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For online meeting space booking platforms like Bizly to be profitable, they have to offer both automated purchase capabilities and chat functionality with live venue staff to satisfy the demands of enterprise clients.

Booking a private dining room or hotel meeting space for a small corporate group can sometimes require almost as many back-and-forth emails and lengthy negotiations between the venue and customer as a larger conference.

Let’s say an administrative assistant is tasked with organizing a sales strategy lunch for 10 people in another city. The process might begin with searching multiple hotel and event venue websites, followed by emails to determine rate and availability, and then there’s the whole request-for-proposal (RFP) process to consider different bids.

All of that requires an inordinate amount of time, waiting, delays, stress, and expense to organize a 90-minute meal.

Last year, Bizly launched an iOS app and website providing hotel rooms and event venues that companies can book on demand via an automated platform, which closely resembles the Airbnb user interface and experience. With Bizly, customers search through meeting and event venue listings geographically, using price and various amenity filters to narrow the field of options, just like Airbnb guests do to search for home-shares.

In 2016, Bizly featured 300 hotel venues primarily in New York and California available via instant booking. By the end of this year, the goal is to have 10,000 properties listed in 75 cities, including hotels and non-hotel venues, available via both instant booking and a new customized booking option.

According to Bizly founder Ron Shah, while his customer repeat rate was around 80 percent in 2016, the overall customer volume was less than anticipated, and the cost of new customer acquisition made the economics challenging.

After meeting with his existing corporate clients, who include numerous well-known technology companies, Shah realized he needed to expand Bizly’s product to make it more attractive at the corporate enterprise level, versus for just the individual mid-level employee who needs a fast-turnaround for booking a company gathering.

“During those discussions, we learned very quickly that there are some huge pain points for large companies when it comes to booking small meetings under 100 people, which no one has solved,” said Shah. “There’s billions of dollars happening around small meetings and events, and it’s totally fragmented. For example, small events are being charged on corporate cards, and it’s often going into general T&E (travel and entertainment) expenses, when in reality it’s a small meetings expense.”

Shah explained that most online meeting booking sites, ranging from Cvent to Groupize, are designed primarily for meeting planning departments, but no one else on the corporate buyer side really uses those platforms.

So, first, Bizly needed to evolve and expand to offer the capability to aggregate all of the small meetings spend happening across different company departments, because if that event purchasing is miss-classified, it means it’s not being tracked, measured, and reported appropriately.

And, equally important, the Bizly site needed to be “consumerized” with more contextual content on the front-end, so buyers could use the search engine more effectively, and dummy-proofed on the back-end so suppliers in any department could more easily navigate the corporate dashboard to better leverage the suite of data analytics and reporting processes.

Another challenge for enterprise clients, the lack of a consolidated platform for sourcing, booking, and expensing small meetings online across an entire company ecosytsem also poses numerous compliance problems when accounting departments lack codified systems at scale to ensure competitive venue pricing and honor preferred partner agreements.

On top of all that, the biggest pain point for everyone involved in booking meetings is the despised RFP.

“No one wants to use RFPs for small meetings today; they are universally hated by both suppliers and buyers,” Shah said. “Suppliers generally have less than one percent conversion, and buyers always have to wait endlessly to hear back from them. And then there’s all of this negotiation that has to be processed manually, either via email or phone or whatever. It just sucks for everyone.”

Real Time Messaging For Online Meeting Planning

To address those issues for enterprise clients, Bizly launched an upgraded platform this month with an integrated compliance mechanism and real-time messaging built directly into the booking process.

There’s also now expanded listing content produced by local meeting professionals to provide more context around the overall design vibe, neighborhood environment, and guest experience at each property. And there’s a broader scope of hospitality venues available, beyond just hotels and restaurants, ranging from bowling alleys to vineyards.

Customers with corporate emails can still book meeting and event space instantly on the iOS app like before. The new beta website, meanwhile, is temporarily invitation-only for Bizly to test the new chat functionality and compliance system with its existing corporate clients.

Shah says that about 80 percent of corporate use cases require advance planning to iron out custom meeting requests, even for small events. So one of the big changes on the expanded website is the addition of the “Request to Book” option, which supplements the instant booking capability. It’s designed for customers who want to further customize a booking to cater to attendees with special demands, such as menu preferences, or who require special equipment or have more granular questions.

After choosing a venue and selecting Request to Book, the customer is then placed into a message center where they can chat in real time directly with an event services staff member at the venue. The employee’s working hours and average response time are both visible to the end user.

The venue has the opportunity to upload floor plans, brochures, menus, and anything else to provide as much detail as possible about its listing. For those customers who want additional information before booking, or to negotiate rates and add-ons, they can chat with the venue host in the message center, just like an Airbnb guest can chat with a prospective host.

Therefore, the venue now has a tool to create a custom shopping cart, and the customer can tag their purchase by department, employee, venue, and/or city before forwarding an invoice to procurement.

Corporate executives with administrative access can track all of the conversation between the buyer and supplier, which is important for compliance and transparency reasons. Admins can also pull in as many company employees as necessary into the message center, as well as third parties like a travel management company, for a complete overview of the transaction.

There’s also a shared calendar attached to each order for teams to collaborate and comment on the transaction details. That’s attractive for marketing and finance executives to share any relevant company priorities or client insight specific for any given booking.

To better address compliance thresholds, administrators are also able to set caps for spending. So if a meeting venue or hotel room rate exceeds a pre-determined limit, then the person securing the venue is unable to finalize the booking, and the order is rerouted to the designated manager for approval.

Furthermore, admins can stipulate the need for competitive offers if the rate exceeds the cap, in which case the system requires multiple listings for each order. They can also upload preferred agreements with hospitality companies to further direct the venue search process.

“We’ve built this with a very consumer-centric and content-first approach, because we said, ‘Let’s empower the customer with as much information as possible, and seamless access to talk directly to the venue,'” explained Shah. “Other platforms like Cvent give you a little bit of information, but not much, because they want you to do an RFP. That’s where their business is. Our model is different. We don’t want you to do an RFP. We want to kill the RFP.”

Looking ahead, Bizly is developing a review engine from the ground up, but Shah said that will take some time to populate. He’s also working on integrations with platforms like Eventbrite so customers can create custom event pages from within the system.


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Tags: booking, startups

Photo credit: The Mercer Hotel in New York participates in the Bizly platform. Mercer Hotel

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