Figuring out where to hold a small meeting is becoming more like booking a flight or hotel online. As more of the giant hotel chains buy into this model, there is the potential for the wider distribution marketplace for meetings space to shift significantly.
Event technology has helped revolutionize the process of planning a meeting along with the experience for attendees. The space is crowded with competing products and platforms, however, adding an additional layer of complexity for planners.
In our new Event Tech Evolution Interview Series, we're talking to leaders at the companies defining the future of the event technology space with an eye on the trends and disruptions to come. You can read all of the articles in the series here.
The meetings and event sector is due for a makeover to bring the process of finding and securing meeting space closer to the traditional online travel booking process.
Not every meeting is so complex that a long and confusing contract needs to be signed or months of planning needs to go towards its execution.
Ciaran Delaney, co-founder and CEO of online meetings space booking tool Meetingsbooker.com, believes that technology is empowering meetings professionals to make smarter, and quicker, decisions about where to hold events. More meetings are also being help outside traditional hotel meeting rooms places like co-working spaces.
“What we’re finding is business is so quick now, that the lead time for half of our bookings is within a week,” said Delaney, whose firm works on commissions. “If you need a meeting room next Wednesday, you don’t have time to make phone calls and send emails. The customer has always wanted an online solution for meetings, particularly when you think of all the other [sectors of travel].”
Skift spoke to Delaney about the rise of online bookings for meeting space, the challenges venues face when dealing with simple meetings, and how the concept is seeing more buy-in from the world of corporate travel.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Skift: Business travel has long lagged behind leisure travel when it comes to technology, and the meetings and events space is no different. How big a challenge has it been to develop and market an online booking site for meetings?
Ciaran Delaney: Business travel is such a big industry, with so many major companies heavily invested in it from a technology perspective, providing solutions, but if someone is going on a business travel trip and they need a meeting room for two hours at the airport, that’s not bookable online.
Our whole goal at Meetingsbooker is to make that process simple and easy, but it’s been hard. I think now in the last 18 months there’s been a big shift that a lot of the suppliers are now interested in selling online, and agencies are now looking at it. So there was a period where I think not many people had their eyes on us, or felt that it was much of a problem area, but I think now most people have kind of moved from that to realize that they need to automate it for various reasons.
What we’re finding is business is so quick now, that the lead time for half of our bookings is within a week. If you need a meeting room next Wednesday, you don’t have time to make phone calls and send emails. The customer has always wanted an online solution, particularly when you think of all the other channels. Everything else is in our lives is online, flights, hotels, car hire, laundry, parking, you know what I mean? It’s all online, so when it comes to meetings, people are still confused that they have to send emails and make phone calls.
Skift: Your team recently released a report on some trends from your site’s booking data. What really stood out to you about how people use the platform?
Delaney: It was interesting in our report that 48 percent of our bookings are going to non-hotels, and I think there’s been a shift as well in the last number of years, whereby there’s a lot of co-working spaces. There’s a lot of more unique styles of venues, museums, theaters, restaurants, pubs that have meeting space, and I think that shift is interesting. I think they’re quick as well to adopt new technology, but obviously, they don’t have the scale of a lot of hotel groups.
Skift: I would imagine your customers, whether they are planners or executive assistants or whoever, prefer booking online to the onerous offline or electronic request for proposal systems.
Delaney: The customer, the end user, has always wanted an online solution, and I think that that’s a kind of given. The main thing they want is choice of venues and also speed of transaction. They’re not necessarily massively price conscious we find, even though we deliver kind of dynamic pricing, and lower rates, and a large percentage of our bookings [have] a discount, but I think it’s a speed, location, just get it done sort of thing. “I want the venue sourced for next Wednesday, and I want to stop working on finding a venue. I want to get it done.” We’ve now seen that, over the last eighteen months, the people who are employing a lot of the people who are making bookings, their main frustration is that they don’t know what they’re spending on small meetings.
