With time a precious and increasingly scarce commodity for event managers, a meeting booking platform can seem like a gift from the planning gods. What’s not to like about the efficiency of easily sourcing dozens of potential venues that meet specific criteria and sending out multiple RFPs — all from one handy source?
But while meeting booking platforms can make life easier for planners, they may not be the answer to everyone’s prayers. They have their limitations and are not right for all events.
With that said, the technology is adapting, and more and more venues are signing up for some form of direct booking service on third-party platforms. Is it only a matter of time before meeting booking platforms become as automated as leisure travel booking systems? Or are the needs of meeting organizers simply too specific for a streamlined process to make sense?
Why Use a Meeting Booking Platform?
Meeting booking platform providers say that a huge advantage provided by meeting booking platforms is simplification of the venue sourcing and RFP processes. Jim Abramson, Cvent’s vice president of product management, describes this process as “one of the most cumbersome and tedious aspects of planning an event.”
“Just think about how much time would be spent going to individual venue websites, manually reviewing meeting space, and submitting RFPs one by one. By leveraging an online meeting booking platform, planners can quickly find venues that meet their particular event specifications, get critical safety updates, determine availability and rates, build, and send RFPs, track cancelled space, and centralize their venue sourcing information. In short, it makes the entire process more efficient — for both the planner and the hotelier.”
JIM ABRAMSON, vice president of product management, Cvent
It was a need for greater efficiency that prompted the creation of booking platform Bizly, according to the “Origin Story” recanted by founder Ron Shah on the company’s website. Suddenly faced with needing a new venue when a water pipe burst during a conference, Shah and his team found themselves frustrated by how “painful and manual” a process it was to find a new location.
Event technology consultant Corbin Ball of Corbin Ball & Co. believes there are many benefits to using a booking platform, with efficiency topping the list. He noted that the best booking platforms offer a large, standardized hotel and event space database with the ability to search by many event-related criteria and also provide extensive detail on meeting and function space.
“In general, it is a much more streamlined way of sourcing,” Ball said. “Once the search has been completed based on the planner’s criteria, the eRFP can be created and sent to multiple properties with a click. The hotel responses are all in the same system and usually can be easily compared and responded to.”
Renee Radabaugh, president of Paragon Events, is among event managers who find booking platforms to be a time-saver in many situations.
“We utilize many different types of software products to streamline our business processes, including RFP360 to manage the RFPs we are able to bid on and SmartSheets to manage our projects, just to name a few,” she said. “Having booking software with a centralized location as a place to start when a client has a large area to review is very helpful. We are able to use software to weed out properties that don’t have the meeting space, number of hotel rooms and more simple qualifications instead of relying on memory or internet searches.”
Finding the Right Meeting Booking Platform
When it comes to selecting a meeting booking platform, which are available from such providers as Cvent, Meetingsbooker.com, Bizly, Groups360, and Eventopedia, Ball advises planners to do some comparison shopping.
“There are some variations in the completeness of the meeting venue databases and the flexibility of the sourcing,” he said.
Abramson suggests that planners should first think about how much time the team typically spends on sourcing venues, getting a baseline to better identify areas of improvement and how a meeting booking platform might be able to help.
“If you’re just starting out, find a venue sourcing platform that allows you to source and send RFPs for free so that you can try out the functionality and test the process without being tied to extra fees or contracts,” he said. “Also take into consideration the platform’s venue database. You’ll want to be able to search from a wide range of properties and hotels in order to really find the right venue for your event.”
Abramson added that for simpler events, some online booking platforms enable planners to save time by instantly booking their meeting, eliminating the back and forth with the RFP — including time-consuming phone calls and emails.
When Conversation Beats Automation
Not everyone is a fan of meeting booking platforms, among them veteran meeting planner and educator Joan Eisenstodt of Eisenstodt Associates. She believes the efficiency and simplification built into the platforms does not address the nuances and goals that are essential for planning a successful meeting.
“It’s the ‘simplification’ that doesn’t go deep enough and leads to incomplete or just bad contracts,” she said, adding that many planners who use the platforms find that the proposals returned are too generic.
“It’s because the information that was asked didn’t dig deeply into the group demographics such as age ranges, gender, gender ID, nationality, religion, ethnicity, and other specifics that help one understand why the group is meeting,” she said. “I think there are no questions about make-up of the staff at venues — the diversity, especially if the group seeking space has a DEI policy that matters to them.”
Even among fans of the platforms, there are many who think they work much better for small and mid-sized events than they do for large ones.
“If you are running a large convention with multiple hotels, there are many complexities that do not easily fit into an eRFP process,” Ball said.
Radabaugh agrees, adding that “when you are booking a large program with a lot of moving parts, special requests and the potential for things like multi-program discounts, it is really important to engage with the sales team and property directly to finalize contracts to make sure they are exactly what your clients need.”
Similarly, she finds that booking software is not a help for planning incentive meetings which “typically require a bit more hand-holding or white-glove treatment to identify very specific criteria for the meeting or the experience we are trying to achieve.”
