March 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Tech Audits March 1998 Current Issue
March 1998
Tech Audits

How does your system measure up?


Is your software serving your meeting planning needs? Chances are, you're not sure -- and you'd like to find out. With programs being created or updated, many planners are taking a hard look at the computer tools they use and asking themselves whether something else might do the job better. But sizing up software needs is no easy task. And choosing from the wide range of solutions can be even more daunting.

How can you analyze your current system and, if necessary, improve upon it? First, ask yourself these 10 questions, compiled by M&C with the help of industry experts.

Does anyone know how the current software works? Before Louise Felsher, CMP, even started her job at American Century Investments' Mountain View, Calif., office in December 1996, she knew the computer system on her desk wasn't going to cut it. Her staff was managing 30 events for the mutual fund company's top investors using home-grown software designed by one person who had left the company and another who had moved on to a different division. Worse yet, the software couldn't interact with the current database.

"Our company had recently merged," says Felsher, who is blessed with a seven-member staff of above-average computer users. "The software was anachronistic and had been designed for a planning department that was now a part of the marketing department. In many ways, it was faster to do things manually." As the new director of marketing communications events, Felsher made molding the perfect planning system a top priority. She has hired outside consultants, Austin, Texas-based HMR Associates, to audit her system and suggest and implement changes.

Do you have the budget to fix it? The conferences and special events department at Reed Travel Group in Secaucus, N.J., which arranges 50 meetings a year for M&C's parent division, is also in the process of automating its planning system. Department director Bari Pollack, CMP, had a tough time figuring out how much money to put in her 1998 budget to cover the costs. "There was no information for me to use to guesstimate," she says. "Our finance department helped me, based on the cost of other automations in other departments."

The process is not cheap. "I asked for and got $200,000," says Pollack. To justify the request, she had to show how much more productive the department would be if automated. "I got the executive team and the CEO to buy into the concept by saying, 'Shouldn't we be able to look at a five-year history of where we've been, who attended and how much we paid? Shouldn't we have every salesperson's name on a database?'" she says. "Of course, they were surprised that we couldn't do that kind of cross-referencing already."

Felsher also wrote her project into her 1998 budget; the expenses are being shared between her department, consumer marketing as a whole and the information technology (IT) department.

Could changes help you cut head count? The system analysis reveals all kinds of hidden information -- not all of it welcome -- like the need to let some personnel go. Management Alternatives, a travel management consultancy that helps organizations streamline their travel expense processes, recently evaluated the meetings department at one corporation and found that the staff's duties often overlapped. "The organization was ripe for a number of things, including a slimming down of the staff," says president Carol Salcito, based in Norwalk, Conn. "One person could do the job if he had the correct technology."

Will the in-house folks help? Someone in your IT department may have database knowledge that will help you set up a system using what's already on your computer. Chances are, however, IT is overloaded with demands from all departments, and meeting planning isn't very high on the list. "Every IT department is working at 140 percent," says Jeff Rasco, CMP, president of HMR Associates. "So you'll probably need to outsource." A computer consultant found through the Yellow Pages or on the Internet -- one site to visit is ConsultLink ( -- should be able to help with hardware needs.

To help planners find meetings-specific gurus, Meeting Professionals International (972-702-3000) produces the Meetings & Hospitality Software Directory, a resource manual, currently being updated, that lists meetings technology companies. The directory will be on the association's Web site ( soon, as a members-only resource. The hard copy will cost $25 for members, $35 for non-members.

What will outside expertise cost you? Most consultants charge by the hour, and the range is huge. The rates can go from $50 an hour to $200 or more; HMR Associates' top price is $200, but the tech audit has a set fee of $3,000. Custom programmers tend to charge by project.

Is the consultant selling a product? As in any business, computer consultants have their share of charlatans among them. Robert Fernandez, an expert based in Summit, N.J., warns against consultants who just deal with one software package. "They keep fitting the same solution," says Fernandez. He suggests getting a list of programs the consultant has recommended before you hire him, to indicate that he will focus on your needs, rather than his relationship with a software company.

Other consultants think the only solution is custom programming, when an off-the-shelf program will do the job nicely. Since custom-programming tends to be much more expensive than off-the-shelf packages, be sure this is the way you want to go before you get in too deep.

Will the new program communicate with your company's network? Don't make the all-too-common mistake of installing software in your department without checking whether it will work with systems the rest of the organization is using. If the information you'll be keying in needs to be seen by more than just the meetings group, you may need to hire someone to write a conversion program to bridge the communication gap.

Are you willing to learn a new system? The more you and your employees know about the new package, the better. This way, you won't have to call your hired gun every time a problem pops up. "The less people know about computers, the more panicked they get and try to call me in," Fernandez says. "Consultants just love coming in for those five-minute jobs, because many have a two-hour minimum and can charge travel expenses."

Do you need a Web site? Are you an association planner who needs to reach out to members? A corporate planner whose attendees work in satellite offices? An incentive planner who wants to put rewards catalogs and tracking information at participants' fingertips? If you're updating your computer systems anyway, this is the perfect time to put registration and scheduling details on the Web.

Should you just leave well enough alone? Maybe you've been happily planning away using Lotus Notes, EccoPro by NetManage, Microsoft Excel or one of the other organizing programs on the market. If it ain't broke, as they say, don't go nuts trying to fix it. Just because meetings software exists, doesn't mean you need it, especially if you're satisfied with what you're using. *

Back to Current Issue index
M&C Home Page
Current Issue | Events Calendar | Newsline | Incentive News | Meetings Market Report
Editorial Libraries | CVB Links | Reader Survey | Hot Dates | Contact M&C