by Sarah J.F. Braley and Jonathan Vatner | September 01, 2006

Desktop computerIf choosing meetings technology seems a daunting -- and expensive -- task, consider the many web-based programs and services now available for free or a nominal fee. The following tools can significantly enhance your meeting without even nicking the budget.

1. Blogging

This might just be the fastest and cheapest way to get the word out about up-to-the-minute changes to your meeting and to give your event a voice. Link the organization’s website to a blog, and direct attendees there for updates.

Get an expert member or speaker to write posts, zeroing in on content of interest for attendees. Or set up the blog as a discussion forum for attendees. This does, however, require a moderator to keep inappropriate content and restricted information off the site.

Blogger ( is free and has a number of useful functions, like adding both photos and audio files to posts. Typepad (, another popular blogging service, now costs anywhere from $4.95 to $14.95 a month.

2. Calendar functions

Sure, PCs and Macs come with adequate calendar and scheduling programs; they work just fine when you’re networked to the people you need to reach. But what if you need to access calendar data for people outside your immediate organization or you want to publish a schedule of events online? The basic free services from Meeting Wizard ( and Trumba Calendar ( offer just this functionality. Both companies make money by selling customized versions and upgrades of their programs.

For coordinating meeting dates, Meeting Wizard handles all the tasks: sending basic e-mail invitations, summarizing responses, switching dates, and sending confirmations and reminders. Meeting details can be saved directly into Microsoft’s Outlook calendar.

Trumba Calendar allows users to put an event calendar on their sites, including links to each event’s web page. The program supports iCal and RSS feeds (see sidebar), allowing participants to receive notification when content has changed.

3. Conference calling

Set up a 50-person conference call in a flash using the following companies, which make their money by offering an 800-number for participants to use. The call organizer pays about 10 cents per minute per phone. If participants agree to pay for the call using their own long-distance service, the conference call is free to the organizer.

Here are a few companies to try.

* Free Conference ( creates no-cost calls for as many as 100 people and lasting up to three hours. A recording costs $10 and is available only when using the company’s 800-number service.

* ( allows free calls for up to 96 people lasting up to six hours. The service also offers a free recording.

* At Quality Conference Call (, there is no time limit; up to 250 people can call in.

4. Event management

Can free tech tools handle registrations, surveys, e-mail marketing and more? Indeed yes, thanks to Express Planner. Visit, click on “tools,” register and go. The registration element even processes credit cards using Payflow Pro and other merchant services.

Offered by a consulting company called PureThink LLC, the software was built solely by John Mark Suhy, vice president of technology for the Herndon, Va., firm. Extras on the website include forums for support, user feedback, new-feature requests and more.

PureThink makes its money through consulting and an ad that appears just on the planner pages (attendees do not see it). The meetings management tools also can be customized for a fee.

5. Google Earth

Google’s satellite map ( is incredibly useful for site selection; whether it will save time is up to the user’s self-control (it’s addictive). The free program opens with a map of Earth against a backdrop of the galaxy. Zoom in and cities come into focus, then buildings and, in some areas, even people.

In a city under consideration, find the convention center, then overlay the list of hotels Google provides for a great guide to the area. In remote locations, the resolution is pretty lousy, but for U.S. cities, the program is probably the best one around for mapping.