As planners face increasing pressure from association stakeholders and attendees to provide memorable experiences on limited budgets, they’re turning to engagement technology to achieve those goals.
A growing number of technology tools facilitate meaningful connections among fellow attendees; between attendees and speakers; between attendees and planners; and between attendees and exhibitors. Engaging attendees on every level enhances learning and participation, and helps boost member retention and attendance.
Achieving the desired engagement outcomes requires choosing the right tool for each meeting based on attendee characteristics and event goals. Experts say that more planners are using “end-to-end” engagement strategies, which start before the event, continue onsite and follow through afterward.
“Mobile applications are by far the most apparent tool to connect with attendees throughout the entire lifespan of an event,” says Renee Radabaugh, CMP, president and CEO of Delray Beach, Florida-based Paragon Events, a 30-year-old event planning and association management company.
Radabaugh says that engagement apps are leading to sweeping improvements in association meeting management. “Mobile apps are able to distribute important information prior to the event, including registration confirmations, agenda updates and travel details,” she says. “During the event, they can deliver notifications and alerts about sessions, speakers and other information. Following an event, mobile apps provide a source of networking and allow attendees to build upon relationships and keep themselves informed.”
“Mobile apps are able to distribute important information prior to the event … registration confirmations, agenda updates and travel details. During the event, they can deliver notifications and alerts about sessions, speakers …” — Renee Radabaugh, CMP
Mobile apps also impact the bottom line of associations and save time for planners. “We have found mobile apps to be a great asset to fulfill sponsorships by offering ad banner space, as well as including sponsors in a special directory,” says Radabaugh. “Mobile apps also alleviate the amount of questions we receive at the registration and information desk, since all of the information is right at the attendees’ fingertips.”
According to James Spellos, CMP, president of Meeting U, a company specializing in technology training and meeting planning, “The best technology to enhance events is the conference app. It allows automatic updates for the conference. In the old days, when we printed schedules, it wasted paper, time and cost. Once you printed it, nothing could enhance it. The app changes that from something that was printed a month before the event to something that can be updated on the spot.”
Jeff Rasco, CEO of Wimberley, Texas-based association management company Attendee Management Inc., says that apps are a time-saver for both planners and attendees.
“Being able to log in and view or download presentations and other materials is a great convenience for attendees and makes the lives of event organizers easier,” he says. “Most engagements prior to or following events are app-based. Some apps extend the lives of events through attendee-speaker and attendee-attendee discussions beforehand and onsite, and then as repositories of information afterward.”
Rasco cites a time-saving example. “By shifting to digital check-in by scan or search, tied to on-demand badge printing, we have been able to dramatically reduce wait times and put staff out with participants to engage them about the event instead of having their heads stuck in computer screens,” he says.
Some of the most popular app-related technology provides information in real time to attendees. “We recently implemented Estimote Proximity Beacon technology for the first time to engage attendees based on their behavior and mobile app usage,” Radabaugh says.
The beacons consist of a tiny computer that broadcasts a radio signal, which allows a smartphone to pick up and interpret the signal. “When an eligible mobile app enters the signal’s region, vendors, planners and exhibitors can send information directly to an attendee’s smartphone based on their location,” says Radabaugh.
Through Bluetooth, the beacons then use notifications to engage attendees with information that is relevant to them based on their proximity to the next session or special activity. The technology also can support areas such as registration by sending reminders of upcoming sessions or sending content they will cover.
Most planners choose from among the rapidly growing number of generic, off-the-shelf meeting apps. However, planners also can create their own event-specific apps.
The many uses for apps include:
It’s difficult to have a successful convention nowadays without involving social media.
Here’s why: Social media has helped transform attendees from passive event-goers into influential participants who continuously provide input to help shape meetings in real time.
There are so many options, including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr and Foursquare, that it can be difficult to choose the right tool for the right purpose.
Radabaugh seeks to match the best social media with the specific goals of a meeting. She offers an example of using Snapchat with other social media to inspire attendees to document and share their experiences.
“We have designed custom Snapchat filters, branded with an event and client’s logo, that are available to attendees once on premise,” says Radabaugh. “We have also encouraged attendees to utilize an official hashtag to collect and generate online buzz. Cvent’s Social Wall also provides an exciting, interactive experience to an event as it allows attendees to see their posts shared on a larger scale. Not only does this approach encourage attendees to participate, but it also creates connections that last well beyond the conclusion of the event.”
Custom-built registration systems can help engage attendees and increase interest in events while minimizing extra costs and fees.
