. Simplifying the Small Meetings Booking Process | Northstar Meetings Group

Simplifying the Small Meetings Booking Process

Small meetings with replicable requirements make up at least half of all events. Here's how some event-technology companies are working to simplify booking solutions.

Their diminutive budgets might fly under the radar, but simple meetings — or small meetings with basic, replicable requirements — actually account for half of corporate meetings globally. That's according to a 2018 study conducted by the Global Business Travel Association and HRS Global Hotel Solutions, and many in the industry estimate the percentage to be even higher — much higher.

"I just had a client meeting with a company that does a thousand meetings a year," says Charles De Gaspe Beaubien, president and CEO of Groupize, a self-service meetings-booking platform. "And out of a thousand meetings, 992 of them are simple."

Groupize CEO Charles De Gaspe Beaubien
Groupize CEO Charles De Gaspe Beaubien

While not every company defines these meetings the same way — whether it's less than 50 attendees, an event with easily repeatable logistics, or one encompassing a minimal number of hours — many of these gatherings are going unmanaged because the sourcing and meetings management processes in place were established for more complex events. This struggle has plagued conference programs for nearly a decade, but a growing number of meetings-tech suppliers have heard the planner pleas and are redoubling efforts to streamline the booking of small, simple meetings. Their approaches differ somewhat because each meetings program has different needs.

Here's how a handful of leading tech suppliers are identifying the challenges — and trying to find solutions.

Simplifying the Sourcing

One of the greatest hurdles in achieving small-meetings automation is actually convincing the people scheduling them to use the meetings management platform in place. "In most cases, the people booking these meetings are not meeting planners," points out Kevin Iwamoto, chief strategy officer for Bizly, a small-meetings management platform. "They are executive admins or administrative assistants, or group managers. Forcing them to use a complex and user-unfriendly process to book those meetings will almost always equal non­compliance and poor adoption."

Bizly Founder and CEO Ron Shah
Bizly Founder and CEO Ron Shah

The major sourcing platforms offering electronic requests for proposal, with Cvent being the largest, have been optimized for event professionals and complex meetings, say smaller marketplace competitors. By contrast, for the latest iteration of Bizly, founder and CEO Ron Shah made a conscious decision to focus on the smallest meetings, the "micro event" domain that he believes is being seriously underserved. Bizly places a heavy emphasis on the speed of the process and simplicity, forgoing eRFPs in favor of templates that can be repeated easily for similar events.
"My biggest goal in life is to be the first company to achieve true product-market fit in the events category," says Shah, "where the product actually solves the pain for the end user."

Ease of use is a primary objective for anyone targeting those who plan simple meetings. "It isn't just about the size of the meeting," notes De Gaspe Beaubien of Groupize. "It's about the simplicity of the technology. The more you 'consumerize' it, the more adoption you'll get." Groupize is looking to connect with a mix of admins and planners, but streamlining the process is likewise key. The service, which integrates with the Concur expense-management platform and primarily has been marketed to travel managers, asks users at the outset to define a meeting as simple vs. complex, using customizable parameters to determine the appropriate workflow that follows.

Larger end-to-end platforms do tout their abilities to scale down for smaller meetings. Aventri, for instance, promotes the ease of use of its Strategic Venue Sourcing platform, noting that even occasional planners can get up to speed quickly. (Aventri's Zentila platform powers Northstar Meetings Group's Event Venue Finder — a similarly simple way to begin venue research and sourcing.)

Finding the Right Venues

Most end-to-end meetings management platforms focus primarily on hotel sourcing — and lack the unique spaces small-meetings bookers want. "What good is a 100,000-plus venue database if the actual venues being booked for small, simple meetings aren't part of the traditional SMM venue databases?" Iwamoto points out. Bizly specializes in event spaces that are conducive to day use, and Groupize is in the process of adding that type of meeting and co-working space to its hotel-heavy database.

Acknowledging the trend — and need — for alternative spaces, Aventri has just partnered with VenueBook, an event-venue marketplace that provides live inventory and pricing for alternative meeting venues — think restaurants, studio spaces, bars and bowling alleys, as well as some hotel space.

What's most intriguing about the Aventri/VenueBook tie-in is the integration the companies are promising. The goal is to make VenueBook's inventory available to Aventri customers — expanding the total number of venues in Aventri's database to 226,500 worldwide, and adding direct connections to a wealth of nontraditional spaces. Later this year, Aventri's customers will see options from both databases, and will be able to include VenueBook inventory in the standard eRFP process or to book that inventory directly via VenueBook's platform. In the latter case, the handoff would be seamless and the booking data would be retained within the customer's Aventri dashboard.

VenueBook founder and CEO Kelsey Recht
VenueBook founder and CEO Kelsey Recht

That level of integration and flexibility could be a sign things to come. "An event planner is looking for something that fits their event," says Kelsey Recht, CEO and founder of VenueBook. "So that could be a hotel and that could be a unique meeting and event venue. They're going to create a consideration set for that event by looking at all types of venues. That's why searching across all of them at once is really, really important.

