Virtual Site Inspection – Is It the Next Best Thing to Being There?
Updated ©2000 Corbin Ball Associates
Meeting planners -- are you tired of sorting through stacks of hotel brochures every week? Or hefting heavy hotel and facility guides? Or managing your burgeoning file cabinet with all of the promotional materials you receive?
There is relief – and it is spelled "world wide web!" It is now possible to search the net for information for most of the meeting facilities around. Hotel chains are building significant meeting planning sections to their web sites including: floor plans, photos of meeting space, 360º photos, sounds, and even movie clips of meeting venues. This information is available for free, around the clock, around the world, in a format that gives far more information than a static, dated brochure.
Why are hotels embracing the web?
Over 5 million U.S. consumers used the Net for the first time in Q1 2000 alone (Telecommunications Report International, June 2000)! These surfers tend to be affluent and likely to spend money on travel. Web travel purchases are by far and away the top sales item on the Web in terms of dollars spent. As events are closely tied to travel, meeting planners are turning to the web in record numbers as well. Hotels are identifying the web as a major information and sales vehicle for meeting planners.
What’s out there?
Listed below are some of the better examples of how web sites can be used to conduct virtual site inspections.
The PlanSoft (www.plansoft.com) site should be the first stop in your virtual site inspection tour. It is extensively searchable by city, region, hotel type, hotel chain, size of meeting space, number of sleeping rooms, amount of exhibit space, climate and more. Most listings contain full contact information, web links, meeting room specifications and much more. It even has a built-in request for proposal (RFP) module that can be used to email proposals to multiple hotels of your choice.
Turnberry Isle Resort (www.turnberryisle.com) is a great example of how a large amount of information can be provided to the planner in a simple and easy format. Clicking on the "Meetings" link from the home page and then on the "Table of Contents" link will yield a full screen of hyperlinks showing just about anything that a event planner could want to know. This includes floor plans, meeting room specs, catering menus/pricing, AV equipment/pricing, exhibit regulations, group billing information, and much more. This is more than a hotel would ever normally mail to a prospective client. Yet, using the web, the hotel can provide it almost free to anyone in the world that visits the site.
The Santa Clara Convention Center (http://www.santaclara.org/floor.html) provides and excellent example of how floor plans can be delivered in a useful manner using an Adobe "plug-in." (A plug-in is free downloadable software that adds additional functionality to your web browser). Once this is loaded, click on "floor plan" and you will be treated to a floor plan that is scalable (you can zoom in or out) and can be manipulated and printed in very clear and easy to use manner.
Hilton Hotels, in cooperation with CEO Software (www.optimumsettings.com/hilton.htm), allows visitors to download the floor plans from many their hotels along with room diagramming software. Once the software is loaded, you can place chairs, desks and staging on the floor plans. Another alliance with PlanSoft and the more
full-featured Meeting Matrix (www.meetingmatrix.com) diagramming software is planned in the near future.
360º views allow visitors to view an image as if they are standing in one spot and turning in a circle. My favorite surround view site is the Swissôtel’s www.swissotel.com. Click on "Virtual Site Inspection" and follow the instructions. This uses the Ipix plug-in (free from the site or from www.ipix.com.. Visitors can look around in a circle, straight up or down, zooming in and out as if they are standing in front of the Drake Hotel in New York as well as in its meeting rooms. An audio track explaining the hotel features accompanies the exterior image of the Drake. This is perfect for trying to narrow down if a meeting space is suitable for a group.
Virtual Reality (VR)
VR is in its developmental stages but holds great potential for the meetings industry. At the Planet9 site http://www.planet9.com/worlds/marriott/ballroom/ballroom.wrl using your mouse cursor for direction, you can "fly" through the New Orleans Marriott Grand Ballroom. It requires a VRML 2.0 plug-in available for free at this site. You can get a virtual tour of the New Orleans Marriott Lobby and Grand Ballroom there as well. As the technology develops, there is tremendous potential here for decorators, production companies, and caterers to be able to visualize and walk through space that has yet to be built.
Streaming Audio and Video
Streaming technology brings moving pictures and audio to your web browser over the phone lines with nothing to load to your hard drive except another plug-in. Go to www.hotelview.com and download the Real Player 5.0 plug-in. You can then choose from 90 hotels and get moving pictures with audio of the lobby, meeting space, athletic facilities, and more. Depending on your modem speed, the picture may be small and jerky, but still there is much more here than static brochures. There are professional speaker sites (i.e. http://speakersonvideo.com/) that offer video clips of speaker presentation without having to wait to be sent a VCR promo package.
Examples of sites that offer more than a static brochure abound. The web won’t replace an actual site inspection for some time – we’ll likely be waiting a while for the Star Trek holodeck! However, it is possible to use the web to narrow your searches, to gather venue information, and to eliminate the need for the stacks and of brochures that pile on your desktop.