In today’s association meeting and convention market, most planners are experts at booking a hotel, planning menus and hiring speakers. They’re so good at those tasks that they have almost become second nature.
Not so, when it comes to the vitally important deployment of Wi-Fi technology. And while that knowledge gap remains a constant for many planners, especially at smaller
associations, the demand from attendees for state-of-the-art Wi-Fi capabilities is driving the market.
“The need for Wi-Fi at association meetings is increasing,” says Larry Covert, senior director of information technology at ASAE in Washington, D.C. “And the increase is due to a shift in terms of how people are using online media at meetings. So, what we’re seeing is a shift to more and more demand for high bandwidth because of things like presentations, as well as general usage. Another example would be the increasing use of video for educational programs, whether that’s just material that supplements a presentation or whether it involves video conferencing at the meeting to bring in people who are not physically at the meeting.”
Lexy Olisko, MBA, CMP, CEM, vice president of expositions at the Fairfax, Virginia-based Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA), whose annual October SGIA Expo draws 25,000 attendees and ranks as the 77th largest association trade show in the U.S., agrees with Covert that ever-increasing demand for “ubiquitous” Wi-Fi at meetings and conventions is driving the market. “Attendees definitely want to have the capability to stay connected to their businesses or employers while they’re at the show,” she says. “And for that reason, Wi-Fi is more of an attendee issue rather than an exhibitor issue, because in my experience at least, exhibitors who want connectivity in their booths tend to use wired internet so they can get the speeds they need.”
“Wi-Fi is more of an attendee issue rather than an exhibitor issue, because in my experience at least, exhibitors who want connectivity in their booths tend to use wired internet so they can get the speeds they need.” — Lexy Olisko, MBA, CMP, CEM
Covert notes that while most of the venues ASAE uses for its meetings can accommodate its increasing needs for Wi-Fi services, that assumption cannot be made by many meeting planners. “A planner has to be able to ask the right questions and plan ahead when it comes to the use of Wi-Fi,” he says. “You need to know what your requirements are going to be, and you also need to know that your venue has the capability to meet those requirements.”
In terms of assessing an organization’s need for Wi-Fi services at a convention center, conference center or hotel, Covert says that “the key factor from a technical perspective is the number of people you put into a particular venue. That often creates challenges to the amount of bandwidth that is being supplied to your facility and each of your attendees.
And for the facilities, what they have to do is account for the total amount of bandwidth they need for the entire facility, and then plan how to divide that bandwidth up among the meetings that are in the facility at the same time. So, you end up with a situation where if you have 200 people who all want to watch an HD video at the same time, you have to have a total amount of bandwidth that will accommodate that. But you also have to be able to allocate bandwidth to other uses and attendees, as well, such as just checking email. It’s often a challenge for a venue to bring in enough bandwidth for the entire breadth of all of the activity in its building, and then allocate it based on individual needs of those using the building.”
If a planner has concerns about the capabilities of a venue to support its meeting without the risk of inadequate bandwidth, one option is to negotiate, as part of the facility’s Wi-Fi agreement, the right to bring in additional bandwidth capacity from a third-party vendor, particularly if the facility will be hosting multiple conventions during your dates.
“For example,” Covert says, “you could have a third-party vendor come in and set up Wi-Fi in certain meeting rooms or other parts of the facility and bypass the facility’s Wi-Fi network altogether.”
Another fundamental consideration for planners is whether to trust the facility’s free Wi-Fi service, if it provides that option, or pay for upgraded premium service. The industry trend is that more and more associations are opting to pay for superior service rather than risk the consequences of underperforming free service, says Matt Harvey, vice president of internet services at major event experience provider PSAV in Schiller Park, Illinois.
“For us,” says Olisko, “the decision about whether to use free Wi-Fi or pay for premium service depends on the strength of the signal we can get in the venue, including on the show floor, at no cost. So in recent years, we have used free Wi-Fi, as well as paying for better service.”
An underlying reason for such fluctuation from year to year, venue to venue, she says, is that there is still no generally accepted minimum standard for what level of Wi-Fi service a convention center must provide. That means that depending on an association’s specific needs, in some destinations it will get adequate Wi-Fi at no cost, but in others, it will have to pay for upgraded service to ensure that its needs are met.
“If there were a universal standard, that would certainly make it easier for us as planners,” Olisko says. “But for now, we still have to do our due diligence on whatever facility we’re going into.”
Unfortunately, says Lisa Aukward, an association management consultant in Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, not even paid Wi-Fi service eliminates the risk of disaster.
“One of the challenges I’ve faced in the recent past was in regard to the ability of attendees to download presentations into a PDF format at the meeting via our app,” she says. “The experience was in a second-tier destination convention center, at a conference for 5,100 attendees. And the Wi-Fi service we received was not adequate for a significant number of people to be able to download presentations at the same time. That was the result of a combination of bandwidth and the support services we received.”
Aukward attributes the crash to “the constantly evolving technology and the constantly increasing demand for the service from associations for their meetings and conventions.
Apps are becoming smarter, and people are not just using one app at a time. They’re doing multiple things at the same time during the meeting. Demand and usage are increasing exponentially, but the technology is not keeping pace in terms of capacity and capability.”
While there are concerns among many planners about the pace at which the dependability of the technology is evolving and improving — and even some major convention centers lag behind — the cost of Wi-Fi service is rising.
“The cost of premium Wi-Fi has seemed to be going up moderately,” Olisko says. “It hasn’t really been a steep increase, but the cost is going up. And what I find most interesting is that a lot of these facilities are not upgrading their capabilities or putting in new infrastructure, but they are raising their prices. I have pushed back on that sometimes and said, ‘Your price is just crazy, and I’m not going to pay what you’re asking for what you offer. It’s just an insane amount of money for what I’m getting. Sometimes, they say, ‘OK, we’ll work with you.’ Other times they say, ‘That’s the price. Take it or leave it.’”
