E-planners Manage Meeting Logistics, Costs

CAROLYN RUTHERFORD was in a tight spot. The sales and marketing executive for ABB Flexible Automation, in New Berlin, Wis., needed to plan a meeting for 20 people in Florida, and she had only about 24 hours to get the details nailed down. So she turned to the place that she's increasingly going to for help: the Internet. She found AllMeetings.com, a Henderson, Nev.-based meeting-planning Web site. In 24 hours, she had her hotel lined up in Key Largo.

"It was extremely convenient and saved me time and hassle," Rutherford says. "I could give them all the criteria to go forward with it, and that's all I had to do."

Convenience in meeting planning is one of the key goals of AllMeetings, says its president, Glenn Bingham. In the long run, the company also aims to help businesses save money and time in setting up meetings.

To do that, Bingham says he's re-educating some of his consumers, who, like Carolyn Rutherford, come to him with a destination in mind. What he usually suggests is that meeting planners come to the site with some basic criteria about what they want to see in hotels, amenities, and overall budget.

"The whole process has changed so that instead of picking the location first, our process allows you to make that the last decision," Bingham says.

AllMeetings takes into consideration a host of costs in addition to hotel charges -- flight costs for guests no matter where they're coming from, the cost of getting to the airport, and so on -- so that corporate meeting planners can choose the most cost-effective alternative.

"We're seeing the whole process flipped on its end, so the location is based on cost information," Bingham says.

A focus on cost efficiency meshes nicely with the increased demand by corporations for more streamlined travel, says Alan Zingale, principal consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers hospitality and leisure group, in Falls Church, Va.

"What we are seeing as a trend is that corporate meeting planners are being much more scrutinized in terms of all over costs," Zingale says.

Such electronic-travel services also level the playing field for those who may not plan corporate meetings full-time for their companies and therefore don't have the resources or past experience to rely on when searching for good hotels and locations.

"In the old days if you were trying to do a meeting, you'd prelimit yourself to the number of hotels you're going to contact because it's a very time-consuming effort," Zingale says. "E-meeting planners such as AllMeetings allow people to do a more extensive search in a shorter time period."

Last fall, AllMeetings.com handled analysis for about $80 million worth of meetings. To handle such a task, AllMeetings spent a long time before launch developing a sophisticated series of suboptimization algorithms, which it patented, to handle a massive database and a variety of cost permutations. This allows AllMeetings to compare airfares, show the airport that would be best to fly into and out of if a traveler has alternatives, and account for several different factors at once. It took a year and a half to put the system together before the site could go live.

AllMeetings now has more than 4,000 hotels participating in its database and expects to double that number in six to eight months. Bingham says that this broad database allows AllMeetings to look for good deals for clients who use the site.

"From our perspective, one of the strategic elements of our site is that we're an unbiased site," Bingham says. "We don't rank hotels high because they've bought advertisements with us."

So then where does AllMeetings make its money? The revenue can come from commissions: If corporations opt to take the service for free, hotels pay a commission just as they would to a travel agent. Or companies planning meetings can choose to pay a fee from $50 to $100 for the service. Often, AllMeetings charges only a few cents to conduct searches.

For Heather Goldman, a national sales manager for the Westin Beach Resort, in Key Largo, Fla., the AllMeetings service makes sense.

"I think it's inevitably the way the whole industry is going to go," Goldman says.

She wound up booking ABB's meeting, the Westin's first experience with AllMeetings -- and about $22,000 of business -- and gives the process high marks.

ABB's Rutherford agrees: "I'll definitely use it again. They were extremely accommodating and quick."

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