by Michael J. Shapiro | October 01, 2012

What will a meeting cost, and how will the costs vary in different destinations? It's a common question that has planners doing a lot of time-consuming legwork -- sometimes for a gathering that might not ever happen. The good news for those who commiserate: New tools just coming to market will put answers at planners' fingertips.

"We used to have meeting requesters say to us, 'I don't know which city I want to go to. Start doing research for me,'" recounts consultant Debi Scholar of her days leading a corporate meeting and events team. "Some on the sourcing team would spend days and days putting together estimates -- only to have the meeting get denied in the approval process."

With such a drain on manpower, Scholar, now president of the Scotch Plains, N.J.-based Scholar Consulting Group, instructed her sourcing team not to spend more than four to eight hours researching a meeting before it was approved.

To address this challenge, San Diego-based Active Network debuted Meeting Locator this past summer, as part of the StarCite platform in its business solutions division. In part, the tool streamlines this first step, the preapproval process. "One of the big interests when we started discussing this with our clients was the ability to just approve a meeting right off the bat, using the data delivered by this tool and without having to do further due diligence," explains Mark Johnson, senior director of product management at Active Network.

Meeting Locator browserMeeting Locator, developed in partnership with Carlson Wagonlit Travel, is a straightforward cost-estimation tool. (CWT released its version of the tool, called the Meeting Optimizer, last spring to its clients.) The meeting owner or planner need only enter the proposed meeting dates, as well as participants' departure cities and the number of people coming from each location. Preferred meeting cities may also be specified. Then the tool goes to work.

Using an algorithm developed by CWT, based on 36 million of the travel management company's processed hotel and air transactions, the tool crunches several months' worth of transient CWT travel data to estimate airfare and hotel costs by location. Any preferred cities are displayed first, followed by a rundown of global metropolitan areas and their associated costs. By default, those locations are listed beginning with the least expensive -- and the search itself takes only a few seconds.

In addition to air and hotel costs, Meeting Locator displays travel time for the various participants, telepresence options and their associated costs, and carbon emissions related to air travel. "Planners can report that back for any green initiatives within the organization," says Johnson. "It's not always just financial information; it can be about compliance or other initiatives you're trying to support as well."

Unbiased Insight Christopher Kosel"This first step in the meetings process, the destination analysis, has always been a very manual process -- and a very subjective one," according to Christopher Kosel, CWT's global product director of meetings products. "What we've done is taken all of the transactional data that we have and created an objective analysis that crunches through a volume of information that an individual simply couldn't do."

Meetings management veteran Terry Miller, founder and president of Travel and Meetings Consulting LLC in Fishers, Ind., agrees that the destination selection process traditionally has been too subjective. "Too many times, decisions have been made based on personal preferences and not necessarily what is best for the meeting and best for the company," he says. "Excessive money is spent to place meetings in locations without regard to the meeting content. I'm very supportive of a technology that can help drive location decisions based on data."

The objectivity offered by these tools is quickly gaining support throughout client organizations, notes Kosel. "That's one of the things that's really appealing to travel managers and procurement purchasers -- the ability to really benchmark," he says.