by Martha Cooke | February 01, 2004

With attrition worries topping the list of many meeting planners’ concerns, housing management is a hotter-than-ever topic. But in the post-9/11 era, hotels have become much more inclined to partner with planners to solve problems, and thanks in large part to innovative new technology, many chains are offering high-tech solutions for keeping track of how many heads are in which hotels’ beds.
   While no single product can possibly cover all the bases for every group, the growing variety of options available is making it easier for planners to find a solution that meets their particular needs, whether the event is a citywide trade show with a multi-hotel block or a small business meeting taking place at just a single property.

Numbers game
“Meeting planners want hotels to get involved and work with them to maximize attendance, and the housing issue is at the top of the list,” says Joel Pyser, vice president of field sales for Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International. 
   For the hotels’ part, “We are looking for solutions to help customers deal with two major issues in the industry: attrition and booking outside the block,” says Fred Shea, vice president of sales for Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp.
   Enter Passkey. The online housing company has built its reputation by helping planners streamline their housing management for citywides. Beginning last year, the Boston-based firm started making available its service to planners with groups in just one hotel of a chain. Omni Hotels was the first major brand to sign on, followed by Marriott and then Hyatt Hotels. 
   Passkey’s move beyond citywides was a logical step, says the company’s president and CEO, Greg Pesik. “Around 80 percent of all events take place in a single property, so it was a very natural decision for us to see how we could capture that market,” he notes.
   In using the system, planners link their registration sites to Passkey’s housing module for free; the hotels pick up the tab for the program. As clients have discovered, simply offering this technology can be a big help in keeping attendees within the block.
   “People like to book electronically,” according to Shea. “Prior studies have shown that when customers have the ability to register for a meeting online, a higher percentage of rooms are booked through the convention hotels.” 
   The key is offering registration and housing information together, says Pesik, who notes attendees are more likely to book within the block if they are making housing arrangements at the same time they register for a meeting.
   Planners who have used Passkey for single-hotel events find the program greatly facilitates the housing process. In the past, manual room block management was chronically prone to human error and also increased the risk of overselling a property in between booking updates, says Lynne Schwartz, executive director of Chicago-based Common, a technology users’ association. Now, she encourages her meeting attendees to make their room reservations online, and her efforts are paying off. 
   “More people today are comfortable with doing their housing online, so usage of the technology has mushroomed,” says Schwartz. “Of course, the fact that Common is a technology group is an even greater incentive to use Passkey. It’s consistent with the culture of our group.” 
   “I think it’s natural for Passkey to expand its market this way,” says industry technology consultant Corbin Ball, president of Bellingham, Wash.-based Corbin Ball Associates. He finds the company’s contracts with numerous convention and visitor bureaus around the country have enabled many planners to become familiar with the product. 
   Looking ahead, Passkey plans to extend its reach beyond the United States. To that end, the company recently joined forces with Majorca, Spain-based Sol Meliá Hotels & Resorts to start offering the housing service at two of the hotel chain’s properties beginning this quarter. 
   Having to cross language and currency barriers will make this a gradual expansion, says Sol Meliá’s Ron Roy, vice president of business travel and distribution, but he nonetheless expects about five dozen Sol Meliá hotels to offer Passkey in the future. 
   Meanwhile, Hilton Hotels is tackling the issue of housing in its own high-tech way. In late 2003, the chain rolled out auditing software at its largest convention properties. The program cross-checks planners’ attendee lists against the hotels’ rooming data in only minutes, compared with the hours a manual comparison takes, and it can be done anytime during the planning process as well as after the event.