Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
Martin Ferguson asks whether M&E technology is helping or hindering buyers and managers...
Technology's role in the purchase of air fares and hotel rooms is relatively straightforward and unquestionably useful. The traveller, or agent, logs on to a website or reservation system, selects their desired date, time, class and add-ons, and then confirms the booking. The technology allows the travel manager to collate the data, track their travellers and monitor policy compliance, while the finance officer can audit spend. Simple.
Nowadays, buying corporate meetings and events (M&E) tends to fall within the remit of the travel procurement professional, though in many corporations power struggles between PAs, secretaries, bookers and the travel manager still exist.
Given that buyers are dealing with, largely, the same set of hotel and venue suppliers in both travel and M&E, one might reasonably expect there to be similarly effortless booking and data collation methods. Well, not quite. M&E technology may be a multimillion pound global industry, but for buyers and managers the perfect solution still seems some way off.
“The difficulty is that meetings and events are not commodities in the same way as travel,” says Morag Alabaster, director of MWB Meeting Venues at MWB Business Exchange. “It is different to buying a flight or hotel room. It is a very relationship-driven sector. Bookers already have long-standing connections with venues, or with agencies.”
Meetings sector expert Dev Anand, a managing partner of London-based Impetus Marketing, says there is no one-size-fits-all technology solution for M&E, but insists all businesses must have some way of knowing what’s going on.
“If you’re a major corporation and you’ve hundreds of secretaries and PAs making bookings all over the world, then you really owe it to yourself to collect the data. “There are a million ways of doing so, and I know of some major blue chips that are still using formatted spreadsheets.
“Technology, such as Starcite or Arcaneo Metron, is right for certain types of organisations, and clearly has traction in North America.”
Both are two of the biggest players in the field. Alabaster says it is no surprise that large American conglomerates and global pharmaceutical companies have been quick to adopt their kit, as they need a global repository for all their data. But it’s clearly not for everyone.
“Starcite is not just a booking tool that sends out RFPs [requests for proposal] to venues for large events, it is also a budget management tool and you can manage parts of the event itself by creating websites, delegates' lists and joining instructions,” Alabaster says. “But some technology can be complicated and cumbersome to use. And, in my experience, the larger pharmaceutical companies get their agency to manage from them. The booker will ring the agency and say: ‘I want to book a meeting for so-and-so’, and the company then pays the agency to put the data into the system because the bookers don’t want to use it.
“But they are good in terms of capturing global spend data for larger events. For smaller ones – meetings of, say, 12 – it can be very cumbersome and people just don’t want to use it.”
Anand agrees there are tangible benefits to be found when implementing technology and a streamlined M&E booking process across a business. But he admits the jury is still out when it comes to the value of automated RFP technology – that is, when a booker enters a venue request into a system and the supplier picks up the details at the other side. The booking is eventually made, in theory, without anyone having spoken.
“The question is, how effective is this type of technology for getting you the right venue, and your prices collected?” Anand asks. “There are two main weaknesses. First, you are reliant on every hotel and venue being in the system – at the moment that’s far from the case, particularly in Europe where you have a lot of non-hotel venues, such as Regus Office Centres or Cathedrals, for example. It’s all right if you're using Hiltons and Holiday Inns.
“Second, how quickly do venues respond to electronic RFPs? History tells you they are a lot slower than if you actually just pick up the phone. But then there’s no real reason you can’t do both: you can still place the business anyway you like and just use the technology as a recording device – though, admittedly, it’s a very expensive way of doing it.”
Margaret Birse, director of global travel services for Serco, employs an internal management team to deal with any meeting or event that costs more than £1,000. Rather than procure an all-encompassing M&E kit, she combines a venue finding tool called Gratis with delegate management system Events Pro.
“It’s difficult to find something that fits all your requirements,” she says. “Gratis allows us to manage electronically the whole venue-finding process. It sends out RFPs to venues for events, and allows us to run-off management information, and find out bookings and commissions data. And Events Pro allows us to manage the people-side of things, like event promotion and delegate management.”
Birse says technology can play an important role in maintaining continuity, especially when a key employee is absent from work. “It is not ideal for someone to rely on hand-written notes if an event organiser is off sick,” she says. “Our technology allows a PA to call up the central team, which logs into the system to find out what is going on.”
Samantha van Leeuwen, head of UK hotels and venues for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), has developed an M&E portal powered by accommodation specialist BSI for employees booking off-site meetings. Her method aims to collate data from all M&E activity, no matter how small the meeting.
“A venue request goes straight through to a BSI consultant who performs the venue search,” she says. “I don’t think the technology exists for us to go straight to the venue without using an agency.”
Van Leeuwen’s booking technology sits within a PwC portal, which also includes information relating to policy, health and safety and traveller tracking.
“Everything goes through the system, so we have absolute visibility. The data is invaluable as it allows us to understand the business and measure return on investment from each event.
“The overall challenge we face is that people are used to picking up the phone and making a request. We’re not at the stage where we can take that away, though it would make the cost of the transaction cheaper.”
Broadly speaking, buyers and programme managers will embrace technology wherever it saves money, creates efficiencies and generally makes life easier for employees. Travel has been accused of failing to adapt to technology and social media as quickly as other sectors, but it is by no means an industry full of Luddites.
This article was first published in ABTN's sister title Buying Business Travel, the award-winning magazine for company travel & meetings buyers and arrangers.
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