Online booking systems

The online revolution has already changed the way travel is paid for, so why have we not seen a shift in the way meetings and conferences are planned and booked?

  • E-Mail
By  Administrator Published  April 13, 2008

The online revolution has already changed the way travel is paid for, so why have we not seen a shift in the way meetings and conferences are planned and booked?

Although the internet has forced travel agents and other suppliers to rethink the way they distribute their products, the way in which meetings venues are booked has remained largely unaffected by technological advances.

The first rule of thumb in meeting planning is that everything changes.

Although most hotel chains offer online enquiry services for meetings planners, hoteliers acknowledge that the systems available today have their limitations; due to the nature of booking a meeting or conference, some form of personal interaction is almost always necessary.

"Regular meetings can easily be booked online, however more complex meetings and conferences that require multi-days or venues will always require human contact to ensure clear communication on all the details," says Manuel Rozario, regional director information for the Gulf, Jumeirah.

But technological limitations are not the only thing to blame - Middle Eastern culture means that many people would rather speak to a human voice when planning their event, particularly if there is some risk that plans will need to be changed on the day or at very short notice, he added.

"In the Middle East, conference planners generally prefer face to face or verbal contact, whilst our clients from overseas seem to be more comfortable using technology to book meetings and conferences," says Rozario.

"It would be great to see Middle East planners become more comfortable with this technology too."

Some of the newest hotels in the region, such as the InterContinental Hotel Dubai Festival City and the Shangri-La Qaryat al Beri in Abu Dhabi have introduced new online facilities to make life easier, but the planner still has to speak to a sales agent to make the booking.

Groups booking meeting or conference rooms at the later are issued with a dedicated login ID on the Shangri-La website. Delegates can then make all their bookings online through that portal with direct access to the rates and cut off dates negotiated by the event organiser.

"When it comes to hotel technology to manage that inventory, we have a new programme called IDEAS," explains sales and marketing manager Levent Tekün.

"It's a yield management system that can create the flexibility that a company needs - based on market trends - that can make predictions as to when clients will find the best rates and show a greater flexibility in terms of rates."

The system monitors and analyses the rates and availability throughout the year and uses that information to make predictions as to what dates are likely to0 be most suited to a client's budget or availability.

"The computer will base its predictions on data that has gone in since we opened and monitor the trends of what has been happening in the hotel," Tekün adds.

"It gives you a good idea of what is happening in the city as well."

At the InterCon, clients booking rooms at the new Events Centre have access to the InterContinental online booking tool; a flexible website that can be tailored to certain client needs.

"For instance you can create and set up the whole event on the website, with your own company logo and messages you want to communicate to certain participants; participants can book online straight on line into our system," says Christian Pertl, director of sales and marketing, InterContinental Hotel Dubai Festival City.

"In principal you can manage your whole event online. If you are the organiser you can set up everything with your logos and colours and messages. You have access to a participation list and you can send them all a link and logon code."

Other tools include e-Proposal and Meetings Broker.

The latter can be accessed through the IHG corporate website. It provides bookers with an electronic questionnaire that can be filled in and submitted online to determine what kind or room and programme would be suitable to their event.

When the request is submitted, all the information goes straight into the system and returns the results directly to the applicant.

e-Proposal also reduces the amount of time spent talking to a sales agent. Bookers are sent a link to a personalised web portal with a multimedia presentation, Pertl explains.

Organisers can then choose to download any of the relevant information in printable pdf format. Attached to the presentation is another PDF file containing the proposal.

"That's quite an innovation and it looks very sexy," Pertl adds.

InterContinental's vice president distribution marketing, Europe, Middle East & Africa, Andrew Rubinacci, said his focus over the next three to five years is to develop a website that allows corporates to make meetings and events bookings online with functions available that allow them to book the venue and even choose the menu.

"To automate this process is difficult because there are no back-end systems on an industry-wide basis," he says. "Some individual hotels have online sales and catering booking systems, but there is no system that covers every hotel in a group."

He says such a system needs to be built and could even be run through the GDS and made available to travel agents.

"People will still call if it's a US $20,000 booking, but they will book the components online first and then just ring to confirm," explains Rubinacci. "It's easy to do on a hotel by hotel basis, but ultimately the consumer wants to go to one place. We want to be where the customers are."

Accor Hotels is also set to roll out new technology in its Pullman brand that will give bookers a more interactive online experience before they make the booking.

"We already do have [an online booking facility], but for Pullman that system will become far more professional," says Christoph Landais, managing director, Accor Middle East.

"Bookers will be able to see on the internet exactly what the rooms are like; they will get an interactive viewing of the meeting rooms available and can see what they are getting."

A different perspective

But other industry professionals believe that there is a long way to go before hotels can provide the online booking capability that a client needs to organise a big meeting or conference.

"Hotels offering access to their booking systems is a good idea, however, this is not the entire solution for a meeting planner," says Alexander John, director, business development MCI.

"Access to the hotel booking systems may work for corporate transient and FIT travellers, however for meeting planners we need a more flexible system."

John also highlights the fact that meetings itineraries are prone to change and booking systems need to be designed to cope with that: "The first rule of thumb in meeting planning is that everything changes. Any system created and offered to our world needs to be adaptable and flexible," he explains.

"Besides, accommodation and meeting rooms are only two parts of an entire program. Any evolution in systems needs to be addressed at a policy level and allow for these parameters to be considered."

So the question is, will there ever be a time when planners will be able to book their entire event online?

"Having worked on both sides of the fence, I do not think there will be 100% online solution ever," says John.

"Systems have evolved based on client requirements over the years. Offering access to meeting room online is a good idea from a perspective of real time availability checks and blocking venues. However, this is not the end of the booking process."

There are many other parameters that need to be considered, most of which still require a human element, he adds.

According to John, planners dealing with large volumes look for integrated tools: "The audience that we service require more integrated product that would cover a number of areas such as accommodation, logistics, meetings etc," he says.

"MCI as an organization has tailor made solutions which serve our customer best."

But when it comes to online bookings, MCI's technology goes one step beyond simply providing a channel to send a request to a venue: "The key objective of any booking system is to make it easy to use and to generate accurate data to help track and assist with future strategic decision making," John explains.

"The systems we offer, often look and feel like the client's own online environment, making it easier for the end consumer to navigate and have a sense of comfort that it is not just another booking engine. And the tailor made reports we generate allow for customers to start measuring their events more strategically.

"Finally, a system is a means to an end. No amount of data harvesting and warehousing will replace the final element - delivery," he concludes.

Booking blues

MCI's director of business development Alexander John says the reasons for the lack of technology adaptability in this region could include:

• Financial commitments

• Technical adaptability to current systems

• Culture of organization

• Cheaper labour

• Corporate policy - in this highly networked world, conventions centres and hoteliers are going back to their roots and offering a personal service to their customers.

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code