. Planning Without the Binder | Meetings & Conventions

Planning Without the Binder

How new collaborative technology promises to transform the process for meeting professionals

The Hot Button
For urgent on-site communication, Starwood's eVent Portfolio offers planners the eVent 911 button (called simply "Help Now" in Getplanning). It's a way for planners to get quick service -- and to keep communication within the same platform they've used for planning the event.

"Our planners have used it for running low on coffee, meeting rooms being too hot or too cold, when they need to turn a set, get A/V, telephone lines -- anything they need fast," says Michelle Edwards, meeting and event manager at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

The eVent 911 button appears on the platform from three days prior to a group's arrival until three days after the program ends. Edwards configured the button at her property to alert the catering manager, meeting and event manager, and lead meeting planner. Whenever that button is invoked, all three of those point people receive an alert via text and then contact the appropriate parties to attend to the need. - M.J.S.

Deborah Matthews, a planner with the Washington, D.C.-based Edison Electric Institute, speaks about Starwood's new eVent Portfolio in life-changing terms. "This is what you need when you are a planner," she says about the web-based meetings management platform. "For someone who, for the last 17 years, has had to do everything either via email or by hand, this is fantastic."

In a nutshell, eVent Portfolio, which is free for planners to use, is a collaborative, secure web-based portal that serves as a central repository for key documents related to a meeting, including banquet event orders; meeting specifications; contracts and addenda; exhibits; group activities, billing and reservations; transportation needs, and more.

Plus, eVent Portfolio catalogs all relevant communication among the venue, planner, suppliers, and anyone who has been invited to join the group and provided access. All correspondence related to that meeting -- even if it was read within or sent from an email program -- is cataloged here, as long as it was initiated from or sent as a reply to the platform. And because the documents and correspondence all reside online, in the cloud, authorized planners and suppliers can log in from anywhere, via any Internet-enabled device.

The tool encapsulates a number of key features that planners and hoteliers alike have sought: It is collaborative, encourages the use of mobile technology, offers PCI-compliant data security, and is a sustainable solution that can save significant printing and paper costs. And it just might replace the binder.

One for all
Matthews has been using eVent Portfolio since early last year, for an event that will occur this March at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., one of Starwood's first hotels to roll out the platform as a pilot program. (Starwood officially announced eVent Portfolio in October.) But the underlying technology isn't limited to Starwood; eVent Portfolio is the chain's tweaked, white-label version of an application called Getplanning, the brainchild of Boca Raton, Fla.-based planner Jon Summersfield, president and co-owner of The Global Event Team.

Summersfield originally had worked with a developer to build Getplanning for his own firm, as a way to address inefficiencies in planning and collaboration. But he was pretty sure he had created something with more universal appeal; he formed another company to develop and market the technology, and soon became an affiliate of hotel marketing firm Cendyn, also based in Boca Raton. When they began pitching the tool to hotel companies, momentum really started to build.

"It was a piece of software that planners and hotels wanted and liked," says Summersfield. "There's a lot of great technology out there, but a lot of it is great for hotels, and a lot of it is great for planners. I think technology companies sometimes miss the fact that it should be good for both. So it was reassuring to us that we were solving issues on both sides."

Joining the club
The eVent Portfolio platform should be in use at about 50 Starwood properties as of Jan. 1, according to Dave Dvorak, Stamford, Conn.-based Starwood's vice president of catering and event management, and will be rolled out to the bulk of Starwood's meeting hotels by the end of the year. Any of the lodging company's brands are eligible, he adds, as long as they have meeting space.

More Ways to go Paperless
In addition to Getplanning and eVent Portfolio, a number of other new products are designed to replace the traditional planner binder with tablet-accessible meeting documents and information, and market themselves as such.

Following are some examples provided by Dahlia El Gazzar, the Chicago-based founder and CEO of the event-technology consultancy The Meeting Pool, by way of her site's Event Tech Decision Engine. Each tool differs in its functionality and approach.

