Skift Take

This isn't the industry's first attempt to change the booking system. So what makes this time any different?

Booking a venue for a small meeting often requires event planners to fill out a lengthy request-for-proposal. Then there are the numerous back-and-forth emails between the planner and the venue, hashing out the details and negotiating deals, which could take days.

All for a 15-person meeting.

This is a process that is nearly universally hated and yet has stayed the same for decades, even as technology advances and other parts of the meetings space evolve. Both venues and event planners have clamored for an instant booking process for years, but have not always been ready to make the tech and operational investments that it would require.

There are signs this could be changing, however. Event platforms are continuing to develop technology to make meeting booking instant, and hotels are starting to realize that it may only be a matter of time before consumer demand pushes them to adopt a new system.

“Direct booking is in the very early stages,” said Brian Ludwig, vice president of sales at Cvent. “It’s a difficult thing to crack, because it’s a huge tech investment. But I think the market’s ready.”

During the Cvent Connect conference in Las Vegas earlier this month, the events company revealed a tool for hotels which streamlines the process of responding to requests-for-proposal. It automatically fills out information like dates, rates, and meeting space information, so hotel sales staff can more quickly respond to the requests.

While this removes some of the tedium of managing meeting bookings, it still does not remove the back and forth emails between planner and venue which take up a good chunk of time. According to Ludwig, Cvent is working on a system that would address this issue, and should have something to offer in 2020.

“I think we’re at a point now where everyone’s willing to make that investment,” he said.

Instant Versus Direct

In simple terms, direct booking is a process that does not involve human intervention, according to Ron Shah, CEO of event management startup Bizly. It is the form of buying that is most familiar to consumers. Amazon users, for example, search for the product they want, read the details and reviews of the product, then simply click and purchase. There is no negotiating with Amazon, or submitting lengthy requests to purchase an item.

Shah believes that a purely direct booking model will never be feasible for events, because of the hundreds of variables involved in setting up even a small meeting, but that does not mean the process can’t be vastly improved.

“The thing I think people are missing is that events are creative,” he said. “People want to reflect their own style, their creativity, their company, their brand, their business objective. And these vary widely based on what event you’re doing.”

In 2016, Bizly launched an app allowing users to book spaces for small meetings on demand. But the company never got as many customers as it expected, and had trouble moving to the corporate enterprise level, until it revamped its process to include enterprise and procurement functionality.

Now, the startup is working on a service that would instantly personalize the process of booking an event, removing the need for back-and-forth negotiations and lengthy requests-for-proposals. By clicking a button on the booking platform, the tool would instantly apply all the necessary information, including a company’s corporate contract, its corporate rate, personal preferences, and the type of event the company is trying to create.

“Instant personalization is where this market is headed, and the only way it can solve this problem,” he said. “Direct book is not going to look and feel like Airbnb or Expedia, or just be a simplified version of the current request-for-proposal process. It’s going to be a radically new experience.”

Fear Of Change

While the current method of booking small meeting spaces is cumbersome and frustrating, it gives hotels an advantage. Within the current system, hotels have full control over their inventory, which gives them negotiating power. By opening up their inventory to a third party platform such as Cvent, and allowing users to book instantly with no human intervention, hotels might lose that power.

“I think there’s fear on the hotel side to create a distribution monster,” said Tony Wagner, vice president of CWT Meetings & Events for the Americas and South Pacific Region. “Because if you create a distribution engine that’s strong enough, hotels could lose their negotiating control.”

He added that there was a lot of great technology that could simplify the booking process, but that it was “incumbent on hotels” to make it a reality.

Not only might hotels lose their negotiating power, but changing the current system would require a huge tech investment and a massive overhaul of their business operations. Faced with these challenges, and the possibility of losing control, many hotels prefer to keep the status quo.

That being said, the current booking process is inefficient for hotels as well, and many are feeling the pressure of an industry that is increasingly moving towards a change.

“Hotels are not ready yet, but the consumer is not going to wait for this,” said Blair McSheffrey, vice president of global and hotel sales at Sonesta. “If hotels don’t react to it, then they’re going to miss the boat.”

McSheffrey believes that the industry is headed towards a direct booking model for small meetings, and adapting to this trend is a priority for Sonesta.

To do this, the hospitality company first needs to get the right technology in its hotels, which it is currently working on. Next, he said, is finding a way to streamline the request-for-proposal process. He added that Sonesta has an advantage, since it has a smaller set of hotels, making it easier to test out a more efficient booking process for small meetings.

“We sometimes over-complicate things, and I think the consumer is going to drive us to simplify the process,” he said.

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Tags: cvent, meetings, meetingsiq, sonesta

Photo credit: A meeting space at the Generator Stockholm. Generator Hostels

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