Will robots be presenting, drones be hovering, continuing education take place telepathically at your next meeting? That’s probably not likely, at least not yet. But the near future of tech for association meetings will involve better ways to hone in on the specific needs of individual members, making best use of the devices everyone is already carrying and, as always, convincing attendees not to tune out.
“It’s not really about one specific tech as much as everything is being converted to a visual experience,” says Wilson Tang, V.P. of digital experience at FreemanXP, provider of personalized brand experiences. “There’s practically no part of the event space that we aren’t considering how to digitize.”
The IMEX America team is confident that AI is one of the major meeting trends for 2017, not just because it’s next-level tech but because it is so easily applied to a basic conference need: connecting people. Grip, which bills itself as the world’s first artificial intelligence event networking app, got high marks at IMEX America, winning the 2016 IMEXpitch competition for start-up tech. The app marries the LinkedIn request and the Tinder swipe, allowing attendees to connect in a “handshake” if both swipe their interest. If one does not, no harm done: The requests are anonymous unless the interest is mutual. Grip also offers event matchmaking to attendees onsite, with in-the-moment recommendations on which exhibitors to visit and sessions to attend.
Targeted connecting, not just association-to-attendee but attendee-to-attendee, is also among IMEX’s picks for tech trends to watch this year. Along with Grip, the IMEX America team singled out Loopd as a rising matchmaking service for attendees, and Zenvoy as a way for buyers and attendees to stay in touch. Separately, attendees also are connecting via Snapchat and private messaging services such as Signal, WhatsApp and ChatSecure.
Virtual reality software maker WorldViz also caught IMEX’s eye for its business communication module, tentatively called “Skofield,” which lets users present remotely via virtual reality. Event planners also can create elaborate worlds within the world to help focus attendee attention and, ideally, boost learning and retention.
Telepresence robots, which allow remote attendees not only to see and hear the goings-on but also to interact face-to-screen with physical attendees, have gotten plenty of buzz, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll cement themselves into the foundation of events. “Robots are more eye candy,” as Tang sees it. “People end up staring at them rather than engaging with them. Ostensibly, people would walk up and talk, but it’s never natural.”
Rather, he sees augmented reality — the system of imagery superimposed on the physical world of which PokemonGo is the most familiar example— as the tech future of continuing education for association meetings.
“Apps, devices and so forth as learning and education tools are the next big revolution,” Tang contends. “Using smartphones or other devices, you find much more interactive and engaging ways to present content to attendees — for example, rather than slides and videos, interactive 3-D models attendees view on their phone as they’re going through the event. You can point your phone at a product or part of human anatomy to learn about it. It’s a far more engaging and interactive experience than watching a presentation.”
Smartphone tech for meetings is most likely to catch on best for the simple reason that, as Reggie Henry, ASAE’s chief information and engagement officer, notes in a different context, “Everybody has at least a smartphone with them. If you’re developing new apps, meeting apps, wayfinders, they have to work in a mobile environment.” At a recent ASAE conference, for example, Henry’s team used a mobile phone-based walkie-talkie app that allowed the members to set up different channels instead of renting walkie-talkies. “It doesn’t make sense to not take advantage of that,” he says of the ubiquity of personal phones.
And soon enough, most attendees will be toting not just any phone, but one that has built-in augmented reality software. The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro was the first smartphone to offer Google’s augmented reality software, Tango, and now the Asus Zenfone, just introduced at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show, one-ups the earlier phone by supporting both Tango and Google’s virtual reality software, Daydream. Although both phones are tricked-out with high-end hardware meant to provide a bright, crisp augmented reality interface, they cost significantly less than a new iPhone — meaning there is zero wait time for the new tech to trickle down to the mass market.
This brave new world of ever more targeted connectivity also encompasses its inverse: the ever more desperate craving to disconnect. IMEX calls this trend “unsubscribing,” wherein attendees “reclaim their inboxes, their sanity and their time” in “a flight toward more authentic and meaningful productivity. In turn, the purposeful creation and appreciation of ‘no-thing’ time (using planning approaches such as White Space) will win more and more fans in 2017.”
