May 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions - Tracked Housing - May 2000 Current Issue
May 2000

Tracked Housing

How online tools are easing room-block headaches

By Sarah J.F. Braley

I n 1998, when the Firehouse Expo convened in Baltimore, housing was handled in such a chaotic fashion that the organizer, Cygnus Publishing, was flooded with hate e-mails, and industry message boards vilified the event. “We knew we had to approach somebody to help us fix it, move out of Baltimore or lose a huge part of our audience,” says Peter Brunold, group vice president of expositions for the Melville, N.Y.-based company. This July, for the second year in a row, attendees are choosing hotels through’s online-housing system, and the expo is returning to Baltimore for the 17th time.

In an industry that has been notoriously reluctant to embrace technology, the wariness seems to be wearing off. Several online meeting solutions have taken off recently. Web-based tools are allowing planners to see rooming lists in real time and to check inventories to see if they need to add hotels or expand room blocks.

“Organizers should save big on attrition costs through better information and inventory management,” according to Peggy Lee, CEO of Westport, Conn.-based, which offers housing tools along with online registration, transportation (using negotiated fares) and tour services. “As hotels become more proficient in accepting online data, their operational costs will lower, and yields improve.”

Brunold says using helps him avoid hiring a $30,000-a-year staff member to handle housing year-round. On top of that, he sees some less obvious benefits: “The smoothness of the process helps retain audience loyalty, which is the most important thing in growing a show.”

Tapping into the inventory (, which signed up with its first convention and visitor bureau in 1997, is the elder statesman in the push to handle hotel blocks online, and it is the only player that lets planners and attendees tap into hotels’ live inventory. The service is available through 18 CVBs, including Atlanta, Boston, Nashville and Orlando, and more than 700 hotels. Its main focus always has been the management of the room block, but recently the company added online registration and a link to Sabre for making travel arrangements. also inked a deal with McCord Group Travel Services in Chicago, opening a call center to handle fax and phone queries.

Although the service runs from $2.50 to $12 per reservation, depending on such factors as yearly volume and chosen options, it is not a separate budget item; the cost is built into the room rate.

At the moment, is being used for more citywide meetings than smaller events. “We’ve done events with as few peak nights as 150 and as many as 12,000,” says Rich Westerfield, vice president of marketing for the Quincy, Mass.-based company. “But we don’t look to sign up small events right now. That will happen under a different product that we will be launching later this year.”

Planners can access more than 100 report configurations, from simple rooming lists to reservation/modification/cancellation reports and sub-block details. “We can see the room inventory with a few clicks,” says Cygnus’ Brunold. “A few months before the show, we’re 75 percent sold out, but we don’t panic; we have time to look for other hotels.”

Tapping into the block
A number of Web-based solutions don’t go into live inventory but work off predetermined blocks that are entered into the systems before attendees start registering. ( offers housing management using a proprietary engine called the Event Registration System, or ERS. “Attendees using the system get instant access to availability and immediate confirmations,” says Lee. The service, which does not include a call center, costs $3.50 to $5 per room, based on volume; many organizations pass this on through the event’s registration fee. Planners who combine the housing with ERS’ registration capabilities pay up to $8 per attendee. For clients requiring full service,’s sister firm, Lee Travel Group, and MSW Interactive can be contracted to handle phone, fax and mail reservations in addition to online transactions.

The online registration site RegWeb ( can be used to manage hotel inventory. It generates a number of reports, like rooming lists, room counts, and hotel arrivals and departures, and a “create your own report” function allows planners to break down the data any way they like. Use of all the site’s services registration, housing management, exhibition and agenda modules requires a yearly license fee of $350 plus $5 to $8 per guaranteed attendee for each event.

Plano, Texas-based WynTrac (, targeting planners of small meetings, offers online housing-management and registration capabilities. With WynTrac’s wizard, planners follow seven steps to set up their room blocks and build simple reservations Web pages. Available reports include alphabetical lists, pickup reports (the hotel can see this information at the discretion of the planner) and demographic data. All reporting is live. “Wyntrac also captures information that easily flows into a Microsoft document for those who want to come up with a report that we haven’t thought of,” says Michael Foster, the site’s president. For planners who want to handle fax and phone reservations, WynTrac has a call center application. The service costs $3 to $5 per new record.

A service called Housing On-Line ( is offered by PGI, an event, trade show and marketing communications firm in Arlington, Va. Working with WynTrac’s application, Housing On-Line provides convention housing, advanced registration, travel and car rental to attendees. Delegates accessing a meeting’s site can peruse an amenities spreadsheet, descriptions of hotels and more. “It’s designed to assist the delegate in choosing the right hotel,” says Robert Colvin, vice president of the housing service, which is run out of Las Vegas.

Housing On-Line is paid through commissions if the company has negotiated the hotel; there is no fee to the planner. “If the planner or the organization is getting the commission, we negotiate a transaction fee, generally $20 to $25,” adds Colvin. The pricing provides for reservations sent by fax, mail and the Internet, plus the services of a call center. The company also handles housing for four convention bureaus: Hawaii, New York City, Philadelphia and San Diego. When a planner sets up housing through these CVBs, the hotels pay for the service.

On the hotel side
As for the hotel chains, they seem to be happy to tap into systems that have been created to help the planner, rather than trying to create their own tools to manage group room blocks. Dallas-based Pegasus Systems, which provides e-commerce and transaction-processing services to the hotel industry, has started doing live transmissions of reservations data through for Hyatt Hotels and Resorts and is planning to provide the service for Hilton, Starwood and Marriott properties by year-end.

“From our point of view, getting the registration electronically, we no longer have to wait to get rooming lists,” says Joan Lowell, vice president of electronic distribution for Hyatt. “We also can get reports on the room blocks to forecast the occupancy.”

Pegasus is exploring the possibility of creating a system to handle smaller meetings. CEO John Davis envisions a service that will allow the event planner to search for dates and put a 48-hour hold on the rooms in order to solidify details. Pegasus has not announced a launch date for the service.


Sarah Raynor, who helps run eight Internet-related shows for Penton Media, has used extensively.’s Event Registration System “allows our attendees to do everything online,” says the Darien, Conn.-based conference coordinator for such events as four InternetWorld trade shows. “[Our attendees] are very Internet-savvy and demand that of us.”

Between 35,000 and 40,000 people attend InternetWorld, demonstrating can handle the crowds, but Raynor feels it also is worthwhile for planners of smaller meetings.

“I manage a smaller block, all of the internal staff, which can be 200 to 300 people. On a real-time basis, I can look at the availability of the hotels and who has rooms left on what dates.”

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