by Michael J. Shapiro | June 01, 2012

Marriott Inter­na­tional rolled out enhanced functionality to its QuickGroup site last month, adding the ability to book meeting space, A/V and catering, as well as blocks of 10 to 25 guest rooms. Previously, planners could only price group rooms; to complete the deal, a hotel salesperson would follow up with a call if the planner wanted to book.

QuickGroup users now can book space for as many as 50 attendees online, anytime, after agreeing to what Marriott calls a "simple, standard" contract and providing a credit card number. Instant confirmation arrives by e-mail.

Three primary factors motivated the change, said Geoff Heuchling, Marriott's senior director of B2B eCommerce: corporate customer demand, a new technology platform that accesses real-time inventory, and demands on sales productivity. (See "Online RFPs: A Mixed Blessing")

"We get about 3,000 people a day shopping the QuickGroup site, looking for rates and availability," said Heuchling. "You want to sell the way a customer wants to buy. We like it when our salespeople are able to spend time with our customers. But the numbers are to the point that, in many cases, allowing the customer to shop first does take a huge amount of pressure off of sales."

Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, meanwhile, is addressing the influx of electronic leads by developing a project dubbed Quick Book, which will automate responses to rate and availability queries received via third-party sourcing platforms.

Currently, a similar system is in place for small-meeting queries received via Availability and ballpark pricing information are automated; then, if the customer is interested and wants to hash out details, a salesperson will call. At this point, planners cannot book online.

"We think it's a big win to get accurate information back to planners in a more timely manner," said Rodahl Leong-Lyons, Hyatt's vice president of sales operations. "But are people ready to buy this way? Some are. But is there a critical mass there for us to develop what we need to develop?" More research must be done, he added. "We've started this conversation with customers. To be honest, no one is banging down our door saying, 'Do this, because we really need it.' "