Getting Started on the Cheap

The essentials of meeting planning technology on a shoestring

We’ve covered a lot of different products and services in this column, and most have been targeted at specific aspects of technology and meeting planning. Now I’d like to focus on what it takes to get started managing your meetings using the technology you probably already have on your PC. In future columns I’ll discuss how to expand to a more complete, more expensive solution.

I’ve been developing and providing meetings technology software to the industry for more than 20 years. While technology has changed quite a bit during this time, the resourcefulness of meeting planners in finding ways to use the technology has not.

I am still amazed at how many creative planners manage their meetings with the tools to be found in Microsoft Office. Time and again, industry surveys show the most frequently used software tools are Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access.

For the most limited of budgets, these are the essentials.

Hardware. Without getting into disk space and RAM, let’s just say you should have a notebook computer running Windows XP or Vista or Mac OS 10.3 or later. Make sure you have a durable, photo-quality color printer — inkjet technology is just fine. I’d recommend a USB drive, so you can back up important documents and files. Always save a copy on something you can plug into another PC and be back in business.

Software. Microsoft Office Standard is sufficient, unless you want to learn database programming; if so,  pay the extra money for the Professional version with Access. If you’re just managing registrations and details about the meeting, then you’re probably fine with Word and Excel.

I’d also recommend buying the Convention Industry Council’s APEX Meeting and Event Toolbox ($99.95; so you have some boilerplate templates to work with — they will save you quite a bit of time.

Communications. If you work out of a home office, most Internet providers offer bundles that include TV, Internet and phone for less than $150 per month in most places, and under $100 per month in others. But there’s a catch: The phone service in these packages is usually VOIP, which is delivered over the Internet. If that goes down, you lose both e-mail and phone service; make sure you have a reliable provider and a cellular service contract with lots of free minutes. Shop around, as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T compete in many places. Cable modem service usually provides a reliable high-speed connection.

You’ll be surprised how much you can get your hands on for little or no expenditure. The Office applications all include templates, and more are available online from companies like Microsoft, Avery (labels and badge stock) and even places like Office Max and Staples. Many industry associations have a technology or special interest group, and perhaps discussion forums. Sign up and start asking questions; you’ll be amazed by how much people will share. They probably will send you links to templates or forms that you can easily adapt. Or, use a search engine: I Googled “free meeting planning templates,” and the search returned 292,000 hits.

If you shop around for computer package deals, you should be able to get the basics you need, including the hardware and software, letterhead, paper, printer cartridges and other supplies, for between $1,000 to $1,500. When I started my consulting business, my first computer and printer cost nearly $12,000. With today’s technology, generating revenue is a lot easier.

Bob Walters, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., is founder of Phoenix Solutions and developer of MeetingTrak Software.