• QuickMobile MobilePlanner (sub­scription and licensing fees based on the number of events and users; quickmobile.com). Launched in mid-October, MobilePlanner is a native app available for iOS or Android devices. It's the commercially available version of a program built for a Fortune 50 customer, according to QuickMobile's director of channel and product marketing, Jeff Epstein.

The stand-alone app is geared toward enterprise customers who plan dozens of events each year, and is made for on-site use. Documents are uploaded via a content management system and are password-protected, with access determined by the meeting planner. MobilePlanner is designed for planners, rather than hotels; QuickMobile currently is testing the waters with a different hotel solution before marketing MobilePlanner to suppliers.

• EventDawn ($50 per event, price subject to change this year; eventdawn.com). Event­Dawn allows planners to create, store, edit and share binders online, and provides forms that conform to APEX standards. Still technically a startup, EventDawn launched in 2011 and has about 120 users, most of whom are in the U.S. and Canada. Designed for planners and optimized for tablet use, it currently is not device-responsive, but that functionality is in the company's development plans.

• OneLobby (free to $250/month; onelobby.com). OneLobby is a mobile web app that launched in March 2013, and allows planners to access files and event details from any device. It offers a collaborative communications platform, as well as analysis on attendance and event impact. - M.J.S.

Hilton Worldwide is the other major adopter. The Getplanning platform is listed on Hilton's Connect+ website (connectplusathiltonworldwide.com), a portal the lodging giant launched in mid-2013 for meeting planners. The site offers support for about 115 of Hilton Worldwide's largest properties in the Americas. More than 60 hotels currently offer Getplanning, and the company is rolling it out to the rest of the Connect+ properties.

A few smaller hotel companies also have signed on, says Summersfield, as have many independent properties. And in the past year a number of major meeting planning firms have expressed interest; one very large one, he says, is very close to signing a contract.

Ultimately, Starwood's Dvorak hopes to see Getplanning used everywhere. "We think this is something that will revolutionize planning," he says, "because it saves so much time and so much money, and it really moves planning from an antiquated 1970s-style process to a much more automated and secure environment."

Getplanning's PCI Level 1 compliance is increasingly important, too. Not only is email a notoriously unsecured means of sharing, many cloud-based solutions like Dropbox don't meet the data-security requirements of some organizations.

Filling a need
Getplanning's success is likely indicative of a larger trend. "I think this is something that you're going to see more of," says Dahlia El Gazzar, the Chicago-based CEO and founder of the event-technology consultancy The Meeting Pool. Particularly appealing, she notes, is the "paperless event binder" aspect, as she calls it.

"Planners want that 10-pound binder to be gone, and to have everything in a platform they can access from anywhere," El Gazzar points out. (See sidebar, "More Ways to Go Paperless," on page 42, for examples.) "And I kind of like that hotels are offering it," she adds -- something which to this point makes Getplanning unique in the marketplace. In addition to the fact that planners don't pay for it, there's the aspect of not having to convince and train the venue to make use of the platform. Rather, it's the other way around.

"The hotels might be pushing planners out of their comfort zone a bit," acknowledges El Gazzar, "because not all planners are on the same level when it comes to technology."

For planners who don't have their own tablets, Starwood properties provide an iPad, complete with permanent wireless codes so eVent Portfolio will work, even if the planner is in an area of the venue where connectivity hasn't been purchased for the meeting.  

Laying waste to waste
It isn't just planners who want to trash the binders. "Early on," says Summersfield, "hotels realized that Getplanning would actually eliminate the dreaded three-ring binder for them -- especially the ones they were handing out at pre-con meetings, which, as a planner, is probably my pet peeve. I walk into a hotel, I sit down for my pre-con, and I get presented with a folder or a binder. It contains all of this information, and as soon as we start discussing changes, it becomes immediately obsolete."

It's also expensive for the hotel. "We were looking at an average of three to 10 binders a program," explains Michelle Edwards, meeting and event manager at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. "That's just an exorbitant amount of paper we've been throwing away. And some meeting planners open the binder once, and they never look at it again."

