Interview with Tom Levine, CIO of WynTrac

Whenever your online convention registration goes smoothly, you might have Tom Levine to thank. He's the man who managed to combine his two loves, technology and the convention industry, in order to serve you better.

Have you registered online for a convention with great ease? Then you’ve probably experienced the benefits of Tom Levine’s software. On the other hand, have you ever missed the golf tournament because the hotel pro shop never got word of your reservation? Levine wants to make sure that never happens again. In today’s CIO Interview, we meet a man who has made a career out of combining his first two loves: technology and the convention industry.
As a teenager, Tom Levine learned the hospitality and meetings industry at his father’s side, and later successfully combined that expertise with his passion for technology. As CIO and executive vice president of information technologies for WynTrac (formerly called Jade Technologies), Levine directs technology development for the meeting and convention industry. The company’s main product, also called WynTrac, is Web-based meeting and convention planning software. Levine has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and an MBA from the University of Dallas.
CIOs and the meeting and convention industry
TR: How are CIOs affected by what happens in the meeting and convention industry?
Levine: Besides reading journals, probably one of the most fundamental ways that CIOs gain information about the state of their industry is attending trade shows and conferences. They’re affected because they’re going to be using products like WynTrac to register for conferences.

TR: Can you describe what WynTrac does?
Levine: WynTrac is an engine that facilitates the booking of hotel rooms and registration of people into events like Comdex or Java One. WynTrac is a technology architecture platform or Internet service that is used by anyone attending a conference and by people setting up conferences.

TR: How does your trade show software work?
Levine: You would come into a Web site, click a button that would say “virtual trade show” and you would be presented with a graphical image of the layout of the trade show and its different booths. As you pass your mouse over the booth, a description comes up of what products and services that exhibitor is providing. If you click on it, you can get then an extended HTML-based sales pitch from that exhibitor, including a streaming video presentation.

Levine’s career path and three mentors
TR: Your father was in the hospitality business and you learned the business from him? He was your first mentor?
Levine: Correct. I basically started when I was 14 in the hotel industry learning its different facets—that was a big part of what has made me what I am. Now we’re talking about extending the hospitality industry into the automation age by managing the hotel inventory and the whole trade show area electronically. So there’s a very strong correlation between what we’re doing now and what was done years and years ago.

TR: When did you get into technology?
Levine: In 1983, after I graduated with an MBA from the University of Dallas, I started to work with Xerox Corporation in sales. That was the first time that I got involved in technology and selling. Back in those days, it was CPM-based systems. Probably the person that next fundamentally impacted my career was a fellow named Hunter Blanks who was the regional sales manager of Xerox at the time. The training that I got from Hunter in the fundamentals of sales has allowed me to combine sales, marketing, and business skills with technology, which is what I see as the evolution for the future CIO. I think the future CIO needs to have that combined skill set. A lot of my time is spent talking to end users, customers, and different markets and helping educate and really sell the product.

Setting up his first company
TR: What did you do after Xerox?
Levine: After Xerox I started my own company. It was a software development company called Meeting Solutions, and we were developing, in a DOS world, vertical market meeting and planning software. That was the first time that I was able to merge my hospitality background with my sales background. Where technology had been a hobby of mine, it now became my vocation where I was actually working and hiring programmers. We went to market with a line of software called Meeting Magic. It doesn’t exist anymore today, but it kind of creates a full circle of where I am now. Back in 1985 when I started Meeting Solutions and the software Meeting Magic, little did I know 15 years later that I would be importing all of this to the Internet and leading the development of meeting and event planning using Web-based technologies or Internet-based technologies.

TR: It sounds like technology finally caught up with your vision.
Levine: It did. When I first went to market, I was absolutely way out there. I sold my company in 1989 to an organization called Sunbelt Motivation and Travel. The third person who had a major influence in my life was the owner and president of Sunbelt, Bill Boyd. Bill was international president of Meeting Planners International and very influential in the meeting and planning area. His company was an incentive, travel, and meeting planning company. In 1989 he really didn’t care about my [software] company, but he bought me because he wanted to move his company forward. That was just when networks began. Novell was coming out with their first networks in the middle to late 80s; NT didn’t even exist at the time. One of the things that I brought and continued to develop was meeting, planning, incentive, and travel management software. With Bill’s support in the early 90s—before the Web was cool—I started developing Web-based technologies for Sunbelt that combined with my hospitality and event management experience.

TR: What did Bill Boyd do for you personally?
Levine: Bill Boyd was very supportive. At a time when technology wasn’t cool, he took a risk. He risked that my vision and what I was selling him could actually materialize. That risk was believing in me and allowing me the resources, both financial and human, to move forward in an area where return on investments were very, very questionable. Looking back now, it paid off for him many times, but that was a big risk. It was a dream, and his support was fundamental. Then in 1997, I left Sunbelt because he sold the company. I then came over here to WynTrac.

His role at WynTrac
TR: What do you do there?
Levine: I am the CIO/Executive VP of Information Technology where I set the strategic direction for the company. While I am CIO in this company, it is almost the same thing as saying the COO, or chief operating officer, because technology is our product. Every day we have to make decisions that either further us along a strategic path or not, and making those decisions consistent with our overall goals is what I spend a lot of time doing. I also spend a lot of time representing the company and the technology to the outside communities.

TR: Do you have any competitors in this space?
Levine: We have probably two significant competitors. One of the challenges that we face is how do you set up barriers to enter the market for others. As soon as you start talking about Web technologies, you get anybody out of school that has any kind of graphic HTML skill set and they can throw together a very pretty user interface that claims to do everything that WynTrac does. What really distinguishes us is our infrastructure. It’s very hard to demonstrate infrastructure. If you have a system that can handle 100 transactions an hour versus a WynTrac that might be rated at 1 or 2 million transactions an hour, that’s very different.

Technology and people challenges
TR: Tell us about your biggest technology challenge.
Levine: Actually, the biggest technology challenge that we’ve had is integrating the Java language into our user interfaces. That has been a large challenge. Of the four user interfaces that we have, three of them are Java applications and one is not. Frankly, the technology isn’t sophisticated enough to handle it.

TR: What is your biggest people challenge?
Levine: Their learning curve, and the speed of the advancement of the technology. We’ve built our development teams on a fundamental core and we use a lot of outside consulting firms to complement that. We might have five or six projects going at any one time and it’ll be important for us to have one or two people in each one of those project groups. But, in order to compress time to market and take advantage of the technology and the level of education of our staff, we’re supplementing our development teams with outside contracting.

New trends in event planning
TR: What’s new in the meeting and conventions industry?
Levine: I would say we are leading the evolution, or revolution, if you will. One of the other areas that is very new is electronic transfer of information. That is, you can go on the site, register for all of the events, and make your hotel reservation. But how do you distribute that information to the suppliers who need it? How do you let the golf pro shop know how many people signed up for the golf tournament, for instance? Or how do you get the rooming list to the hotel? The evolving world, as I see it, is a network of application servers all talking among themselves. The benefits are higher accuracy, lower cost, and better information, in an attempt to deliver better service and a better product to the end user.
If your business and technology stories might interest others, send us a note. We’d also like to hear from you if you know of a CIO that you’d like to see interviewed. To comment on this interview, please post a comment below.

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