Special Events

SMART SOFTWARE SELECTION

When it comes to buying software for your computer, you've probably got the basics down by now. Chances are you're familiar with your operating system, hard-drive size and power capability. But automating your business can pose entirely new challenges. Here, the programming pros behind today's top event software systems offer their advice for making what may be your biggest business decision.

JUST DO IT

The first and most important decision, software-makers say, is the decision to automate. “Get in the game,” Ron Evans of Lincoln, Calif.-based Caterpro Software (www.caterprosoftware.com) advises business technology novices. “In order to increase business, you're going to have to get into using computers.” According to Evans, a good software system not only speeds up business processes, but actually can improve the quality of service clients receive by synchronizing information among sales, operations and setup staff.

Jack Shea of Springfield, Mass.-based Solutions by Computer (www.solutionsbycomputer.com), which manufactures software for the event rental market, concurs. “Hurry up — you won't be sorry later,” he urges operators. “The efficiencies gained, the increased return on your inventory and the improvement in your cash flow all will make you wonder why you didn't do it sooner.”

LOOK AHEAD

Once you've decided to get automated, the next step is sorting out what you need your software to accomplish. Bill Marsh of Rockford, Ill.-based Synergy International (www.synergy-intl.com) suggests conducting an exercise, with the help of a software company consultant, to “determine strengths and weaknesses of current internal processes.” But, he adds, business owners should keep in mind the possibilities of the future as much as present problems. “Most people, when they get into any kind of technology, have a very finite scope of what they hope to accomplish,” he says. Instead, he recommends looking for growth potential in any program you purchase, and a willingness on the part of the vendor to work with your business as you implement upgrades.

Evans adds that hardware is just as important as software during the selection process. Along with the most promising computer program, “You must invest in good computer equipment,” he insists. “So many people try to get by on Grandma's hand-me-down computer with its four-year-old operating system. You just don't need to do that today. For under $1,000 you can buy a terrific piece of hardware with a large-screen monitor and a printer, and you're in business.”

MONEY MATTERS

While hardware values abound in today's market, buyers may have to spend more on software to get the product best suited to their business, manufacturers say.

According to Marsh, “Technology vendors are no different than special event firms. We have different market positions, and value received may be significant for a slightly more expensive product.” His advice: Buyer beware. “The described functions and features [of cheaper programs] may sound the same, but they frequently are much more detailed in the higher-end products.”

Among the beneficial features of pricier products, he includes broad-based functionality. Having a software system that can do everything you require can save time and money over having to integrate applications from multiple manufacturers in order to get a satisfactory system in place.

According to Larry Weeman of Kennebunk, Maine-based Event Rental Systems (www.partytrack.com), “There is always a low-end product available that on the surface may look like it will save you money. However, most of these companies do not stay in business very long, and you could find yourself without support for the system you just purchased.”

Other risks of buying based on budget alone include “losing history,” adds the manufacturer of Party Track software for event rental businesses. “Along with being faced with having to buy another software package, you end up having to start all over with building your customer and item databases,” Weeman says. “The costs associated with having to start over are significant enough to think more long-term and consider using a solid industry vendor.”

ASK AROUND

When you've assessed your needs and budget, it pays to research your options thoroughly, the experts say.

Tom Jewell of Naples, Fla.-based Horizon Business Services (www.caterease.com), which manufactures Caterease software, advises, “Do as much research as possible. Be sure to ask [the manufacturer] precise questions based on your operation, and try to talk with current users of the software you are considering.”

Shea adds, “Talk with others in businesses similar to yours to ask about their experiences with software reliability, and vendor reliability and responsiveness.” He recommends that prospective buyers put together a short list of several systems that have received good recommendations and get a demonstration version of each system. But, he warns, don't be duped by the demo. “Make sure it duplicates all of the steps of a typical transaction from the customer's initial call to collection of the bill.” And finally, he advises, “Get a money-back satisfaction guarantee.”

TAKE OWNERSHIP

With your product purchased, you're ready to automate. To ensure smooth installation and make certain your new software serves you well, designate a qualified employee to be responsible for overseeing implementation, Marsh says. “Allow that person enough time to effectively monitor the implementation process, because you do not want to waste resources doing it twice.”




RESOURCES

Caterpro Software, 800/606-1597; Event Rental Systems, 877/967-4557; Horizon Business Systems, 800/863-1616; Solutions by Computer, 800/950-2211; Synergy International, 800/522-6210

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