Meetings & Conventions: Tech Audits March 1998
How does your system measure up?
BY SARAH J.F. BRALEYI
s 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
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)
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 (www.consultlink.com/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 (www.mpiweb.org) 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.
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