by Michael J. Shapiro | June 01, 2014

Tech Helpers 
While it's clear that technology can play an integral part in streamlining small-meetings management, it clearly has limits. Hilton's Meetings Simplified still requires a planner to contact the hotel; the company's e-Events booking tool, developed six years ago, allows online booking for the same size groups (25 sleeping rooms or less) but cannot handle the pricing structure developed for Meetings Simplified. Marrying the two tools would be "the ideal," says Sherry Romello, but would likely require rebuilding the e-Events platform.

"I think everybody's looking for that solution to book online," says Romello, "and I don't disagree that the industry will move that way when it comes to meeting space. But it's a lot more complicated than the sleeping-room side of things. It really takes a culture shift and a process shift at the hotel to even get in the right frame of mind to do it in the meeting space. Even if you could snap your fingers and have a technology solution, the behaviors at the hotel have to adjust and align with that commoditized or transactional-type business."

On that note, adds Romello, it required a culture shift at some hotels to embrace even the bundled pricing of the Meetings Simplified approach (see sidebar, "Changing Perceptions," on page 50). To streamline small-meetings booking requires the creation of a more transaction-based process, even if the booking and payment don't actually happen online. And many planners remain reluctant to book that way.

Marriott's QuickGroup tool can handle online bookings for 10 to 25 guest rooms and event space up to 50. "We get 3,000 shoppers a day checking rates and availability," says Marriott's Geoff Heuchling. "But there is still some hesitation about doing online booking. Many people just need to prove they shopped different brands; they usually call us to actually book."

Yet technology such as that offered by LiquidSpace might be slowly closing the gap between the transaction required to reserve an impromptu meeting space and the more nuanced planning of a slightly larger meeting. "Different hotel brands have different strategies," notes Doug Marinaro. "Some of them have put their breakfast nooks in LiquidSpace; others have put ballrooms. We're seeing larger rooms appear in LiquidSpace, and we're making it easier to find them. What we're moving to is being able to handle longer-duration meetings, for multiple days or a week." Eventually, he says, they will add the ability to book a hotel room too: "We see an opportunity to move deeper into this space, and we're being led there by our customers."