by Michael Shapiro | August 23, 2012

Online request-for-proposal platform Zentila is on the verge of releasing a major upgrade, and company founder Mike Mason gave me a sneak peak at the new features. Designed primarily as a streamlined alternative to other eRFP sites, Zentila promises a quick turnaround from hoteliers by both simplifying the requests for proposal and limiting the number of hotels to which the RFP can be sent. (Read more complete explanations in my previous posts here and here.) The newest Zentila creates more negotiation possibilities and encourages more interaction within the platform.

With its latest iteration, Zentila moves away just slightly from the "Book it!" approach and allows planners some room to negotiate. The basic streamlined tenets are still in place: Planners can pick only three to six hotels to send a meeting RFP; hoteliers, who can see who their competition is, have three hours to respond with a bid (for meetings that are occurring within six months); planners then have 72 hours to accept or decline those bids. The time limits have changed slightly since Zentila's launch, but the principal is the same -- planners are guaranteed quick bids, and hoteliers know they're competing for business against a limited number of entrants -- mostly within a short booking lead time.

But instead of booking the most attractive bid outright, planners now can select two or three "favorite" bids and connect with those hotels. The new process builds some negotiation and wiggle room into the process, and hoteliers still see who they're competing against. That second fact, Mason explained, has led to some truly spectacular deals being offered through his platform. "When I was a salesperson," he said, "if I knew I was just going head-to-head with my primary competitor for the business, I would work really hard to find the best possible deal."

What's more, the new Zentila tracks the final deal details as well as the initial bids. That allows planners to run reports showing the savings achieved through their negotiations.

What I find most interesting about Zentila is its evolution, which represents this quest for the right balance between automation and business relationships that is so commonly sought with respect to site selection. Mason, who was a sales exec with Gaylord Hotels before he founded Zentila, coined the term "lead spam" and did much to get the industry talking about the proliferation of electronic RFP leads. (See "Online RFPs: A Mixed Blessing," from M&C, May 2012.) Mason's initial goal was to drastically speed up the meeting eRFP process, for both planners and hoteliers, and the Zentila platform indeed offers quick-and-easy RFP generation. But with each iteration of the tool, there is more flexibility built in to allow negotiations and business relationships to flourish. It's an interesting balancing act.

And Mason acknowledges that's no small challenge, to balance the need for more functionality and human interaction within a still simple-as-can-be interface. But he's receptive to clients on both sides when they request such functionality. He said a sign on the wall in the Zentila offices reads: "The day we think we are a technology company and not a hospitality company is the day we will fail."

Indeed, Mason had made other concessions, too. For instance, while the bulk of Zentila leads remain for meetings that will occur within four months, it is now possible to book meetings anytime, in as far in advance as the planner desires. Mason said that planners who liked the platform wanted to be able to book all their meetings through it, not just the last-minute ones. The guaranteed hotel response time now varies accordingly: Hoteliers have 24 hours to respond to RFPs for meetings booked a year in advance, for example.

Meanwhile, Zentila continues to make inroads. More meetings were booked in the first 10 days of August through the platform than in any single month since its launch, according to Mason. And planners have generated $1.3 million in RFPs in the last 30 days using Zentila.

But perhaps the most important number is the closing percentage of RFPs submitted through Zentila, which stands at about 11 percent. Compare that to the industry eRFP closure rate of 3 percent, which Mason said has been bandied about in recent presentations. "And we're working hard to drive it even higher," he added.