To document paper savings, the eVent Portfolio platform was designed with a sustainability tab. "It calculates the number of documents we've uploaded," says Edwards, "and the approximate number of sheets of paper we have saved. After about four months, we're near the 2,000-document mark, and we have saved more than 40,000 sheets of paper. Just within the meeting and event department, we've saved hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Time savings is another benefit: During meetings, updates are made to that shared document in the cloud, with no need to later incorporate the changes agreed upon.

After seeing her first demo of eVent Portfolio, Edwards championed its use throughout the Swan and Dolphin. She ensured that all associates involved in meetings were trained. "As of Jan. 1, it is mandatory to do every event on eVent," she says. The property purchased 15 iPads too, for event staff and planners to use on-site if needed.

"The hotels love it because it makes the processes so easy," notes Starwood's Dvorak, "but also the customer feedback has been tremendous, almost more so than we expected."

Communications hub
For the Edison Electric Institute's Matthews, the benefits of eVent Portfolio come not only from instant access to documents, but from the central hub of communication. Since early 2013, she has been working with the Swan and Dolphin on EEI's semi-annual National Key Accounts Workshop, set for this March. The workshop will draw about 800 customers, and the logistics are complex, involving a lot of meeting space, a large number of breakout sessions, an exhibit hall and off-site events. The fact that she can access all of the event-related communication, organized by topic in a central location, is ideal.

More Hotel Tech
Three days prior to a meeting, planners working with participating Marriott hotels can elect to receive a link to the Red Coat Direct mobile web app (bit.ly/1dJKJZy), which debuted last spring. It's similar to Starwood's eVent 911 feature (see "The Hot Button") in that it gives planners instant access to the right hotel rep when a need arises. Meeting details, such as rooms in use, are programmed into the app to streamline requests.

Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, meanwhile, has been working with Washington, D.C.-based Social Tables to allow planners access to the hotel's diagramming software. Planners will be able to begin plotting room layouts early on, much as they do with the publicly available Meeting Matrix tool. Plans call for more collaborative features to be added, letting planners save layouts online and hotel staff to access the diagrams and update them as needed.

The new tool, not yet named as of press time, will be free to planners. It also will help streamline seat assignments and registration information. - M.J.S.

"I have a lot of communication with the hotel," Matthews says, "and also anyone I work with off-site -- the transportation company, golf people, restaurants. I communicated everything, from the menu to the wine to the guests, with the restaurant person through eVent Portfolio, and it worked out."

When she's had urgent questions from the hotel, it didn't matter if she brought her laptop home. "The site is a favorite on my iPad, and I just load it up." This is the first time, Matthews adds, that she has been able to use her iPad effectively for planning.

That functionality is a huge benefit for hotels, too, notes Michelle Edwards. "I don't have to look through all the email threads to find what we were discussing," she points out. This is crucial, especially for events with a long lead time. "With our Outlook, we only had a certain amount of storage. So you had to create archive files, go into different histories, pull up saved files -- just to locate a conversation you had with a meeting planner a year and a half ago."

The collaborative nature of the tools is another plus. "My group housing coordinator can see what I'm discussing about group arrivals," says Edwards. "And I can see when my planner posts her VIPs for housing. That's the way it should be. We're all partners working toward one common goal: to have an amazing program. Why shouldn't we all have the information at our fingertips?"

A work in progress
Not everyone is on board just yet. "When I saw Getplanning, I was ready to go all in," notes Steve Enselein, vice president of catering and convention services for the Americas at Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels and Resorts. "I thought it was a great product." But after beta testing at four hotels, Enselein says, "neither the planners nor the staff gave it the kind of endorsement I was hoping for. They thought it added one more level of trying to make everything work."

Enselein is still a proponent of the concept, and acknowledges it might have been too early in the tool's development when he tested it. "I'm not going to give up on it," he notes. "I'm probably going to beta test it again this year at different hotels and see if we get a different reaction."

Meanwhile, the biggest concern of EEI's Matthews is how quickly Starwood can roll out the platform to more hotels. "This year I have three meetings with Starwood," she says. "I'm already communicating with those hotels and telling them to get on eVent Portfolio. I want to use this when I'm out there."