In general, even the best software cannot replace the human element of conversation and problem solving, according to Radabaugh. “There are so many things that you can work out with a sales team that software can’t solve for you and may leave you missing out on a great fit for your clients.”
However, Radabaugh does believe platforms may be the most efficient way to book small meetings without a lot of complexity. “If there is minimal meeting space, straight-forward pricing and contract policies utilizing software, it can save our team, our client and the properties we are working with a lot of time.”
Cvent’s Abramson said the sourcing and organizational aspects of booking platforms can also hold benefits for larger events, including those that require in-person negotiation.
“For more complex events, negotiations are necessary, so using an online sourcing platform is helpful for having the planner RFPs — and proposals from hotels — all managed online in one place,” he said.
The Biggest Roadblocks to Direct Bookings
Meeting booking platforms may help to streamline the RFP process, but can they eliminate it altogether by enabling direct bookings? As mentioned earlier, this service is available on some platforms, but for small meetings only.
For larger meetings, it’s not even possible to browse price ranges, let alone make direct bookings. Is this because individual hotel groups are protecting their pricing information? Or is it more because larger event organizers have come to expect a dialogue that allows them to negotiate special rates?
“Certainly, for larger and more complex events, pricing is very customized to that particular event — so having access to pricing information up front is less of an issue,” Abramson said. “But for smaller, simple events, it can be very helpful to have that pricing information easily accessible to meeting planners so that they can quickly budget and book those events, but it’s not always easy to do that from the hotel side since supply and demand is constantly changing.”
At the same time, Abramson believes that the market may be shifting in ways that accommodate more transparency on pricing: “[I]n this new environment, where smaller events are coming back first, and hotels are operating with fewer staff, there is less apprehension, and we’re seeing more hotels partner with meeting booking platforms and share more pricing information up front.”
Are major hotel groups sometimes reluctant to integrate their booking platforms with third-party solutions?
“I wouldn’t say reluctant — but there is a certain amount of work and due diligence that must be done,” Abramson said. He explained:
“It’s critical that both sides deliver the right functionality to ensure all the live inventory is current and that information shared between the two platforms is consistently up to date and secure. The good news is that, once the hotel group and third-party platforms are integrated, then the hotel is in complete control for what inventory they open up (i.e., they pick the space, rates, and booking window to show to planners).”
JIM ABRAMSON, vice president of product management, Cvent
In other words, even after the platforms are fully integrated, the hotels retain full control over any information on pricing or availability that’s passed onto the third-party meeting booking database.
The Hotel Perspective on Meeting Booking Platforms
Dan Surette, Chief Sales Officer for Omni Hotels & Resorts, is among those on the hotel side who recognize the growing importance of booking platforms, particularly for small meetings with few complexities. Omni is launching partnerships with Cvent and Groups360 this month, starting with pilot programs at four of its Dallas properties. Through this new service, planners will be able to instantly book rooms and meeting space online.
“When we announced that we were piloting this product, there were questions from our associates — would this replace the seller?” he said. “Our answer is no. While small meetings are important, they can be time-consuming and many sales people will appreciate having them off their plates. This is an enhancement that should allow our sales people to focus on more complex and involved meetings and events.”
While not right for all planners and all meetings, Surette believes the growth of online booking is inevitable, given trends in consumer behavior.
“Today you can quickly book movie tickets, make dinner reservations and even buy cars online — people are increasingly comfortable with this. Some planners want an easy, one-stop shop. Once the process is smooth and secure, the momentum will be there.”
DAN SURETTE, Chief Sales Officer, Omni Hotels & Resorts
For hotels, collaboration with booking platform providers brings opportunities to move room inventory quickly into the marketplace and serve an increasingly robust segment of group business — small meetings.
“Right now we’re seeing small and short-term meetings coming back,” he said. “With the reduction of Covid cases and the easing of travel restrictions, there’s no doubt that small meetings will be strong in the coming months.”
Other major players in the industry seem to agree. As one more sign of a growing trend, Accor recently announced that it will be partnering with Groups360 to allow instant booking of its meeting venues through GroupSync.
What’s Ahead for Meeting Booking Platforms?
What might be the next stage in the evolution of meeting booking platforms?
Ball envisions that there will be “more integration between systems, automation and direct booking.” He also sees more integration with non-hotel event suppliers.
In the near future, Abramson said planners will be able to source and book simple meetings as easily and ubiquitously as they can on a consumer travel site, requiring no interaction with a hotel salesperson at all.
Such a scenario, he believes, will free up hoteliers “to spend more time nurturing customer relationships, working on larger, more complex RFPs, and giving planners valuable time back to focus on their upcoming event.”
Meeting booking platforms will continue to grow in importance, but for the foreseeable future their primary usefulness will be in searching for venues by location and booking small, relatively simple meetings. In these scenarios, planners and hotel sales staff alike will find greater efficiency. Large, complex events still require a high degree of personal interaction that is currently beyond the scope of software.
In the long run, more collaboration throughout the industry is sure to happen, as event managers increasingly gravitate toward booking technology and hotels and other venues see the benefit of serving this demand.