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by Michael Shapiro | April 20, 2012

Can you really book meetings online? That question has been voiced, with steadily declining skepticism, since I first starting writing for M&C in 2004 -- back when Orbitz for Business and Expedia first appeared to be getting into the meetings racket. While we've come a long way in the last eight years, technologically speaking, the question lingers. No matter how efficient the technology has become, there are many who feel that it supplants the personal relationships that have traditionally driven this industry. Booking online shows just how commoditized our industry has become, some say.

But the work force is changing along with the tools at our disposal, and as such a better question might be how we can best maintain those personal relationships through the online medium. According to findings from M&C Research that will appear in our May issue, an overwhelming majority of planners are using online RFP platforms. That doesn't mean that they are relying solely on the Web to book meetings, of course, but the tools are playing an increasingly important role in the selection process.

For that same issue I'm writing about some of the benefits and challenges of those platforms, the most common of which are Cvent and StarCite. But the propensity to book online is being revealed in many forms, and for many types of events.

I was just speaking with Josh Gooch, CEO and founder of Pogby and the new site Imbookin.com, who excitedly described the enthusiastic response his company is receiving from event venues. For many of the venues listed — event halls, restaurants, bars, some hotels and more — Imbookin is their sole online sales channel, said Gooch. So it's a new medium for them, and a new sales opportunity.

More than just a venue search engine, Imbookin allows planners to book space (primarily in New York City, at present). Package pricing is provided online, along with a number of specific build-an-event-type tools, so that a planner -- professional or otherwise -- can put together a pretty specific schedule and list of requirements right there on the site, and submit payment information directly to the venue manager. The venue then has 24 hours to confirm the booking.

No doubt you're thinking this approach has limits to its usefulness, and that's true -- many meetings and events simply can't be booked this way. But perhaps most interesting is the change in mindset it represents: Here we have venue managers freely posting the pricing for packages on a search site. And while many of them no doubt resisted that at first -- this would be a clear indicator of the commoditization of the industry, right? -- Gooch noted that "now they can use the pricing and the packages to get people in the door, whereas they previously wanted to get them in first.” The venue salespeople still have plenty of opportunity to upsell additional services, he added, and in many cases the package represents a base price.

Another online platform for unique event venues, Eventup.com, caught my eye when it launched in New York City last week. The West Coast company already had a database for both the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. Among the more typical Big Apple event venues listed, such as restaurants and bars, are a large number of unique private homes, like the former domiciles of Bob Dylan and Katherine Hepburn, for instance.  A lot of the spaces are available, it appears, primarily for photo or movie shoots. You can't book directly through the site; the functionality is limited to requesting a quote for a specific date and time. So while the site is less geared towards planning the event (note that no one from Eventup would even return my calls or e-mails), it could perhaps be an interesting research tool for discovering unique spaces.

In coming weeks I'll discuss some other examples of meeting-booking portals. How much of your site research and selection do you find yourself doing online, and do you expect to be doing more in the future? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter, here or via email.