Planners and organizers of conventions and trade shows depend on technology for their meetings, from registration and data security to keynote presentations, attendee engagement, exhibitor ROI and more. Chatbots, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) no longer reside solely in the future; they’re here in how we create stimulating, effective meetings today.
Yet that doesn’t mean that every bit of new tech is right for every show. It does mean that planners and associations have a slew of new and evolving tools at their disposal. The key is to choose those that meet their needs and support their business goals.
Carina Bauer, CEO, IMEX Group, underscores that point. “For an association, as for any business, the key with using new technology is to ensure that you have understood what your needs are and why you’re using the tech. There’s no point in using the newest tech for the sake of it; rather, it’s important to understand what problems you need to solve and then investigate what solutions might be best for your business.”
“We need to make sure the solutions we’re using are actually useful for the attendee and we need to communicate the value to them.” Elizabeth Glau, CMP
Bauer says testing new technology fits in with her organization’s mission to innovate and educate, and that’s apparent at both IMEX in Frankfurt and IMEX America in Las Vegas. “We trial new technology we think will impact our industry — the business-events sector. In recent years, we’ve trialed a chatbot to help our attendees and exhibitors with queries before and during the show. Most recently, we trialed AI facial-recognition technology to process and welcome attendees at Association Evening, part of IMEX in Frankfurt.”
In addition, she notes, she’s seeing interesting uses of technology by exhibitors who are tapping it to creatively bring their venue, product or destination to life. “For example,” she says, “exhibitors at our recent shows have been using VR. By wearing a VR headset, attendees — meeting planners — can explore a destination or venue, and even look inside a space that hasn’t launched yet. We also see some exhibitors starting to use near-field technology (NFC) for information distribution at their booths, often activated using NFC enabled smartphones.”
For IMEX, Bauer says, the goal is to connect meeting planners and suppliers. “We therefore carefully choose the right technology to help make this happen, rather than being driven by whichever technology is of the moment. One example is our app, which helps exhibitors and planners research and plan their time at the show as well as being a useful, instant resource during busy days on the show floor. Another constant on the trade-show floor are lead-retrieval devices and apps.”
IMEX isn’t alone in that. “Most meetings and shows,” Bauer says, “exist in order to foster business connections. As a result, meeting/show organizers can leverage technology to aid these connections. Apps that work both in advance and onsite that have matching algorithms can work well if set up correctly. Companies such as Zenvoy employ this matching year round, whereas others like e-180 work on an event-based ‘brain date’ concept. Technology can also be used to support sustainability values, for example, by swapping printed materials for online delivery. This can be used effectively by both organizers and exhibitors.”
For all of the advances in technology, Bauer says the major questions for organizers, exhibitors and planners still revolve around Wi-Fi capacity. “For most new technologies, the ability to quickly and seamlessly access high-speed internet is still crucial. It is also a must for attendees.”
In addition to AI, Bauer sees augmented reality and more widespread use of RFID and NFC as major tech advances for planners and associations to keep on their radar.
Like other experts, Elizabeth Glau, CMP, director of strategy, EGCX Group, says associations should look for the tech that supports their goals and mission — and that may or may not mean using the latest, greatest technology. In fact, Glau says, “The ‘latest’ technology does not make it the ‘greatest.’ We’re in an age of technology overload. The attendee journey or operational efficiency needs to be factored into the decision of whether to use each tool. Sometimes a better result can come from a no-tech or low-tech option. Certainly, we need to keep up with what is available, and it would be nice for organizers to have better ways of learning about what works in what situations.”
To do that, Glau suggests, start with a question about the specific type of engagement for which you’re aiming. “For example, to gather more ideas from attendees during a session, use a simple tool to run polls, surveys, Q&A, etc. You might try Glisser, Piccles or SocialPoint Audience Engagement. And if the mission is to make sure attendees are meeting the right people, then find the technology that tells them who they should meet. That technology might be powered by AI, like Grip or Swapcard. Matchmaking leverages the personalized information you collect from your buyers and sellers to make sure the right attendees are connecting.”
But planners need to remember that many of the ways we promote events and activate engagement onsite rely on attendee participation. “We need to make sure the solutions we’re using are actually useful for the attendee and we need to communicate the value to them,” Glau says.
Echoing Bauer, Glau notes that lead retrieval is the technology most pertinent for exhibitors on the trade-show floor, provided by exhibitors themselves or by show organizers. “Lead retrieval is set up to capture contact information from attendees. Ideally, the exchange goes both ways so attendees can also have a record of who they met and receive their collateral electronically in an automated fashion.”
