For years now, “technology” has been one of the most commonly used buzzwords in the meeting industry. Initially intended as a way to simplify and streamline the planning process, the much-hyped notion of a better, faster way to do things eventually encompassed just about every conceivable aspect of a meeting planner’s job, from registration and room block management to administration of exhibit space and speakers.
Today, however, some planners are questioning just how much time and effort have actually been saved — or whether, in fact, their lives have really been made easier.
“Our experience as planners hasn’t been helped as much as we hoped because there’s not really been a good evolution of how technology affects the planning process,” says Mary Pat Cornett, CMP, CAE, senior director, education and meetings, at the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAOHNS) in Alexandria, Virginia. “But it has allowed us to go to a paperless approach to logistics, by using iPhones and iPads and doing things electronically, which is certainly a plus. But that’s really the only way technology has affected how we work internally.”
Cornett notes that there is still no totally integrated planning platform for meetings, even from industry leaders Cvent and Lanyon. And an important underlying issue, she adds, is that because there are now so many technology vendors and so many specialized niche products, such as meeting-related mobile apps and survey tools, that it does not all fit together into a neat, manageable package. And probably never will.
Therefore, Cornett says, in her experience technology typically does not deliver real time-savings because the “automated” functions are still often very time-consuming.
“To be really honest, I don’t think some of the functions delivered by technology are as much better than the old manual processes than they should be,” she says. “It seems better, because you don’t see big piles of paper on your desk and you’re not spending money on old-fashioned things like postage. But when it comes to making sure these systems actually work as they’re supposed to and that reports actually pull accurate data and things like that, it’s almost like you actually have less control, because you can’t see inside the technology. So very often we find the solutions don’t flow as easily as they ought to.”
Ultimately, Cornett says, that means that one way or another the same amount of work is being done in terms of man hours. “I don’t know why there’s still not technology that makes planning a meeting as easy as TurboTax makes paying my taxes,” she says. “That changed my life overnight. And I don’t see any equivalent technology in the meeting industry.”
However, she points out, for attendees, technology has changed virtually every aspect of a meeting or convention. And the bigger the meeting, the more profound the transformation.
Although there is now an almost endless list of function-specific technology tools — and especially mobile apps — that empower attendees to enjoy a better and more efficient meeting experience, the big three benefits are wayfinding, content management and onsite networking.
For Cornett, the most important are onsite experience and content management.
American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery provides an itinerary planner on its website as soon as its meeting, which draws about 9,000 attendees including an international delegation, is announced.
“Then, about a month before the meeting, we release a mobile app,” Cornett says.
Either on the association’s website or later on its mobile app, attendees can search the agenda and comment on planned sessions. Local maps of the destination also are provided.
Jennifer Tomb, CMP, CEM, CAE, assistant director, meetings, for the American Geophysical Union in Washington, DC, also is now making more use of mobile technology, especially mobile apps that provide specific capabilities.
One area of interest for Tomb is gamification, a red-hot new way to motivate and steer attendee behavior such as attendance at a general session or participation in an important survey by making it a game that has some kind of tangible reward. (Also see “Winning With Gamification” on page 8.) Although a number of major vendors, including Cvent, offer gamification capabilities, the undisputed innovator and industry leader is QuickMobile.
Tomb doesn’t have a clear idea yet of just how American Geophysical Union will use gamification, but its obvious appeal will be to younger scientists who are more tech-savvy and creative. It’s really just a new and innovative form of attendee engagement, Tomb says. “We also want to use it to get tracking data. But gamification makes it fun. And it can also be a great traffic-builder for exhibitors.”
Although as a practical matter, current technology can impact many aspects of a meeting, for most associations, it is content management that is arguably the most important.
That is particularly true for the American Geophysical Union, because its annual meeting, which draws 22,000 attendees, is content-intensive, with almost 22,000 abstracts. For this year’s meeting, Tomb and her team will try out a new mobile app vendor that has not been selected yet.
“What we’re looking for is a mobile app that can actually handle the huge amount of content that we have,” Tomb says. “But we also want some of the user-friendly features like restaurant finders and things like that.”
American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery also is in a content-intensive field. And technology has definitely improved their ability to manage and disseminate content, Cornett says.
“We have not fully moved yet to being paperless,” she says. “But we have moved to providing everything electronically, as well as on paper, in the hope that someday soon our use of paper will end. But it’s also now much easier for people to access our content on their laptop or on our website or via a mobile app on any device.”
