EVERYONE KNOWS THE benefits of online registration, but the costs can be a killer. Depending on the application, your overall volume, and the terms of your credit-card processing agreement, pricing tends to average between $8 and $15 per attendee — but many a group has seen much higher costs. Those dollars may be well spent, but can you prove it? How do you calculate the return on investment from your online registration system?
WHERE THE MONEY GOES
An investment in an online registration application includes both one-time and ongoing costs. After initial setup fees, you can typically expect to pay an annual subscription fee plus a per-transaction fee priced according to volume. All these costs, including setup fees, are negotiable. There are other ways spending can mount. If you're processing credit card payments as part of the registration process, you may pay an account setup fee plus 2 percent to 3 percent off the top of every transaction, unless those charges are built into your ASP fees. Also, while some training is usually built into an ASP's initial fee, you may need more. At registration provider seeUthere Technologies, Santa Clara, Calif., for example, some online training is included, but if you want trainers to come on-site, that's an added cost. Similarly, some number of support licenses, or seats, is included in a package, but companies may opt to allow additional users on the system simultaneously. Other add-on services that may figure into your investment: integration with an online travel booking system, call center services, and consulting. Helen Loh, vice president of marketing at seeUthere, says a typical price for 5,000 transactions a year comes out to a total of $50,000 to $60,000, or $10 to $12 per registration.
To evaluate the return on this significant investment, meeting executives — and the bean counters — need to understand both the money they're not spending as a result of the technology as well as the best ways to control costs.
SOME COSTS DISAPPEAR
Labor expenses are where planners see some of their most significant savings. “Online registration is perceived as expensive because many organizations fail to figure the value of staff time into the equation,” says Jeff Rasco, president of Attendee Management Inc., Wimberley, Texas. “When M.D. Anderson Cancer Center studied the time and expense of processing registrations manually, a cost of nearly $25 per transaction was documented. Shifting online saved about 80 percent.”
Todd Bellino, vice president business development at Afficient, the Chicago-based online registration provider, says that in addition to savings on data entry, companies are able to track “a reduction in keying errors, less time spent on account reconciliation, fewer on-site registration requirements, and savings in postage and printing costs.”
Loh adds that organizations may also see hard-dollar savings by reducing outsourcing. “For example, organizations with small planning staffs typically outsource the entire meeting. With the help of an online system, even a small staff can handle registration internally while the event management companies implement the remaining components. This can result in immediate savings.” Loh also argues that online registration offers more timely and accurate reporting, which, she says, “reduces the overage required to cover contingencies, and thereby reduces overall meeting costs.”
WHERE TO CONTROL COSTS
While users of online registration systems will see some costs disappear, there's much to be done to keep the costs of the new technologies under control. Here are some suggestions.
Up your numbers
Increased volume means lower price. The more transactions, the better your negotiating power, which can affect transaction fees and banking charges. To build volume, suggests Bellino, “consider incorporating tiered pricing to reward early online registrants.”
For smaller organizations, cooperative licensing is an option. “Attendee Management Inc. was founded to help organizations that don't have the volume get their unit costs down,” explains Rasco. “We've become something of a co-op. The combined volume of many clients allows us to negotiate with ASPs for lower transaction rates. Our clients pay a bit more per transaction, but no license fees.”
Review your agreements
All third-party agreements are not created equal, warns Julie Fenker, director of conferences and incentives for Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif. “Often vendors define a fee-based transaction differently. Some charge an assessment every time a record is changed; others charge on a per-record basis, regardless of the number of changes to the record. If you are being assessed a charge for all changes, consider renegotiating.”
Cut card disputes
Don't forget to budget for credit card disputes. Bellino says meeting executives should expect a minimum of 1.4 percent of all transactions to be disputed. Clarify with your ASP who will manage the dispute process.
Reduce print and postage
As you improve your online registration tactics, you should be able to reduce your print budget. “The advantages of e-mail marketing, when integrated with online registration, allow you to register your core block of attendees earlier than when using traditional print-based marketing campaigns,” says Bellino.
Reduce travel costs
When registration is integrated with an online travel booking product, Loh says that planners can control costs by finding out which registrants have not yet booked travel. E-mail reminders can be sent before advance purchase discounts expire, potentially saving the company money.
Measure twice, buy once
Selecting the right technology means understanding your internal registration process, the cost of the current process and how your attendees will interact with the application. A number of metrics can be tracked to provide benchmarks from which to measure your system. Consider tracking: number of transactions, broken out by the number of credit card transactions; number of registrations; number of changes; total number of records with valid e-mail addresses; total cost per online registration; total cost for traditional registration.
Don't be dazzled
Many users warn against buying more technology than you need. “If you haven't committed to an online solution, shop wisely,” says Fenker. “Don't buy the most advanced if all you need is simple registration.”
Leslie DiLeo, director of conferences and meetings at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, New York, agrees. “It made the most sense to us to purchase a system that could handle 90 percent of our needs and then fine-tune it to cover the rest. This approach works only if you know your needs. [We] spent a year evaluating our needs and exhaustively researching software systems. The work paid off.” NMSS chose Boulder, Colo.-based E-conference.
A simple solution works best for Emily Milliot, senior partner for AG Communications LLC, Fairfield, Conn. She says she sees ROI “because we use our own Web site, which was modified for our specific needs. We simply have them [attendees] enter information onto our registration page, which is then downloaded to our Excel database.” As a result, the cost of the self-developed system is maintenance and the design of the registration Web pages, minor compared with the cost of some robust, enterprise-wide applications.
EVALUATE AND MONITOR
After thoroughly documenting and measuring your registration needs, and performing proper due diligence, select a system that can grow with you. If you need to make your current system work better, become intimately knowledgeable with your system by applying process metrics, monitoring volume and costs by meeting and registrant. Work at building online adoption and use while integrating with other internal systems. Applying appropriate new technology to well-established systems can often help to optimize savings.
E.J. Siwek, CMP, is president and founder of FLASHpoint Technologies, Bethel, Conn. He can be reached at [email protected].