While having the latest tech may not be critical, Glau says AI has viable current uses. “If you can determine a way to use it to automate a repetitive process that saves you time or money, then it’s useful. There may be a significant investment in time or resources to get it set up, but you can factor that into the total value proposition.”
Of course for any tech to be effective the right Wi-Fi must be available, and that’s something planners and associations need to discuss with venues well in advance of a meeting. “Depending on the size of the event, there are many implications around Wi-Fi access these days. The association may or may not be able to bring in their own Wi-Fi if the venue Wi-Fi is not sufficient or cost prohibitive. There are also potential security issues with the types of networks offered that also need to be discussed and considered.”
In terms of keeping up with new tech, Glau says, “New tools for influencer marketing should be considered. Your attendees are your best marketers; make it easy for them to recommend your event to their peers. Additionally, associations need to stay on top of regulations around attendee privacy.”
One important point Glau makes is that using new tools does not necessarily mean starting all over with new vendors, and also some “old-school” solutions can be very effective.
“The ability to scale personalized data on your attendees to understand and serve them better has vastly improved in the past three years. Some of the same companies you’re already working with have added better dashboards and features to enable you to gain greater insight. For example, I used Survey Monkey to tie attendees’ demographic and psychographic data collected during registration to their survey responses. This allowed us to see if specific groups of attendees were getting their specific needs met. Another easy solution is a Google Forum for collecting feedback onsite. Attendees appreciate having a forum to give the organizer feedback with the option to receive a follow-up to resolve any issues they may be having without having to physically track down a staff member.”
Brittany Marinovich, manager, meetings and expositions with Kellen, also sees tech as a way to connect with attendees before, during and after events and for attendees to connect with each other.
“By using event apps, you can have attendees sign up for certain education sessions and see who else is attending that session, which can further encourage attendance. They can also connect before or after the session to share notes and elaborate more on the topic. During sessions, live polling helps engage the audience with the topic and interact directly with the speaker. By seeing the results live on screen, attendees can feel more connected to the topic,” Marinovich says.
Tech is also useful for speakers who can’t make an event but would still like to present at it. “Online meeting tools and even VR offer them the chance to feel like they’re in the room,” she adds. And for speakers who present at a show, recording technology is the best way for show organizers and planners to extend the usability of a meeting. “Using recording technology, upon securing the permissions of your speakers, you can create high-quality videos that can be used later as webinars or distributed to anyone who cannot attend the meeting.”
Marinovich points to many ways tech can be used productively on the trade-show floor, such as driving booth traffic. “Name badges with barcodes replace business cards or business lead cards. The trade-show floor now has smartphone charging stations, virtual reality presentations, smartphone apps with GPS floor plans, interactive kiosks and so much more. Software like a2z is great for floorplan management, exhibitor and attendee portals, speaker and session management and mobile and social applications,” she says. “Gamification, such as scavenger hunts, is also a big one to help drive booth traffic by offering special discounts, coupons and prizes. You can provide knowledge and increase attendee/exhibitor involvement while instilling some fun and friendly competition.”
Marinovich thinks technology is definitely making things easier on the meetings front. “Instead of spreadsheets and forms, meeting and event registration can now be done from your smartphone. Online registration sites allow questions to be more custom and personal and allow you to collect more information to cater your event to your attendees. Fast-stations have also cut down on long lines at registration to gather your name badge and other materials. Now you can simply walk up, scan a barcode and your badge prints right there.”
With younger attendees all about social media, that’s an area of evolving technology that Marinovich also thinks is important. “The more shareable and more Instagrammable the better. My personal favorites are Snapchat filters and lenses; nothing livens up your story better than a cool filter, geolocation or funny lens. The company SCANVenger Hunt has great gamification options like trivia, scavenger hunts and interactive game walls. Another fun option is WallaMe, where you can hide secret messages throughout your event and trade show.”
One collateral positive of rising technology is reduced waste because printed programs are no longer necessary. “You can load all your information in one place, connect with other attendees, see updated schedules, look at floor plans of the hotel or trade-show floor and receive push notifications for event updates and announcements,” Marinovich says.
And keep looking forward. “Do your research to know what’s out there. There are new things coming out every day that can make your event more fun or make your job easier.”
When it comes to the question of whether AI is a current useful tool or simply bells and whistles, Bob Caldwell, founding partner, CRO of EventBots, by Sciensio, says, “That is a concept we talk about around the world. All too often, technology is deployed without much thought to its purpose, other than to elicit oohs and aahs.”
He makes clear that was never the point of EventBots “We relentlessly focus on the Job To Be Done, where we are making certain that the AI technology, chatbots in our case, is laser focused on improving attendee experience, reducing costs for organizers and generally driving achievement of specifically measurable KPIs. Our AI chatbots are cool, but if we are not improving the process or business results for our clients, why should they deploy them?”