According to Radabaugh, “We have seen that association planners are beginning to invest in a variety of registration management tools and services to enhance the attendee
experience and garner helpful data. For example, Cvent’s online technology software combines advanced functionality with a user-friendly interface, offering a specialized and branded registration process for attendees.”
Radabaugh also uses registration technology to identify information she wants to capture from attendees that will provide insight into their behavior and interests. “Our seamless registration experience online equally translates to our remarkable execution onsite,” she says. “We strive to check-in guests as quickly and efficiently as possible, keeping in mind the valuable customer service aspect.”
Technology companies are crowding the market with products, making it time-consuming and difficult for planners to choose the right tool. And many planners, who are already overwhelmed with logistics, may have an aversion to learning new technologies.
No wonder planners are slow to use new technology. According to a study by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), only 57 percent of planners use some type of meeting management technology, even though 96 percent reported that they find value in the software.
Rasco says there are three main reasons for the slow adoption.
Radabaugh agrees. “For associations, budgeting is a major priority, and planners often have to follow conservative budgets, which may deter them from investing in new technology for their events.”
Additionally, she notes, it’s challenging to train both staff and attendees to implement and use technology effectively. “It also depends on what technology would work best for the event,” she adds. “Event tech needs to be selected with purpose, and this results in a slow decision-making and acquisition process.”
Experts say that planners who allow cost to be a major roadblock to using technology are being shortsighted.
According to Spellos, “The major problem with planners who are looking at technology limitations on a monetary basis is that they are not exploring other opportunities to offset the cost. The perfect example is the conference app. Putting a conference app together doesn’t have to be very expensive.”
He says there are many affordable conference app options. “There are free apps you can use as a starting point,” says Spellos. “And, there are opportunities in your trade show to have advertising or marketing to offset costs. But, planners have to understand that their constituents are more important than the tool they are using. If they can do that, then they can select the right tools to support their needs.”
He adds that there are sites which provide free and low-cost stand-alone apps and those that planners can create. “That’s a good entry to the process for planners,” he says.
Conventions, exhibitors and planners are starting to use Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to personalize meeting experiences. Cost is still a barrier for planners. However, adoption is likely to grow as the costs of the technology declines and as mobile apps get better at VR, AR and AI experiences.
Radabaugh believes that VR, AI and AR all have lots of promise for meetings. “VR headsets and AR glasses may be used for collaborative group interactions and accelerate audience response and engagement,” she says. “On the other hand, Al will enable more personalized experiences by recognizing special traits or information about attendees. In time, association planners may be expected to offer it as part of their event technology services to enhance their customers’ experiences.”
In addition, voice-activated AI can use data collected from social media profiles and apps to recommend sessions, people to meet and other information to attendees.
Rasco notes that people are becoming accustomed to using simple AI by asking Siri, Alexa and Google to help with everyday tasks. “From there, it’s a small leap to saying, ‘Hey (name of association), tell me about a speaker or hotel, or register me for a symposium,’” he says. “People will use simple voice requests to check in and out of events, sessions and hotels, and request exhibitor materials, provide contact information, set appointments, etc.”
Facial recognition is still a developing technology for use at events. Facebook uses facial recognition to suggest photo tags. Planners can do the same by encouraging staff to post and tag event photos to their own Facebook sites or one created by planners for an event. Eventually, facial recognition software will discern the mood of attendees by reading body language and facial expressions.
For now, planners are beginning to use facial recognition for check-ins. “When that technology takes off,” says Rasco, “it will improve a lot of our manual processes. In the meantime, we are enjoying affordable tools to check in attendees, provide credentials and give them those great first impressions of their events.”
Livestreaming can increase offsite “attendance.” Planners can set up livestreaming and ask attendees to share it with others who can’t attend. There is little evidence to suggest that livestreaming will lessen the growing importance of in-person event attendance.
The type and quality of attendee engagement experiences can make or break an association meeting. That’s why it’s important to choose the right technology. Experts offer the following tips to select engagement technology and get the most out of it.
Failure to choose the right app for the right meeting can create unhappy attendees.
According to Spellos, “I’ve gone to conferences where attendees are upset with the apps. They weren’t easy to download, they weren’t updated or the information contradicted what they had heard otherwise. That tends to be a symptom of a lack of focus on customers. Good apps focus on the attendee and looks at the meeting experience from their perspective.”
Engagement technology can connect attendees based on common interests and allow them to build lasting professional relationships by personalizing exchanges. However, the wrong technology can distract from engagement and provide little return on experience or investment. AC&F