreira says there’s a great deal we can learn from each other.
DALIA FAHMY is a freelance international business writer.
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