Cornett’s annual meeting features 900 speakers and an almost countless list of individual sessions. “And you can search them all electronically now, which is much easier than dealing with paper,” she says.
In the future, Cornett plans to move more toward user-driven content that is more based on feedback generated before the meeting as the program is being finalized. “That makes perfect sense, so I think it’s something we’ll evolve into,” Cornett says, adding that such a capability is particularly relevant to her organization because all of its members are board-certified doctors who are subject experts, which automatically facilitates a very high level of collaboration.
Like a growing number of associations, particularly in the medical field, AAOHNS leaves its content up on its website after the meeting and sells it to interested members, whether they were at the meeting or not. “But even though we charge for it, we really do it as more of a member benefit,” Cornett says. “And the reason we say that is that our annual meeting has so many sessions that people get frustrated that they can’t attend everything they want to or they find that a particular session is full. So that gives us a way to give them access to all of the content and allow them to choose what they want, even if that is after the meeting.”
Because of the overwhelming amount of content disseminated at its annual meeting, the American Geophysical Union uses a scientific program management software that makes content management as efficient as humanly possible.
A related aspect of content management that is being profoundly influenced by technology are post-meeting surveys that allow planners and association executives to constantly refine their events based on clear attendee feedback.
Sheena Kennedy, communications and membership manager for the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC) in Ankeny, Iowa, uses surveys to ask attendees “what was their top takeaway from the meeting. We ask them what presentations they liked best and why. We also ask them what they’d like to see more of at the next year’s meeting. And by doing that, we really hope to make the conference something that people are thinking about 365 days a year.”
Based on survey results, ABC also now selects some of the most highly rated or most valued sessions and turns them into more detailed articles in their association publication as a way of responding directly to feedback with an additional layer of educational service.
Kennedy also now does surveys before the meeting, as well, to ensure that the content to be presented is deemed relevant by attendees. “Surveys help us develop content that people feel will really be beneficial for them,” she says. “And that helps them understand why the meeting is important, which helps with attendance.”
“Surveys help us develop content that people feel will really be beneficial for them. And that helps them understand why the meeting is important, which helps with attendance.” — Sheena Kennedy
Kennedy is a current member of ASAE’s Meeting & Exposition Council and in March, ASAE tested the idea of surveying attendees throughout the lifecycle of one of its meetings, including things such as the check-in and overall experience at their hotel, as well as at the meeting.
“By doing that, you’re able to find out right away what’s going on with your attendees,” Kennedy says. “And that way, you can correct something that has gone wrong, instead of getting that feedback after the conference, when it’s too late to do anything about the problem. Then you have to wait a whole year before you can make that attendee happy again.”
Based on the ASAE experiment, Tomb says she also is interested in moving toward real-time surveys during her annual meeting. “But that means you have to have a dedicated staff person that can analyze the survey results as they’re coming on,” she says. “And I think you have to be careful how much surveying you do at the meeting. You don’t want people feeling like they’re constantly having to respond to surveys. And I think even ASAE learned that by the third day, responses kind of dropped off from their peak because people were getting tired of answering questions.”
After her annual meeting, Kennedy uses careful analysis of the insights gleaned from attendee surveys to be able to do a better job of planning the meeting for the following year. “We ask people exactly what kinds of sessions and content they want at the next meeting,” she says.
As new technology tools continue to improve the onsite experiences of attendees, and more sophisticated survey capabilities allow planners to know before, during and after a meeting what attendees are thinking, the ability to plan more successful events will continue to evolve.
But one new frontier of the meeting industry that is only now becoming a serious subject of discussion is virtual meetings.
And that is an important topic simply because as budgets for attendance at some association meetings continue to be flat, virtual technology means planners can give members the benefits of being at a meeting without them actually being there.
“Our industry has really been impacted by government sequestration and budget cuts so we’re at the mercy of travel restrictions,” Tomb says. “So last year we worked with some major agencies like NASA and NOA to set up some remote viewing meeting sites in one of their conference rooms.”
So far, the American Geophysical Union has perceived virtual meetings as a member service. But they are now pondering doing virtual events as a fee-based service that becomes a new revenue stream. “Virtual content is where most of our technology efforts are focused at the moment,” Tomb says. “And I think virtual meetings are going to grow by leaps and bounds.”
As a result, the American Geophysical Union expects to be able to build virtual meetings into a significant business model and revenue stream, especially for their large and growing international audience. AC&F