by Michael Shapiro | February 10, 2012

Hotel industry veteran Mike Mason launched Zentila last summer, an online request-for-proposal service that's designed to both streamline the RFP submission process and improve lead quality for hoteliers. But the streamlining and automation has irked some in the industry -- particularly site-selection experts -- as evidenced by a MiForum discussion thread that made waves this past December. I recently sat down with Mason to find out more about Zentila and the specific needs he's attempting to address with the tool.
First off, Mason launched Zentila primarily to address the short lead times that became so common in the past couple of years. According to Zentila's pre-launch research, 60 percent of all meetings are booked inside of 90 days; Mason says they'll be releasing updated research soon. So the Zentila platform is targeted toward meetings for 300 room nights and less, being booked within 90 days of the event. The platform currently includes 1,800 luxury and upper-upscale U.S. properties, all of which pay a subscription fee based on room count, plus either $7 or $9 per room booking received through the platform. The site is ad-free, and hoteliers can't pay for preferred placement.
The other challenge Zentila is meant to address is that of "lead spam" -- with the proliferation of online RFP tools, some planners are sending RFPs to 40 or 50 hotels at once. Not all of those hotels are being seriously considered, Mason explained, so hotel sales forces are overwhelmed by the requests and must decide how much time to spend responding to them.
Mason wants Zentila-generated RFPs to be the first online submissions to which a hotel salesperson responds. The RFP itself is streamlined and features an RFP Genie that builds the requests based on five primary questions, which can then be fine-tuned to account for specific needs and details. Planners, who pay nothing to use the platform, cannot submit the RFPs to more than five to eight hotels. If interested, hotels must respond to the RFP within three hours, and the planner then has 24 hours to decide on a property. "It closes the loop to complete the transaction," said Mason.
Now, the "catch" has been that the hotel names are veiled until the meeting is booked; that's the part that raised flags when I first read about the platform. Can this approach work for meetings? Does that not indeed turn the meeting venue into a commodity, a la the cut-rate hotel room a leisure traveler books through Priceline or Hotwire?
The process, said Mason, is designed to protect the lead integrity of the RFPs; if the names weren't veiled, hotels could use the tool to price each other. And, interestingly, Mason said that thus far, rate hasn't been the driver for every booking.
“Maybe Zentila isn't right for a lot of customers,” Mason acknowledged, but nonetheless he's pleased with the company's progress. The platform went live this past November. As of early January, about 200 planners had registered, and they had generated about 100 RFPs. In some cases, meeting deals were closed by 6 p.m. on the same day the RFP was issued.
And in response to the limiting factor of name veiling, Zentila 2.0 just went live yesterday. "It's what we're calling the 'Unveil' release," said Mason. The Zentila team has been working on a way to remove the veil and still protect the integrity of the process. Now, property names still are veiled on the front end, but planners can then agree to certain terms as a means to see what's what. While Zentila can't guarantee the transaction will be closed afterward, "planners will be held accountable if they don't buy after that," said Mason. In other words, those who abuse the system won't be able to continue using it.
I plan to take a peek next week at that Unveil feature, as well as some other new functionality that allows hotels to offer more in their bids. We'll see how the critics respond to the evolving platform. And if you have any experience with Zentila or other online RFP generators, good or bad, feel free to post here or to contact me. I'd like to know what you think about such tools.