by Matt Alderton | January 29, 2016
When PlanSoft Corp. debuted the first online RFP engine in 1995, it forever changed the way meeting professionals source venues. Until then, meeting planners had to spend countless hours visiting properties, making phone calls, meeting with salespeople, and manually completing paperwork. For venues and planners alike, it was inefficient, ineffective, and exhausting.

Electronic requests for proposals took the slog that was sourcing and streamlined it, according to meetings technology consultant Corbin Ball, president of Corbin Ball Associates. "They are both useful and effective for meeting planners," he says of eRFPs. "One of the big benefits is the large online database of meeting facilities searchable by a number of criteria. To know what facility options are out there is very useful."

So is the direct communication link with those facilities. "The first technology in which hotels could respond to a meeting lead online was very basic. It was literally dates, a room block, and a free-form box where you could respond," says Mike Mason, founder and CEO of venue sourcing platform Zentila, which powers Successful Meetings'venue search tool. "Even so, that was really cool back then."

Like so many first-generation innovations before it -- televisions, VCRs, computers, and cellphones, just to name a few -- what initially was "cool" about eRFPs eventually felt "clunky." Fortunately, companies like StarCite and Cvent emerged, turning eRFPs from a novelty into a necessity. As a result, modern meeting planners can send requests with just a couple of clicks, receiving responses from venues around the world within a matter of hours.

At least, that's how it's supposed to work. Unfortunately, it doesn't always.

"The eRFP process has some challenges," Ball says. "Although eRFP sites can substantially digitize and streamline the booking process, there is substantial misuse, especially by inexperienced planners. Hoteliers sometimes feel flooded by eRFP 'spam' that has been sent to dozens of hotels and without a seriousness of intent."

Mason agrees and says eRFPs have a fatal flaw: Although they're used by planners to source venues, they were created by technology suppliers to market them.

"eRFP technology really was born out of an advertising program as a way for hotels to market themselves," he explains. "As a result, the eRFP has stopped being a productive way to get business done. It's better than a manual process, sure. But it still ends up wasting lots and lots of time and energy."

Leads vs. Bookings

The problem, Mason says, is that hotels pay for leads, not bookings. Quantity, not quality. Systems therefore inundate them with eRFPs that may result in business -- but probably won't.

"The technology is drowning salespeople, so meeting planners aren't getting timely responses from hotels and they're not getting complete proposals," continues Mason, who in 2010 coined the term "lead spam" to describe the phenomenon of planners sending too many requests to too many hotels, which has resulted in a 300 percent increase in the number of meeting leads sent to hotels over the past five years. "One meeting could be sent to 30, 40, 50, or even 90 hotels at one time. That's 90 salespeople spending an hour each to respond to a single meeting with 50 rooms a night. It's just not efficient."

Indeed, a 2015 survey by destination marketing company Development Counsellors International (DCI) found that "responsiveness of suppliers" is one of international meeting planners' top three concerns, behind only declining budgets and increased workload.

"Planners are waiting two to seven business days to get responses from hotels, and [because hotels are paying to be in their search results] they're struggling to find the right hotels," exclaims Mason, who says hotels' and planners' mutual frustrations are catalyzing a new era in eRFP technology. "I think the advertising model has reached its pinnacle. People are starting to realize that eRFPs shouldn't be about marketing hotels; they should be about booking them."

A New Era in eRFPs?

Zentila is doing its part to usher in a new era of eRFP efficiency, according to Mason. Created in 2010, its ad-free eRFP platform leverages organic instead of paid search to match meeting planners with the best venues for their event, delivering hotels with qualified leads for business they're well positioned to win. The latest version -- its largest-ever update, released on Jan. 20, 2016 -- lets hotels propose different pricing for different date options and includes the industry's first "Super Login."

"Typically, each sales manager at a hotel has their own login; if they're traveling or unavailable, it's difficult for another sales manager to step in and take over to deliver a timely response to the meeting planner," Mason explains. "By creating a 'Super Login' that's shared across the sales team, everyone can see everything all in one dashboard, making it easier for hotels to provide a timely response."

Zentila is just one in a growing sea of innovators, according to Ball. "Something needs to be done to reduce 'RFP spam' -- to qualify planners and to educate them on the benefits and limitations," he says. "I like Zentila's approach in some ways. I think this is an area that is ripe for innovation. New companies, such as MeetingEvolution, are providing open-source, APEX-compliant sourcing and event logistics options. There are others in the works."

Of course, technology alone can't fix what's broken in the eRFP ecosystem. Along with better tools, meaningful change will require better processes, according to Mason, who says planners can do their part by being "selective and specific." "Ensure hotels have all the information they need to give you the best possible proposal. It's not as simple as putting in a room block and providing dates; you also should provide details about your agenda and attendees," he advises. "Also, limit the number of hotels you send your RFP to, and if possible let hotels know who they're competing against. Doing so is a great way to engage the hotel salesperson and get them to take notice of your RFP, versus the hundreds of others they received before lunch."

Like most modern technology, eRFPs one day will probably be extinct, replaced perhaps by direct booking engines. Experts agree, however, that those are still years away. In the meantime, planners, hotels, and technology suppliers must therefore collaborate on new ways of working together, Ball and Mason agree.

"Meeting space for large, complex events cannot be commoditized easily. The total value of the group -- to the city and to a hotel chain -- are just two of the multiple variables to consider. You won't be able to go to an Amazon-type of site to book a large event in the foreseeable future," Ball says. "I do see continued refinement of existing systems moving to a more frictionless experience. I also think that social review sites specifically focused on events will play a greater role in the process."

Adds Mason, "Ultimately, I think planners will be able to book meetings directly in a hotel's system, the way leisure travelers do with Expedia and Travelocity. Until then, I think the idea of the eRFP is going to continue to evolve in a way that supports booking a meeting, and not just sending one."