Contracts: Technology Tools to Know

Meeting Planning

Technology moves remarkably fast. Consider that the iPhone, which feels as if it’s been around forever, was introduced just six years ago. In many areas of the meetings industry, technology changes just as swiftly. Take contracts: One day, finishing a deal required a handshake and a verbal “you have a deal.” Now they’re being negotiated in a virtual environment, with exciting new tech tools helping to make the process more efficient and streamlined.

While the tracking tool in Word has long been the standard in contract technology, and indeed provides many benefits, new tools including PDF apps and Google services have recently entered and transformed the marketplace. Here, we provide an overview of the greatest and latest tech platforms.

Common Contract Technology

It used to be that contracts were typed on a Smith Corona or an IBM Selectric (remember those?) and sent by U.S. Postal Service. Then came the word processor and the fax machine, which seemed so new and amazing, they may as well have been aboard the Starship Enterprise. As software evolved, Microsoft Word was introduced, providing the tracking-tool function, which still seems to be the standard for many planners.

“I personally use Microsoft Word and the track changes feature when negotiating contracts,” says Lisa L. Dyson, CMP, director of conference services for TESOL International Association. “Once signed, they are scanned and emailed back and forth. Does anyone actually fax anything anymore?”

Loretta Lowe, CMP, contract event manager with Loretta Lowe, Meeting Planning and Special Events, says she prefers both parties use Word to track changes that way. And Kristin Howard, CMP, meeting and registration manager with Association Headquarters, Inc., says tracking in Word is an “an easy way to see who’s doing what.”

Clearly, Word is popular. The tracking tool is simple to use, has some excellent features (such as a tool to insert comments) and just about everyone knows it. But it’s not without its drawbacks.

The Problem with Tracking

One challenge with using Word tracking is that it’s not always easy to see what changes have been made and by whom. You could very well end up with a document full of different colored texts, strike-through marks and comments. Instead of a document, it may end up looking more like a jigsaw puzzle.

“An interesting thing to note with tracking changes is all of the legal professionals I have ever heard speak indicate the need for a clean contract,” says Gloria Nelson, CSEP, account manager with The Meetinghouse Companies.  “In other words, we should incorporate those language changes/deletions into a new document to be executed by both parties so there’s no mistaking any interpretation.”

Andrea H. Gold, president of Gold Stars Speakers Bureau, agrees. “The worst situation is when a major corporation’s legal department, without permission, edits term by term, using sophisticated Word or other editing technology,” she says. “It becomes a mess to interpret and also is not solicited, per contract terms. These items require initial discussion, not technology edits.”

Sometimes it’s not so much a matter of technology as it is about trust, relations or even honesty. “The issue with using technology, especially tracking changes via Word, is that you have to really, really trust the people you are doing business with,” says Eli Gorin, CMP, CMM, managing director for Hospitality Growth Partners. “If they are tech-savvy enough, and it doesn’t take a lot to do this, they will know how to make the changes, save the file in a different format or copy/paste a new file, and save it as a final version, and you won’t really notice what changes have been made.”

To avoid this issue, make sure to compare different versions of contracts, either by using the “compare documents” function in Word or by reverting to the tried-and-true method of a side-by-side, line-by-line comparison.

Other Technology for Contracts

Another option is to modify PDF contracts. While traditionally it hasn’t been possible to make changes and edits on PDFs, that’s evolved over time. PDF-converter apps, including Able2Extract, Readdle and SignEasy, allow for the addition of comments, notes and even a signature, and can be accessed on smartphones and tablets. While these apps don’t offer the complete functionality of the tracking tool in Word, they are worth looking into for on-the-go contract management.

Google also has appealing options on the market, including Drive and Hangout. With either of these groundbreaking services, you can log in with your Gmail account and, in just a few easy clicks, review a document simultaneously with another person.

“You can do screen sharing through Hangout,” says Kristin Howard, CMP, a meeting manager. “And if I pull a contract up on my computer in Google Drive and give the other participant access to view my screen, he or she can see the edits being made in real time. When both parties can see the changes being made, it makes the process much faster.”

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Regardless of the technology you use, one thing people want on either side of the negotiation table is a clean, final copy with a genuine signature. 

“I don’t use electronic signatures,” says Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist for Eisenstodt Associates. “During an association audit of a meetings department, I once found that the executive director’s e-signature was being used fraudulently by the meetings department.”

Whichever tech tool you use, make sure the signature is legitimate and done in person. Technology may be evolving, but some contract requirements remain the same.

Alan L. Kleinfeld is a journalist who has been in the meetings industry for 20 years. He is an association management consultant and adjunct professor in hospitality management.