Some association planners were already onto this trend before it became a trend. Nicole Malcom, BSB-HRM, director of operations, American Holistic Nurses Association, for example, builds disconnect time into the flow of her annual conference. At her June event of about 450 holistic nurses plus presenters and staff, she created “unlocked, static reflection rooms” that were “reflective of a spa…with aromatherapy and water fountains.” Attendees could wander through a labyrinth, practice some asanas and generally take a timeout from the general excitement.
Granted, Malcom’s attendees are already occupationally inclined to take the road less frantic. Further, the association’s members range in age from 30 to 80, so Malcom used a hybrid of digital and analog sources to appeal to all comers. There was the standard CrowdCompass meeting app, which offered attendees an individualized experience in terms of speakers and sessions, and allowed them to leave notes for each other on the virtual bulletin board, download presentation materials to any mobile device and respond to surveys. There was also a physical bulletin board, paper handouts of the presentation materials and “paper bingo” for amassing signatures from exhibit booths.
The association’s “paper meets smartphone” approach is multipronged and designed to gradually bring members up to speed on tech: “We’re encouraging presenters to provide attendees innovative ways to integrate standard nursing practices with holistic ones by using technology, and introducing to nurses how to download apps onto their phone, how to recommend other holistic practitioners and how to introduce information to others,” she says.
Malcom also makes liberal use of the association website to provide downloadable professional headshots taken at the conference and videos shot from a GoPro camera with head strap for an immersive perspective.
Apart from the conference, the association familiarizes members with tech in various other ways; for example, they’ve created a PowerPoint presentation with instructions for local chapters on creating their own group Facebook page.
Once members are upskilled on tech, how to collect useful information from them? “Everybody’s kind of looking at a shiny object: collecting behavioral data through beacons — who went to a session, exhibit hall, how much time did they spend,” says Dave Lutz, managing director, Velvet Chainsaw, a consulting firm whose mission is to improve the conference experience. “It’s the hottest question mark because prices have come down to the point where it’s worth investigating. The exhibitor is going to have a perception that you won’t change with beacons or audits. I just don’t think we’re ready for mass behavioral tracking.”
Tang also sees the downside of geolocation data collection in how easy it is to misinterpret what’s collected. “There’s a lot of activity during shows, a lot of noise, a lot of heat maps, but without anyone actually going through the experience, understanding what was where,” he says. “The data told you a lot of people are at this corner, but the data didn’t tell you: that’s where the bathroom line is.”
Still, beacon technology has been successful in retail and elsewhere as a way of connecting with customer needs in real time, as well as inevitably providing reams of data that may or may not be useful later. The recent launch of Bluetooth 5 promises to expand the reach and usability of beacons and to upgrade the internet of things experience of having everyday appliances that send and receive online data. But that presupposes that attendees will in fact leave their Bluetooth on; typically, people are less likely to be “always on” when they’re away from home traveling, making it difficult to do accurate, widespread tracking, Lutz notes. And privacy concerns mean some will deliberately stay disconnected for periods.
“Some of the registration vendors are starting to put a beacon in the badge itself,” Lutz says, which solves the issue of an attendee being off the grid. Without a badge beacon, the participation rate can be as low as 20 or 25 percent, he says.
Henry sees the benefit of beacons for event planners specifically in the improved ability to analyze location data in real time. “Imagine a room set for 100, with 95 already there and 10 minutes to go. You have time to get chairs in there, adjust the temperature,” he says. “If you can combine the data about attendees with other data you already have about your members, you can guide them to where to go in the exhibit hall and where to go next.”
It’s one thing for planners and event organizers to believe they’re improving attendee experience through tech, but the real question is whether attendees agree with that assessment. “We all believe in getting better intel on your customers, but you can sometimes take it too far, and it’s hard to get the right read,” says Lutz.