Skift: It must be complicated to get hotels on board, though, because they all have their own systems for selling this space.
Delaney: Yeah, it’s an interesting one. To date we’ve partnered with more independent hotel groups, and also quite a few franchised hotels. We partnered with two of IHG’s hotel groups in the UK, but they’re managed, so they’re not owned by IHG. They’re Holiday Inn properties, but they have their own websites. Interstate Hotels, and also Kew Green hotels in the UK, both of them have maybe forty hotels that have our booking system on their website. So it’s been very interesting seeing that develop, and it’s been interesting to see how at the beginning they wanted to try it, and now they’re much more [engaged]. The booking volumes are growing, and they’re much more engaged with it.
They used to have to manually charge the client for the meeting room, send them an invoice, and then also in many cases ring again to get payment. Our system has online payment, so you put in your credit card and you pay online. That is one of the things that they love about it, along with the operational savings as well; the fact that the client is interacting online and all the hotel is doing is actually delivering the meeting room effectively on the day of the meeting, which they should be doing. In my eyes, the customer should, for a small meeting, quickly be able to book online, and when they go to the venue have an amazing meeting. That’s what the venue is best at.
The hotel, that’s their job. In my head, our job is to give the customer great content, information, and a very good booking process. Once they book, the hotel has to give a very good experience on the day.
We’re starting to talk to bigger chains more on an essential level now as well. I think since we’ve partnered with Carlson Wagonlit Travel, that’s changes a dimension quite a bit, because although we’re a strong marketplace ourselves, and we’re very strong on Google search, but I think the central office of a hotel chain spends a lot of time trying to partner with and develop their relationships with the bigger travel management companies.
Skift: There’s also the content aspect of developing a booking site with photos, reviews, and all that. How do you approach the challenge of making sure customers have all the information they need to make the right decision?
Delaney: One of the things we try and focus on, someone said this to me years ago, and it stuck in my head, “Any good travel platform will have very good content and very good pricing.” We’ve spent a huge amount of time getting good content for venues as well, and like getting a picture of the meeting room, which sounds obvious, but we would have a team who were literally going to venues, getting the pictures of that individual meeting room, because often a hotel might do a brochure, and they have ten meeting rooms, and they take one picture of a meeting room and they put it in the brochure, but you’re not gonna pay $500 for a board room to do a presentation to a client without seeing the picture.
With reviews, again I suppose in a lot of ways we’re not recreating the wheel here. We know reviews work in travel. We know that there’s a massive behavior around leisure travel to read reviews, so we’re brought that into the meetings sector as well, so someone can actually read about someone else’s experience at that venue, and I think that’s very powerful. When you read the reviews, in many cases they’re quite positive. Literally out of thousands of reviews, there’s like one or two that are like, “Don’t book this venue,” but what they say in the review is very informative, and it’s often small remarks like, “It took us a while to find the meeting room,” or “When we arrived, the first coffee break, the coffee was cold, or not hot enough, and we spoke to the hotel and the second coffee break was great.”
Skift: The big travel management companies out there have been pushing into the meetings sector, as well. In your conversations with these companies, what are their priorities?
Delaney: I think the travel managers and corporates now want to transact online for meetings, and that’s why we’ve started working with Carlson Wagonlit. They were very quick to identify that. I think they’re close to their customer base. I think they identified early that they needed to get a solution for small meetings, because their customers are beginning to ask for that. And certainly when travel managers see the platform, they like it straight away from a usability perspective. There’s also quite a lot of technology that we offer as well for the travel manager, so they can actually create their own profile. They can load their own employees. They can set up approval rules. They can set up central payment solutions, and they can also load their preferred hotels.
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Photo credit: A 2017 event at a coworking space in Leipzig, Germany.The meetings and event sector is due for a makeover to bring the process of finding and securing meeting space closer to the traditional online travel booking process. kremkau / Flickr