Don't just sit at your site - here are tips on exploring new Internet options
WELCOME TO THE burgeoning e-commerce marketplace. Online party-planning business Celebrate Express.com reports that in 1999, the Internet generated one in every 60 orders the Kirkland, Wash.-based business received. In the first quarter of 2000, that figure jumped to one in three. Commerce on the Internet is expected to reach $1.3 trillion by 2003, according to BizBuyer.com, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based Internet marketplace.
But by simply creating a Web site and then passively waiting for potential customers to visit, many companies stop short of fully utilizing the Internet's power. The World Wide Web can serve as a sales force, marketing tool, mail-order catalog and support staff for your special event business.
PRODUCTS PDQ "The speed at which you can pull up information and then share that information with your client via e-mail makes you that much more competitive," notes Bill Gray, founding president of Greenfield, Wis.-based WTGray and Co., which operates Foodserver.net. This Web-based food-service marketing site enables meeting and event planners to locate foodservice resources by company, organization, geographic area or descriptive keyword.
"Everybody involved in planning an event can be brought up to speed more quickly, and negotiation between planners and suppliers is much faster than just using traditional methods of phoning, faxing and mailing," Gray says. "Sharing documents for updating and approval becomes a matter of hours rather than days or weeks."
Consider the traditional method of phoning a company for a catalog of upscale tableware and accessories. Then consider the e-commerce way: Simply go to the Web site of a supplier such as Eschenbach U.S.A. (www.eschenbachusa.com), based in Chantilly, Va. The site allows you to view more than 250 extensive lines of tableware on color pages that include product specifications. With a few strategic clicks, you can create a total tabletop design for a specific party theme, e-mail it to your client for approval and place your order online.
The fact that European Event Decorators is headquartered in Brighton, England, rather than Brooklyn, N.Y., proves no obstacle to doing business. Simply visit its Web site (www.european-events.co.uk) to access a reference library of 5,000 stock themes and backdrops.
SOUPED-UP SALES FORCE Generating new business leads can be easier by joining forces with dot-com companies that serve as marketplaces. These sites serve as your virtual sales representatives, leading you to potential customers who are out of your geographical area or otherwise might have been out of your marketing reach.
BizBuyer.com targets small businesses needing products and services and connects them with suitable vendors. Food/Lodging/Conventions is one of about 20 categories available on this site, which also includes services such as insurance, accounting, human resources and travel/transportation.
Vendors can register with the site at no charge. Prospective buyers looking for specific equipment or services use online templates to complete and submit a Request for Proposal providing the specifics of their purchasing criteria. The system transmits this RFP to all vendors in the database qualified to bid on the project. Vendors pay a small fee for submitting a competitive bid to the buyer, who pays nothing for this worldwide access to suppliers.
Because of increased competition, doing business via the Internet typically has driven down commodity prices as much as 50 percent because manufacturers, brokers and distributors can reduce marketing costs associated with reaching and servicing customers and pass the savings to the buyer. New interactive dot-com sites such as FreshProduceB2B.com, a real-time auction Web site based in Salinas, Calif., offer caterers and other foodservice suppliers a tool for procuring fresh fruits and vegetables.
FREE ADVICE By doing business online with dot-com companies, special event planners and suppliers have a cadre of consultants ready to help in the creative process for free.
"We encourage clients who are unsure of exactly what they need to utilize us as a consultant and e-mail us for suggestions," says Greg Iott, vice president of marketing of 4imprint, based in Oshkosh, Wis.
The 15-year-old company, which specializes in imprinted promotional products, has a search tool on its Web site (www.4imprint.com) called the Consultation Wizard. By asking detailed questions about such things as how many colors are in the logo, price points and product categories, the wizard is designed to make recommendations on complex product searches.
CYBERSPACE SUPPORT STAFF Application service providers are Internet businesses that offer Web-based software systems to facilitate the complicated process of producing conferences, seminars and meetings. ASPs license the software to your business for a fee; you can use one tool or a package that will facilitate several functions.
Marina del Rey, Calif.-based Event411.com helps event planners set up Web sites for events. The company then provides a variety of tools that can be integrated onto those sites. Options range from tools allowing guests to register online to creating a master mailing list, from setting up a communications center to keep track of RSVPs to sending out press releases via e-mail.
WEEDING OUT WEB SITES As with snake-oil salesmen of the past, there are dot-coms with little or no experience in their product areas who promise much more than they deliver. How can you separate the scammers from the legitimate vendors?
"One good way is to see if the site is their only business or is truly an extension of an already well-established core business," Iott says. "Click onto the `about us' logo and get a sense of that company's history. Be sure your contract for goods and services offers certain guarantees."
Also expect the site to give you a reachable phone number and mailing address along with some sort of sales support staff contacts. Many sites enable you to hold online chats directly with sales personnel.
Be sure you know if a site's recommendations for a product or service are based on merit or are paid endorsements. Ask for references from satisfied customers. Never make more than a partial payment upfront, and check on protection for the transmissions of your credit card information.
Overzealous Internet marketers make it seem as if you're out of the loop if you're not doing business on the Internet. E-commerce can prove quicker, cheaper and more broad-based. Does that make it better? Only your testing can answer that. You just might find yourself enjoying increased sales and profits with a client base that until the Internet Age was an untapped market for you.
Dot-com companies worth a click or two WWW.SPECIALEVENTS.COM The Web site of Special Events Magazine offers news, archived articles from the magazine, contact information for innovative special event products and a link to The Special Event trade show Web site. The site is also part of the virtual online community MarketingClick. Marketingclick.com offers news and in-depth features on Internet marketing, direct marketing, public relations, promotions, advertising and other industry segments.
WWW.ISES.COM The International Special Events Society hosts this site, featuring a free ISES finder service to help you locate members in your area to accommodate your special event needs.
WWW.HOTDATESHOTRATES.COM Hot Dates Hot Rates bills itself as a site selection and meeting planning resource for meeting planners. You can search by city, state, region and country, by individual property, by destination and by hotel chain.
WWW.BIZTRAVEL.COM A godsend for frequent business travelers, this site locates flights, hotel rooms and rental cars. It offers special money-saving deals and other perks when you sign on for free membership.