Instant Booking is the Meetings Industry’s Red Herring

Ron Shah

From the first day I started Bizly, the allure of “instant booking for meetings” enchanted me. I thought the request-for-proposals process was the worst thing in the world, and I was committed to killing it once and for all. The first app we created at Bizly was just that—an instant booking app. It was glorious. We had hundreds of hotels signed up, a sleek user interface that felt like HotelTonight or Uber, and it actually worked!

Until it didn’t. The issue wasn’t the technology. The issue was customers. Customers—big and small—didn’t want instant booking. The typical customer would rather wait a day and make sure that their specific needs were being met versus booking something instantly and not knowing.

This was one of my first big lessons about the industry.

People have a lot on the line when it comes to meetings, even the smallest of meetings. They need to know the unique room setup they need is going to be delivered the way they imagine it. They need to know their guests’ food restrictions will be accommodated. They need to know the agenda they’ve developed will be fully supported by the venue. They need to know how parking works. And the list goes on.

The other issue is, while hotel brands love the idea of ​​instant booking (yay—lower operational costs!), there is an on-the-ground reality that is unsurmountable. That reality is what I like to call “Monday morning Tetris.” Typically, every Monday morning, the hotel team gets together to figure out how to move Mary to Thursday and Jim to Wednesday to maximize revenue for the hotel.

Events are about overall 33 percent to 40 percent of hotel revenue. If an automated system takes a room offline that the hotel needs to fulfill a bigger event, that kind of mistake can cost the hotel upward of $250,000. So as much as the hotel brands may push for an instant booking solution, the risks are grave for individual properties.

The answer for instant booking would be verifiable artificial intelligence that maps out hotel spaces accurately (to know which rooms are connected to others so that an instant booking doesn’t block a larger business opportunity), connects each space to historical and forecast data on and pricing, and address the users’ needs for assurance on room configuration options and food and beverage customization. Only in this case AI could be trusted to make instant booking decisions and drive the industry forward.

From what I can see, no one is building an AI of this sort today. It’s mostly just the models of the past: an online booking too for meetings. Which, after 15 years of attempts, I think the industry can agree is a failed model.

So what is the right answer? Speed.

The phase of the market we are in now is one that calls for true automation between the customer and the venue. Before we can get to AI, the first step is bots. These bots would automate venue response, integrating leads directly to the right place in each venue’s workflow. These bots would automatically nudge and follow up with the venue, whether that’s a phone call, text message, email or lead alert. These bots would serve up corporate preferred contracts and required terms and handle most of the back and forth. And if all else fails, the bot would notify the human that some intervention is required.

All of this sounds great, but there are a number of requirements to make it happen. Multiple system integrations are needed into venue sales and catering systems. There are a variety of workflow systems needed on the corporate side to ensure data streams (like cost centers, reference IDs, etc.), approvals and budgets, contracting requirements and preferred pricing make it all way through in just the right way. These are the technical requirements.

There are philosophical requirements, too. To engage bots and automation to achieve efficiency and speed, the industry must abandon “the game” wherein venues input a high price initially and the customer negotiates it down and books the savings. That is an enormous waste of time, but also an enormous cultural change for meeting and event managers (and their companies) whose performance is measured by how much savings they can achieve.

We do know the current RFP model is too slow—especially now in a high-demand environment with short booking windows. People don’t have seven days to wait for responses and start the journey of contracting a venue.

Truth be told, no one has designed this optimal system. But the great news is that we have the understanding and the technology to do it—and to make the meetings booking process ultra-simple for the user. The time has come.

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