Automated planning via Web is one of many new federal conference services

Automated planning via Web is one of many new federal conference services

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

The General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy recently amended rules for conference planning in its Federal Travel Regulation.

'This was a major, long-overdue overhaul,' said Nancy Murphy, a program expert in GSA's transportation management branch.

The lodging per diem for those attending conferences has increased by 25 percent, and light snacks now can be served during breaks at government meetings, 'which we were never able to do before,' Murphy said.

The rules, however, impose new responsibilities on meeting planners to minimize conference costs, compare sites, get at least three quotes and record the costs at each site considered.

A commercial travel service, AllMeetings Corp. of Henderson, Nev., has designed an online service for government meeting planners that automates these and other tasks.

'It's all done for you. I'm developing with AllMeetings a course to teach government employees how to use this,' Murphy said.

The site, at fed.allmeetings.com, has a proprietary search engine to tally costs of air travel, meals, taxis, rental cars, hotel rooms and meeting space from a database that covers more than 5,000 hotels in 250 cities.

AllMeetings operates the same service for commercial users but customized the federal site because 'we find government meetings are different from corporate meetings,' vice president and general manager Brian K. Ashton said.

The federal per diem differs from city to city, and feds must stay in hotels that meet federal requirements and travel on airlines with which the government has contracted special prices.

Easy comparisons

'One of the great things is that all the government contract airlines are built in for comparisons,' Murphy said.

She has been teaching government employees how to do travel planning for 18 years. The course on conference planning is a new one.

'We have a lot of meeting planners who don't know all the ins and outs,' Murphy said. 'I think the Web site can make their lives easier.'

Although 90 percent of AllMeetings business is corporate, federal planners spend $8 billion a year on meetings of more than 10 people, Ashton said.

The search engine narrows searches and ranks findings based on federal criteria.

It can search for meeting facilities in a specific location or find the best location based on the travel needs of those who plan to attend. Facilities are ranked according to overall cost, and specific amenities can be requested.

Hotel information posted on the AllMeetings site includes some photos of facilities. By spring, the database will cover all the estimated 9,000 U.S. hotels with meeting facilities, Ashton said.

The site also suggests what airports should be used, which attendees should drive rather than fly, and when rental cars are more economical than taxis.

'Our budgets are within 5 percent of the actual costs,' Ashton said.

Online RFP

Planners can make an online request for proposals to obtain the required written quotes from hotels. AllMeetings generates a fax from the online form, and the hotels fax back to AllMeetings. The quotes are e-mailed to the planner, usually within 48 hours. AllMeetings takes its fee from the hotels, not from users.

The site offers ways for planners to develop budgets and track expenses as required by federal regulations. It shows a checklist of chores, down to securing flags for the podium, and it e-mails deadline reminders to the planners.

'We're hoping everyone will start using it,' Murphy said.

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