Pricing tends to vary by facility and region, Aukward says. “But at this point, in general, I’d say that we’re at the mercy of the facilities and the vendors in terms of what Wi-Fi costs. In other words, the quoted price is just what it is at any given facility, and it’s not something you can cut back on. You have to have it because attendees — and now some presentations — require it. And, attendee demand is growing because of the use of multiple mobile devices.”
From the perspective of most planners, except for those responsible for such major events at the Consumer Electronics Show or National Homebuilders Show, it is difficult to stay on top of costs and to understand clearly “exactly what you’re paying for, and what you’re actually getting,” Aukward says. “And that is not an area of expertise for most meeting planners.”
As a result, she says, there is often a communication gap between the facility and the association, in terms of the organization’s precise needs and expectations. “That happens all the time,” Aukward says, “because the [association] client is not really aware of what their needs are.
“At the same time, the dynamic is further complicated by the fact that most meeting planners simply assume the Wi-Fi at the meeting will meet their needs, and their budget, without incident. We normally learn about inadequate service during the conference when we receive complaints about the Wi-Fi not working properly,” she continues. “Therefore, precise communication between the association and the venue are crucial. And, there is usually a learning curve at most associations.”
Yet another factor that makes informed use of Wi-Fi difficult for many planners is a lack of transparency from venues and Wi-Fi vendors.
“In my experience, there is not really a lot of transparency,” Olisko says. “They just kind of give you the fuzzy answer, ‘Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be fine.’ Or they’ll say we can’t handle a group of your size without upgrading you [to paid service]. And a lot of times, they’re just not open with the technical details of what they can and can’t do, or what I can expect.”
Covert challenges that assertion. “Coming from the information technology side,” he says, “I don’t think the issue is so much one of transparency as it is an issue with knowledge and expertise. For example, the salespeople at the facilities are told that they can handle a certain capacity for a meeting, but the technical knowledge may not be there to truly be able to understand and provide the level of service that will be required at the meeting. That is just my opinion, but it’s based on conversations I’ve had with people in the industry.”
He also agrees that at smaller associations, meeting planners often lack the technical knowledge and expertise to be able to effectively assess and communicate their Wi-Fi needs.
“There is a general lack of knowledge of what is possible and not possible when it comes to the equipment a facility provides and the connections they bring in,” Covert says. “At ASAE, our meeting staff often brings in our IT staff to help supplement their technical knowledge. But unfortunately, I don’t think associations have that kind of resource to draw on.”
Complicating matters even further is that there is no standard menu of services and pricing. Both technical specifications and costs vary widely from destination to destination, venue to venue, even among competing convention centers in A-list destinations.
Covert believes that a standard menu of services is possible in the future. “But, it’s something of a moving target,” he says. “If that ever existed, it would be something that would have to be re-addressed frequently because of the rate at which the technology is improving and evolving.”
It’s also important. Covert says, to understand that the Wi-Fi itself is not the bottleneck in a lot of cases. “You can always add more equipment to your facility,” he says. “What ends up being the ultimate bottleneck is the internet connectivity that comes into the facility in the first place. And that is the area of innovation that will push the field forward in terms of how much bandwidth you can bring into a facility.”
The good news at the moment, Olisko says, is that more and more convention centers have started to upgrade their Wi-Fi service. “But, I am surprised that there are centers who have not kept up with the needs of association shows like ours, where many people are on their devices, and sometimes multiple devices, all the time,” she says. “I really don’t have an explanation of why that’s true, except for the fact that maybe Wi-Fi has just not yet been on their radar. Or, it’s just a matter of how they prioritize things. But, given the demand associations and their attendees are making for service, I do find that surprising.”
“The very first thing a planner needs to do is to know their use case, know the habits of the people who are coming to their meeting and what kinds of devices they will be using,” Covert says. “And that includes speakers, exhibitors and their staffs. Job No. 1 is detailed understanding of the Wi-Fi use habits of everyone at your meeting.
“From that, a planner has to calculate his or her needs based on specific factors. For example, will attendees be doing a lot of video conferencing or online web meetings? Will speakers be using a lot of video to supplement their content? Does your meeting staff need to have connectivity back to your headquarters, and if so, what will they be doing? Will people be accessing large files or presentations? Those are the kinds of factors you need to carefully take into account to be able to accurately assess how much bandwidth you’ll need. And then finally, you get down to your individual attendees, in terms of an average, and what they’ll need.”
Then, he says, the association’s needs must be measured against and compared to the connectivity of capabilities of the venue to make sure the meeting and the facility are a good match.
Surprisingly, Covert believes that less than a quarter of association meeting planners understand that they must be so granular in their planning, and then actually go to such lengths of analysis. “Based on that, what I’d like to see in the future is for planners to have a better idea of the kinds of questions they need to ask, in terms of what they’ll need, and the kinds of answers they need to get back from the facility.”
PSAV’s Harvey concurs with Covert’s analysis. “Planners have to take the time to understand the technology and also know precisely what their needs are.”
Given the complexity of the issue and the risks of an uninformed buying decision, Aukward suggests that planners “should seek assistance from a neutral technology expert, someone who can help you understand the terminology and the nuances of what you need and what you’re buying. As planners, we need to become familiar with the parameters of what is commonly offered at meeting and convention facilities, and how what we need or want differs from the facilities’ ‘standard options.’ That’s the only way we’ll ever get to the point where planners and facilities can have meaningful conversations and negotiations.” AC&F