Associations, he says, are using chatbots in many different ways today. “They’re looking to use AI chatbots to support their trade shows, but also using templated versions of bots to support their regional and local meetings with deep, rich conversations. Of course, they’re also deploying AI chatbots on their websites in rapidly increasing numbers. Chatbots are the truest voice of the customer.”
But are they revolutionizing meetings? Maybe. “We’re seeing 80%+ engagement, 95%+ correct response rates; click-through rates above 40%,” Caldwell says. “Remember, 100% of people have SMS and it has a 98% open rate. These are incredible changes to the industry. AI chatbots deliver information to attendees in SMS and other channels. Attendees can literally ask a question and get an answer.”
Chatbots aren’t the only gamechangers. Mary Ann Pierce, founder and CEO of MAP Digital Inc., says consolidation of event technology is a huge improvement. “Attendees can log-in once to register, build their schedule, connect with others and access conference presentations and webcasts. We’re seeing a significant decline in attendees downloading a native app. Web/mobile websites offer more flexibility for integration with other technology and content changes, and all user data is stored in one place. The Web/mobile website can span the arc of the attendee’s conference engagement from registration to evaluations all in one place.”
Pierce says the same consolidation exists in tech used by exhibitors. “Exhibitors are using Jifflenow.com to schedule meetings with attendees as an extension of their CRM. We met Eventtia.com at Unbound Miami and were impressed with their event-management platform. We were especially keen to test their built-in lead retrieval for exhibitors. Again, consolidation and integration of all function in one place or platform. Now, integration is innovation.”
Pierce also thinks sharing and community will drive future technology. “MAP Digital has built a pilot program distributing video ‘snippets’ of conference content via social media to build cause-awareness, brand and community. We’re getting very encouraging results and thus, interest from funders who want to move the needle for social good. We believe that the future is in sharing of ideas to build community, which will also enhance attendee development and retention.”
Like Caldwell, Pierce thinks AI, which she notes has been around since the 1950s, is a game changer. “It will guide us to design better events, have a deeper relationship with our attendees, build influencer community and better serve exhibitors and sponsors. It will bring more precision and profit to event marketing.”
The International Association of Exhibitions & Events (IAEE) is the industry show for show organizers, and as such has an emphasis on show-worthy technology. Scott Craighead, CEM, vice president of exhibitions and events, says, “It’s extremely important for associations to stay up on technology trends and apply tech where it makes the most sense for their event strategy. For this reason, IAEE, with its audience being show organizers, emphasizes tech at Expo! Expo!, with an extensive offering of tech-related solutions and education programs. At IAEE’s Expo! Expo!, show data tells us that various show-related technologies are among the most sought-after product categories in our show’s marketplace.”
Exhibitors, Craighead notes, “are adopting technology that assists them with telling their brand story and by providing interactive experiences for their visitors. An example of this is the utilization of VR and AR for delivering product demonstrations and brand experiences.”
He lists show apps, chatbots, matchmaking platforms and sensor/traffic tracking tech as options for increasing engagement. “There has been an emergence on traffic-sensor technology to help create business connections between exhibitors and attendees,” he says.
Craighead also notes that associations are continuing to use technology to improve the education component of meetings. “Education tech continues to evolve with more interactive audience polling systems, traffic-tracking tech to track credits and with advancements in A/V tech such as projection mapping.”
Like others, he says technology has vastly improved registration. “Tech advancements have allowed for registration tech to be more integrated into an organization’s database for better data intelligence, management and for a better user experience. Social media is being tied into the registration experience and there are many attendee acquisition software tools in the marketplace. We’re also starting to see an emergence of facial-recognition tech being incorporated into the registration experience.”
But again, planners must be vigilant with RFPs in order to get what they need. “Venue RFPs should include internet bandwidth requirements based on the average size and bandwidth usage of the event. The RFP should also ask for opportunities with house A/V tech offered by the venue, such as digital signage.”
While meeting needs drive some meeting-tech innovation, Craighead says other industries — and countries — are also creating tech that planners should know about. “Associations need to keep an eye on the evolution of all data-driven technology emerging inside and outside of the industry. We recently adopted technology that was proven in the retail and airport environment and has now entered the trade-show space. It takes an ongoing environmental scan of what’s going on out there.”
To help keep planners updated, Craighead says IAEE recently launched its Tech Guide, which collects the most recent event-related, tech-use cases from around the world.
Whatever new tech comes down the pike, however, the best technology is the tech that supports your specific business goals. Keep that front of mind and you can’t go wrong.
| AC&F |