October 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio October 1999 Current Issue
October 1999 Tech filesPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:




Awash in e-mail? Link key players through a secure digital pipeline

These days, most people in business have a rudimentary understanding of the Internet, and they know an intranet is a similar network that is accessible only by members of a corporation or organization. Less known, however, is the term "extranet."

These networks are unique digital pipelines between customers and suppliers, and they are perfectly suited for the meetings industry. An extranet is a private version of the Internet, allowing cooperating organizations (often buyers and sellers) to use a browser to view shared information and to carry out transactions and planning.

Let's look at how an extranet could be used by an association planning a 12,000-person annual meeting. An extranet could be created by the association, and user access rights and accounts would be assigned to each key player in the planning process, from A/V to transportation, giving them specific abilities to view or alter documents or databases.

The extranet can be used instead of point-to-point e-mail as a common place to access key information. For instance, the association could post either the total registration counts for the event or the specific names of the attendees who are signed up. Hotels could post their reservation counts in a similar fashion, providing every key person with up-to-date, shared information. It is even possible to set up automatic query programs within extranets, so information can be accessed by users directly from reservations and membership systems.

Extranets can be used for the project-management aspects of meeting planning as well, with shared schedules, deadlines and checkpoints available to all players in the process. Room layouts and stage settings can be posted and even edited online within an extranet. And changes to the event schedule or résumé could be made in real time using the shared documents online.

FAMILY TREE The extranet, a natural outgrowth of intranets, addresses the needs of organizations that must extend their technological boundaries to accommodate the players involved in planning a large meeting.

Often, the technology already is available in an organization. If your group has a Web site, your Webmaster can create a password-protected section and issue restricted access. That is the basis of an extranet. Organizations also can go to an Internet service provider and set up an extranet for as little as $29 a month. Either way, the extranet should be run on one of the popular Web server software packages, like Microsoft's Internet Information Server or Lotus' Domino.

Changes in network architecture for example, Virtual Private Networks, which use the Internet to link remote networks will make the security and ease of extranets even more reliable in the future. Ultimately, extranet connectivity will be assumed for every commercial relationship. It will be used for all stages of contracting, billing and payment and will be built into the agreement for services. Watch for meetings industry-specific extranet services and products to emerge soon.

My company is planning a 2,500-person meeting for November. We are using an extranet to link our meeting planners, suppliers, convention service coordinators and even our key speakers. Rather than sending tons of e-mail to everyone concerned, the extranet gives us a single point of collaboration. It takes a bit of training and support to get our suppliers on board, but it is well worth it. Our goal is to have an up-to-the-minute, shared set of information, so everyone truly is "working off the same page."

ELLIOTT MASIE is president of the Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based Masie Center (www.masie.com), an international think tank focused on learning and technology.

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