Because their everyday experience of the convenience of tech is fairly advanced, “people’s expectations now are off the charts, when they think about how tech can affect them,” Henry says. And those expectations aren’t always being met in the event sphere. In fact, a recent ASAE IT-readiness study found a 40 percent gap between what association members expect from tech and what the staff thought they could deliver through tech, Henry says.
Even the conference registration process is tedious for attendees, he says. “Even though these are people that we know and have done business with throughout the years, we ask not only for identifying information, which the association should know,” but also questions for the exhibitors, questions about familiarity with the association’s other offerings — when the attendee just wants to register for a conference.
But is the ideal way to meet those expectations really to institute more tracking and collect more data? Maybe not. “ ‘I love how my association tracks my every move,’ said no attendee ever,” Lutz says. “People don’t always like being tracked, but if they voluntarily raise their hand, that’s another ballgame. The big thing is people don’t mind being tracked when there’s a benefit to them. It’s just a matter of making sure that the consumer wins. That’s the big problem I don’t think I’ve heard the right solution for. Is the win big enough to want to be tracked?”
Meanwhile, however rudimentary their tech collection is, relatively speaking, one thing associations are not short on is data about their members. The challenge isn’t so much gathering data, but knowing how to understand it and how to use it to best effect. “Data from your meeting app is there, it’s just not being used,” says Lutz, who cites the lack of database structure among the issues keeping it unexploited. “Practical aspects of (data) are sometimes not fully understood.”
And of course, there’s the eternal question of budget. It can be bewildering to know what to invest in as technology rapidly ramps up, and unexpectedly expensive to try to change course later. Even moving from one registration provider to a new one can come with hidden costs that may not ultimately make fiscal sense, Lutz says. But software solutions planners already own can provide multiple options, some of which the association may not need this year but can build on over several years.
“When I started in 2013, we were not tech-savvy at all,” says Malcom. But once she convinced the executive director to invest in a mobile app, “it was a lot easier to increase visibility in a lot of other ways. It was a slow takeoff the first year, but last year, our numbers indicated that we had an average of people using the sessions for 30 minutes and 45,600 ad views.”
Malcom also notes: “I’ve been able to recoup a lot of my costs from the mobile app just by selling ads. I’ve sold about five or six banners, so it’s starting to take fire.” Those who once only advertised during the conference now advertise in the association’s magazine and e-newsletter as well. She also runs ads on Facebook, targeting nurses in a 30-60-mile radius. “It’s not expensive,” she says. “$525 is the highest I’ve spent in a month. But we’ve increased from 20 new members a week to 35 to 40 per week, just doing Facebook promotional ads.” The association also promotes on LinkedIn and Twitter. “We are very specific, looking at who does what: Our age group doesn’t do Snapchat or Instagram.”
Follow up on attendee actions, not eyeballs. “We’ve developed this mindset of tracking implicit rather than explicit behaviors. Expressed behaviors are of greater value to understanding your customers,” says Lutz. “Just because I walk by a booth doesn’t mean I’m interested in that topic, per se. A stronger cue is if I go on a website or mobile app and add that to my itinerary; if I show up and scan to get CEUs; if I complete a conference survey for that session. There’s greater value in a specific behavior than, hey, I just happened to walk by or click on a link.”
The conference website matters. A lot. “Planners have gotten onto the digital marketing bandwagon grudgingly,” says Tang. “But you have to have a great online presence. There are so many poorly designed emails and websites. If they’re not convinced in the 10 seconds they’re on your website, then you’ve lost them after that.”
Livestreaming events can build a conference base. While planners may fear attendance will decline if they livestream sessions, “what they invariably find is the audiences increase. When you expand the audience base, more people want to be there in person. They’re using it to discover events and, on the planner end, to market events.”
See conferences from the outside in. For Henry, the best use of tech involves approaching meetings from the attendee’s perspective. Can the registration process be faster? Can the flow of the event be more intuitive? “We should keep the customers and their time in our minds as we look at the whole process — the marketing, registration, assistance at the event. So often, we look at what we’re trying to do, and trying to deliver, and what we need, when we need to look at systems from the outside in,” Henry says. AC&F