by Michael J. Shapiro | May 01, 2012

Planner Deborah Borak, SMMC, relies heavily on web-based site-selection tools to source hotel venues, and she's not alone -- 73 percent of respondents to this month's M&C Research survey (page 20) called the online RFP process either extremely or somewhat helpful. "Having these tools available now has saved an immense amount of time," says the director of global accounts for ConferenceDirect in Denver. Indeed, the online automation of sites such as McLean, Va.-based Cvent and San Diego-based StarCite provide planners with robust search functionality over enormous global databases of hotels. Borak acknowledges some inefficiencies and potential drawbacks to the online request-for-proposal process, but the time saved vs. the old fax and manual-entry methods is extraordinary, she says. "To have these tools now is fantastic."

Dave LutzBut what Borak sees as hiccups, others see as portents of doom. "We have a big problem," consultant Dave Lutz asserts, "and if we don't stop the momentum, where we're going is not sustainable."

Lutz, the managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, moderated a panel discussion about online RFPs, or e-leads, at the Cvent Corporate Meetings Summit held this past March, where he expressed deep concerns about the sheer volume of leads coming through the various online platforms. Because these tools make it easy to include as many hotels as a planner wishes for just one event RFP, sales forces are being overwhelmed with leads they might have little chance of closing.

Representing the hotelier perspective on the panel were Doreen Burse, senior global account director for Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International; Michael Dominguez, vice president, global sales, for New York City-based Loews Hotels and Resorts; and Eric Mannino, executive director of lead generation for Nashville-based Gaylord Hotels.

"I really believe that group business should not be commoditized," Lutz says. But blanketing a market with in excess of a dozen RFPs does just that, the way he sees it. "Hotels start throwing lower-level resources against selling, because their RFP volume requires it. The more this business moves toward commoditization, the more we're going to lose the professionals who made a difference when meetings really mattered."

Mike Mason, CEO of online-sourcing platform Zentila, says hotels are struggling with what he characterizes as "lead spam." "Planners can send an RFP to 40 or 50 hotels at once," Mason says, "and salespeople have to guess how real the lead is. They can spend all their time now just responding to online RFPs, and even then, a lot of online submissions just sit there, and the loop is never closed." Zentila, a relatively new tool, limits the number of RFPs that can be submitted for one meeting to eight hotels.