February 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio February 1998 Current Issue
February 1998 Net GainsPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

Net Gains


Will Jobs Be Lost to the Web?

The Internet may cut out some middlemen, but bypassing people can be risky

Rodman Marymor: For years we have depended on travel agents for our individual travel needs. After all, they had those big books with all the flight schedules, the hotel information and plenty of snazzy brochures. We went to agents because we didn't know how to do the bookings ourselves.

Those same professionals are gradually being replaced by Internet-based systems. There is already much debate among travel industry leaders about how the agent's role must be redefined because of technology's impact. It's inevitable, because we can now go online to do all of the searching, consulting and booking on our own.

Meetings industry suppliers see this model succeeding for leisure travel, and are working on providing the same kind of resources for planners -- processes that could cut out many middlemen. Comprehensive Web sites give planners a wealth of digital detail that can influence buying decisions, but so far the systems fall short of offering any kind of meaningful point of sale. The technology just is not in place to let planners block, negotiate and book electronically. The meeting planning process still requires human hands-on to ensure success.

What will happen when profit-conscious suppliers develop and implement online tools that let planners quickly and easily compare hotels and negotiate rates, register and confirm attendees, and control everything through powerful database applications? Will suppliers deal directly with customers more than with agents? Will the exchange mean fewer misunderstandings and greater profits -- or, dare I suggest, lower prices?

If sensible technology applications allowed planners to bring this part of the planning process back in-house (where I think it belongs), perhaps planners would find more choices, and gain better bargaining leverage and the ability to give increased value to their company. When technology enhances efficiency and effectiveness, planners can spend more time thinking and acting strategically, leaving many logistical chores to automation.

And what about third-party vendors? When they are ultimately replaced by online tools and resources, maybe they'll go into the software business or become planners or hotel sales managers.

Jeffrey Rasco: Not so fast. I think our agent friends need to keep their jobs a while longer, even much longer. Not that I don't think the Web has its promises. On the contrary, I'm an admitted technology junkie. But the techno-world we live in today is a lonely one. We sit for hours staring into a monitor, clicking away on the mouse, all alone. Millions of people are in cyber-seclusion. This probably explains the popularity of chat rooms, forums, and the heavyweight champion of the Internet -- e-mail.

Strategic-thinking meeting professionals embraced technology once it found its way onto their desktops. I found out about the Internet and World Wide Web years ago from other meeting planners who said, "Imagine -- we'll be doing site inspections and booking properties all over the world without ever leaving the office. We'll negotiate and sign contracts right at our desks! We'll take vacations that don't include a site visit!"

This Jetsonesque world is pretty much upon us. From our desks we can view properties around the world and three-dimensional virtual reality clips of what a venue offers. Through Internet conferencing we can speak with our suppliers and share files simultaneously, signing off with a digital signature. Requests for proposal and many of the other tools of our trade are now commonly found on the Web.

So, why don't we have any of that spare time the futurists were predicting? Because we can't evaluate a site properly on a computer screen, and I would add that most people probably prefer face-to-face contact at some point during negotiations. Many of our processes have been streamlined, but that doesn't mean we've been freed up to do absolutely everything ourselves. So I say let the travel pro get that commission. Our agents have certainly earned their keep by doing the research and negotiations when we didn't have the time. Computers can do the job, but it takes someone with industry knowledge to do it right.

Am I still a tech junkie? Sure, I love this stuff. But I love people more, and people will go the extra mile to help, where computers will only go as far as their programming allows. Let me know when you find a computer that can calm an upset speaker stranded in a faraway airport in the middle of the night, and then we'll talk about this again.

Rodman Marymor, CMP, and Jeff Rasco, CMP, are partners in San Francisco and Austin, Texas-based, providing technology solutions for the meetings industry.

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