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MICE: Space invaders

New entrants are targeting buyers with technology that upends traditional booking processes and pricing

Hotels have been through it with Airbnb, taxis with Uber and Lyft. Even TMCs are beginning to feel the heat. Wherever you look in the travel world, well-established businesses suddenly face fierce competition from often well-funded digital start-ups challenging decades-old ways of working.

The meetings booking process is no exception to this trend. Though the new contenders may be hipper than smashed avocado toast from a pop-up vegan cafe in Shoreditch, they have done their homework. Consequently, the fresh ideas they are promoting should make even the oldest of old hands reconsider how, where and what they buy when it comes to groups and events. It’s time to meet the meeting disruptors.

Or, at least, a representative trio of them, because fresh names are pouring into this market seemingly on a weekly basis. Australian company ivvy, for example, claiming to be the “world’s first real-time booking engine” for meetings, launched in the UK in June. Other names you may or may not recognise include Bizly, Social Tables, Meetingselect, Groupize and Spacebase, to name but a few. Major TMCs, hotel booking specialists like HRS and Inntel, and meetings management technology providers such as Cvent, are also pushing new or improved booking tools to their customers.

But who is going to emerge as the Airbnb of the meetings booking world? Ironically, for now, the answer is not Airbnb itself, despite the obvious similarities between selling accommodation and meeting space. The company launched Airbnb for Events earlier this year, but it is a tool for meeting planners to find accommodation for people attending events already booked elsewhere.

There is “nothing to share at the moment” regarding launching an official event booking platform, an Airbnb spokesperson says, but “we’re seeing organic growth of bookings for meetings spaces. You can filter by ‘suitable for events’ to find Airbnb listings for these needs.”

Be my Gaest
One disruptor aiming to claim the gap Airbnb has not yet filled is Danish company Gaest. Its consumer-friendly user interface and even its logo are not so different – but perhaps even more interesting is seeing how Airbnb has influenced companies like Gaest to rethink the fundamentals of a marketplace like meetings booking.

For example, companies traditionally book meetings on their own premises or in purpose-built but somewhat dull rooms in hotels. On Gaest’s site, hotels account for only one-third of the venues offered.

Gaest specialises in two types of meetings location. One is venues mainly used for other purposes. Examples include Lumière, in London’s Southwark, a loft usually rented for photography and filming; and Hunter Collective, also in London, a co-working space for beauty and fashion professionals. The second, in true sharing-economy style, is hiring meeting rooms on the premises of other businesses. In Copenhagen, 40 per cent of the rooms in Gaest’s portfolio are clients’ own in-house meeting areas.

According to Glenn Thorsen, UK head of operations for Gaest, both buyer and seller benefit from the arrangement. Those renting out their meeting rooms make better use of expensive but under-utilised real estate. For those booking the room, it “gets companies out of the rut of being in their own space”, Thorsen says. “They can feel the vibrancy and energy from the businesses around them.”

Thorsen argues that Gaest also motivates bookers because they can use an attractive tool to book good venues instead of feeling like “someone is watching over their shoulder” if forced to choose from a limited range of venues. Yet the paradox is that Gaest does help companies look over their employees’ shoulders. “We look and feel like Airbnb and Uber but it’s also a way for corporates to gain transparency on their spend,” says Thorsen. The argument is that, given some sexy venue choices, bookers won’t mind being told to use a platform that gathers all meeting reservations data in one place for the employer.

Another contemporary-looking booking tool is Meetingpackage, which is based in Finland. It claims to offer 250,000 rooms and conference venues in 125 countries, and no booking fees. One reason, presumably, Airbnb has not yet ventured into meetings is that most venue space cannot be booked in real-time. Meetingpackage is one of the first companies to change that, says founder and chief executive Joonas Ahola. Mainly through integration with Oracle Opera, a property management system used by many hotels, 51 per cent of Meetingpackage’s contracted inventory can be booked instantly.

But what of good, old-fashioned negotiation by buyers with venues to obtain the best possible rate? Ahola says corporate clients can load their negotiated rates into Meetingpackage, but adds: “Is it worth the time you spend? The prices online are usually the best available because venues want to show their best prices against their competitors.”

Meetingpackage is essentially shifting meetings to a dynamic pricing model and away from requests for proposal; the direction in which transient business travel hotel booking is also moving. Meeting venues prefer dynamic pricing too, according to Ahola, because RFPs are a hugely inefficient process. “Fewer than 10 per cent of the RFPs they respond to are successful,” he says.

B2C influence
But start-up entrepreneur, Nour Mouakke, chief executive of Wizme, takes the opposite view. He says corporate clients receive a better deal if they negotiate directly. “Would you rather book instantly at the rates they are offering or get optimum deals?” he asks.

Mouakke believes RFPs need modernising, not ditching. “We are taking the old-fashioned RFP system and revitalising it by bringing the best of the B2C world into the B2B world,” he says.

Like Meetingpackage and Gaest, that means having a slick user interface and diverse offerings (40 per cent of Wizme’s venues are not hotels). Wizme also attempts to overcome RFP inefficiency by reducing the number of unqualified leads. A meeting planner can configure a pricing request to allow only three venues to submit proposals. The principle is first come, first served, but planners can decline a proposal, allowing space for another venue to bid.

Planners can request proposals in one of two ways. They can either quote their own price and ask if any venue will meet it, or they can stage a reverse auction. “You ask, ‘What price will you quote me?’ for a fixed period,” Mouakke says.

There is little arguing that, as in the rest of travel, digital start-ups are creating more choice. In the short term that means extra work for the buyer because choosing the right platform is less of a simple commodity negotiation. Each platform offers something different. But research will pay off. Whatever you want, the right option is there for you.

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