Cvent forayed into similar territory with its 2018 acquisition of Kapow, a platform that allows direct booking of alternative spaces, some with prepackaged F&B deals. The Kapow platform — which currently includes options in 26 U.S. cities — operates in parallel with the Cvent Supplier Network's database of hotels and convention centers. The Kapow acquisition was driven in part by customer demand, according to Cvent execs, and there are plans afoot to incorporate more of Kapow's functionality into Cvent's general sourcing platform.

Eliminating the eRFP Slowdown

Principal among the benefits of platforms like Kapow and VenueBook is the swift nature of the booking — a direct connection to live inventory and pricing, or the ability to either book instantly or request to book immediately (often allowing for a 24-hour approval process on both sides). That access to availability and pricing on a wider scale, particularly with hotel inventory, has been elusive.

Cvent co-founder Chuck Goorah says everyone wants a streamlined solution.
Cvent co-founder Chuck Goorah says everyone wants a streamlined solution.

The demand for that kind of solution, says Chuck Goorah, Cvent co-founder and president of worldwide sales and marketing, exists on both the buyer and supplier sides. "Everybody for years has been saying this is what they want," he says. "But the question has been how do we get there? For the last couple of years we've been deeply talking to our customer base, both the buyer side and the hotel side, and we've been gathering requirements and understanding the pain."

Cvent has been working with 40 of their largest enterprise customers, as well as the hotel companies, on a small-meetings solution tentatively called Instabook. They'll be beta-testing soon and hope to deliver the product later this year. The solution will be tightly integrated with the Cvent Supplier Network, says senior vice president of product management Pete Floros. "Planners will be able to see live rates and availability in the same area where they can do their large-meeting RFPs," he explains, "and all within the same SMM and enterprise workloads they've already developed with Cvent."

Groups360 president and CEO Kemp Gallineau
Groups360 president and CEO Kemp Gallineau

One overarching question, however, will be just how eagerly hotel properties jump onboard, and how much inventory they'll be  willing to contribute to Instabook. "I think the hotel reaction is mixed," acknowledges Jim Abramson, Cvent's vice president of product management. "Different chains and companies think differently about how to expose their inventories, and how they do so on their own websites vs. third-party sites. We've certainly found hotels that are willing to work with us, and we feel like this can be a phased approach. We have enough that we'd like to get the buyers and the suppliers together, and we feel that over time, more people are going to come join the party."

The desire to join that party is strong among tech suppliers, including Groups360 — which counts hotel giants Accor, Hilton, InterContinental Hotels Group and Marriott International among its investors (see "The Property Perspective," page 22). Groups360 execs also hope to deliver real-time access to pricing and instant booking for less-complex meetings by the end of 2020. The company is negotiating with a large number of hotel companies, according to Groups360 CEO Kemp Gallineau, "but not everyone will be able to do this at the same time or with the same inventory."

Analyzing User Behavior

While these full-fledged features will be some time in coming, the ramped-up focus on booking behavior is bound to produce better experiences over time.

"We want to make sure we roll out solutions that fit the needs and the behavior of the event planners and venues, regardless of how they want to book," says Kelsey Recht of VenueBook. "But what we won't compromise on is our focus on getting substantially more transparency from venues, to make sure that any inquiries, whether they're direct-book, instant-book or even RFP, come in much more qualified."

Groups360's Gallineau echoes the thought: "We're learning a lot about the behavior of consumer booking, beyond the challenges of just providing inventory," he says. "Where and how should we show the inventory, for instance. What's the best enriched content we should provide, to give them the confidence to book online? We spend as much time looking at the behavior of the interaction as we do developing the technology."

Choosing Your Approach

In the end, buyers will face the same question posed with most kinds of event tech: whether to manage as much as possible on one end-to-end platform or to piece together a solution using a mix of technologies. While end-to-end suppliers see value in capturing all activity in one place, there is also a collective movement to improve processes.

"This is an industrywide problem, and I think the more brain power there is on this and the more thoughtfulness there is around it, the more it's all going to move our industry forward," says Cvent's Goorah. "Smaller meetings will be executed more easily and quickly, and you'll get a higher ROI out of them. That's great for the enterprises holding the meetings and for the meetings industry in general."

The Property Perspective

Using an electronic request for proposal can be as cumbersome and productivity-killing for the hotel salesperson as it can be for the planner. For simple events, it makes sense to automate the process — and some properties are doing so by putting small meeting spaces in online sourcing engines.

But hoteliers also have a vested interest in eliminating the middle man and encouraging direct bookings, so they have been experimenting with offering some small-space reservations on their own sites.

Last August, Accor, Hilton, IHG and Marriott International invested $50 million in Groups360 to develop the GroupSync platform — which, among other things, aims to facilitate the scheduling of small meetings.

"Our customers have told us that the current shopping and booking process for small groups is out of sync with their day-to-day digital shopping habits," says Marriott International global officer Brian King. "Our goal with the investment is to bring simplicity to the planning process to ultimately benefit both planners and hotels."

Chris Ruane, Accor's vice president of global sales for meetings and events, adds that investing in the new tech was a no-brainer, given the cost of entry. "To own our destiny in this space is a natural progression," he says.