On Feb. 1, 2008, a free online search engine and RFP delivery service quietly launched on Cvent.com. There were no ad campaigns; no press releases were distributed. Yet within 90 days, the Cvent Supplier Network service had 4,000 registered meeting planners, and had delivered more than 10,000 RFPs.
“The biggest thing I tell my peers is, ‘You know the 15 steps you go through to get an RFP awarded? Well, this cuts it down to three,'” says Mike Stickler, managing partner of Faith Based Solutions. “Usually, their eyes light up and they say, ‘Really? How does that work?'”
It works by combining elements of search engines like Google and Priceline to create an easier, more intuitive way to source and select meeting venues. Like Google, search results on the Cvent Supplier Network include every option, regardless of whether or not it is an advertiser. From there, planners can filter search results according to their meeting specific needs and preferred vendors. For example, if you are looking for a Hilton hotel in Austin that is less than 10 miles from the airport and has more than 10,000 square feet of meeting space, you can enter those parameters and narrow the Austin results down from 262 to three properties in less than 15 seconds. The network also features unique venues that meeting planners don’t often consider, such as movie theaters, universities, museums, private clubs and gaming facilities.
At any time, planners can map the venues to see where they are in relation to major landmarks, and look at detailed profile pages, which have pictures, information about high and low season rates, and descriptions of the space’s amenities. But the biggest attraction is the detailed capacity charts, which show the size of each meeting room and what its capacity is in different room set-ups. This allows planners to tell at a glance whether or not a venue is an appropriate choice for their group.
Once options are narrowed down, planners can create a RFP and send it to multiple venues simultaneously. After the bids come back, planners can compare them side-by-side to see which venue offers the best value. Then, they can select a winning bid and send consolation notes to the losing venues, selecting reasons why they weren’t chosen from a drop-down menu.
“The Cvent Supplier Network is the most comprehensive RFP tool on the market,” says Cvent’s Executive Vice President of Sales & Marketing Chuck Ghoorah. “To build out this database, it took 125 people working behind the scenes for more than two years.” Some profiles took a half-day to put together, because the information had to be gathered from scratch.
One of the reasons the database is so comprehensive is because it’s not limited to advertisers. Suppliers can buy an ad to increase RFP volume and visibility, but it is not required, and they are not charged any fees to receive the RFPs. In addition, each venue is invited to take ownership of its profile and keep it up to date. A full-time staff at Cvent manages them as well, to ensure accuracy.
So why did a software company best known for its online registration program spend $10 million and untold hours creating a program they aren’t charging people to use? “We’re in the business of solving pain,” Ghoorah says. “And in the last couple of years, we’ve been hearing there’s a lot of pain sourcing venues. We listen to the heartbeat of the marketplace, and then we build products that make our customers more efficient.”
Sharon Cole, owner of A Dream Wedding by Sharon Cole, says she not only uses the supplier network for her own business, she also uses it to find venues for the San Diego Chapter of American Bridal Consultants’ monthly meetings.
“I can send out a RFP to 10 people all at once instead of calling them individually, and I usually hear back from them by the end of the day,” Cole says. “It saves me a lot of time. When you call somebody, you tend to talk a little bit about the business and you talk a little bit about personal issues, so each phone call could take up to almost a half an hour. Most of my day was trying to find a venue that was available. Now it [takes] 25 minutes.”
Ghoorah says if you send a legitimate RFP, you will get a response within 48-72 hours. If you don’t receive a quick response, those vendors will receive a phone call from Cvent’s compliance team. Conversely, Cvent’s team will call planners who haven’t awarded a contract by the given decision date. “[That] insures both sides are having a positive experience on the system,” Ghoorah explains.
In addition to streamlining the sourcing process, the supplier network also helps planners maintain compliance with internal procurement requirements and Sarbanes-Oxley. “Whereas before, you may have just booked a meeting year after year at the same hotel, now [planners] are required to go out and get a number of bids,” Ghoorah points out. “Our software allows them to do that for free.”
A subscription-based enterprise version, designed for larger corporations and meetings management groups, allows for increased accountability and multiple users in the same account. “When you are an individual planner, you don’t necessarily have to track things like cancelled space, negotiated rates or preferred venues,” says Cvent Account Executive Louis Ford Jr. “Whereas a meetings management company really needs to track all that information to minimize spend and make sure a meeting planner in Florida gets the same negotiated rate that the office in New York [negotiated]. The idea with multiple users is that you have that audit trail. You want to make sure you have that visibility and can keep track of who was doing what within a particular account and, at the same time, let everyone have access to the same information.”
Not only can enterprise users gain access to each other’s notes on properties, they can also manage cancelled space credits, view RFP and meeting histories, manage tasks and workflow, and use an online budget management tool. Permissions also can be set up to prevent RFPs from being sent until senior management signs off on them.
For existing Cvent customers, the supplier network operates on the same platform as the event management and online registration tools, which means information entered in one system can flow between the others without having to be re-keyed. “All the profiles of the hotels are built into the supplier network, so if you convert a RFP to an awarded [contract], it’s just a few clicks of a mouse to add on some fees and a couple of little details and you’ve got an instant registration system,” Stickler says. “Then, the back office to that whole system creates rooming lists … it does everything.”
Stickler says his company plans more than 120 events a year for groups of 20 to 220,000. “We run all our meetings with one person, Cvent and some temp administration help in peak times. And we do that with a high level of accuracy because Cvent’s taken away all that pain. That’s pretty amazing if you think about it.”