Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Computer Applications for Meeting Planners

“Do I go with traditional, computer-based applications or move into web-based applications for my meetings?” While attending the SGMP national conference in Kansas City last month, I was drawn into several discussions around this very question and it is one that is quietly becoming a hot issue in our industry. While the hype is all in favor of web-based computing, there are advantages to being “offline” as well and I found that many people did not really take the time to look at both options – but nonetheless had strong feelings about it. In my mind, there are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches and to be a good meeting planner requires that you take the time to figure out which approach is best for you and your clients.

In a nutshell, computer-based applications are programs that “live” on your computer. You load them onto your machine and have access to them typically only with that machine. Internet access is not required for most (if not all) of these applications. Web-based applications on the other hand are not loaded on your computer. Internet access is required to use the software, but you can often use the programs from any machine since typically all you need in addition to an internet connection is a user name and password to use them. So what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each?

Computer-based apps are very common, so the odds of finding something that will serve your needs are high. In fact, there are often several options that would meet your needs, which helps keep prices relatively low. If you have a higher budget, you can purchase (or have “built” for you) task-specific software that is more tailored to your needs. Many computer-based applications are easy to install and come with regular updates once you’ve registered the software. On the down side, these traditional programs usually create “flat” files, which are difficult to transfer or translate into other programs. They also tend to be very generalized, especially at the cheaper end of the spectrum. [This makes sense if you think about it: commercial software costs quite a bit to produce. The more potential users who can purchase it means you can sell it for less and still make a profit – but that means you have to make it more general to appeal to more potential users…] Customization is both a plus and a minus here. You can usually customize the software to meet your specific needs from project to project, but you are the one who has to do the customizing. Depending on your level of comfort with that, this could be a big drawback or not much of an issue.

Web-based programs (sometimes referred to as cloud computing) are even easier to install since there is little to no software that is actually installed on your computer. You reduce the need for technical expertise in your organization because the software is maintained by the company who sold you the product. Updates are automatic – you don’t need to do a thing. These programs are also usually pretty easy to learn to use and allow for some customization on your part; it really depends on the product (which is also true of traditional applications). Another plus: your data can easily be updated into new formats, transferred, or translated into another application. The biggest drawback of web-based applications concerns control of your data. Your data does not reside on your computer; it exists only on the servers of the host company and is accessible only through the portal that you access with your user name and password. As with customization, this could be a large or small issue for you, depending on your circumstances.

The issue of internet dependency is, for me, at the heart of the matter. Web-based applications require internet access. While this may be less of an issue as more and more smart phones enter the market and permeate our industry, it is still a factor. Yes, you can access your data from anywhere – so long as you have a connection. I find myself in enough buildings where access is limited (or is available for a fee) to make this an obstacle. Computer-based apps are not necessarily any better since you have to actually have the computer available that has your data (and the software) on it, which presents it’s own set of issues from security to transport.

At this point, my feeling is that web-based applications will not totally replace computer-based apps any time soon, in spite of what the cheerleaders are saying, as there are still many advantages to having offline access to data and software. However, they are correct in that this is the wave of the future and there is a huge potential out there for cloud computing in the meetings industry. We, as meeting planners, need to stay on top of that wave, learning about the products and options that will become primary tools for us as we move forward into the future. I hope this overview was helpful in getting you started…

~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises