Cutting-Edge Tech Tools for Attendee EngagementJune 1, 2016

From Interactive Beacons to Virtual Booth Assistants, Associations Seek New Ways to Deliver a Better Experience By
June 1, 2016

Cutting-Edge Tech Tools for Attendee Engagement

From Interactive Beacons to Virtual Booth Assistants, Associations Seek New Ways to Deliver a Better Experience
ASAE CIO Reggie Henry, CAE, interacts with a virtual booth attendant at a technology conference. Credit: ASAE

ASAE CIO Reggie Henry, CAE, interacts with a virtual booth attendant at a technology conference. Credit: ASAE

In 2010, the Chicago-based HIMSS (the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society) used a hologram at their annual convention. A technology company created an image of a well-known staff person giving directions regarding registration, explains Elli Riley, CEM, senior director of exhibits and meeting services. The hologram was positioned near the building’s entrance.

“It was a very funny experience,” Riley says. “Attendees were looking around the ceiling to see where the image was coming from, and looking behind it. But a lot of people did stand there and listen to her because it was such a unique experience.”

Holograms are still expensive, so don’t expect to see them popping up everywhere (at least not for the next five or 10 years). “There will be some future in these fantastic things like holograms, but people’s expectations is how you can provide a better experience for them,” says Reggie Henry, CAE, chief information officer at ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership in Washington, DC. “That’s what I see people focusing on the most right now.”

With beacon technology, “We knew down to the booth level how many visitors they got, how many unique visitors they had, the average stay time, even who those attendees were.” 
— Reggie Henry, CAE

If the right tech tools are implemented in the correct way, they can go a long way toward improving the experience of attendees, exhibitors, even the association planning the event. It’s helpful for people of all ages, but there is one group it appeals to more than others.

“Millennials have never really had the experience of sitting in a large classroom for days on end to learn,” says Tristan Gorrindo, MD, director of education for the Arlington, Virginia-based American Psychiatric Association. “The idea of people learning from a podium is totally inconsistent to their experience to date. Associations have to change if they want to continue to engage those learners. There’s going to be this big push toward teaching in a different way, but there’s going to be great technology that’s going to pull us forward as well.”

Key considerations with new tech tools are to use them not for their “wow” value but for their teaching value; to get buy-in from the presenters who will be using  them before the event starts; to provide them with plenty of support while they’re using it; and to understand the needs of the audience before settling on the best tech tools to meet those needs. It’s also important to keep attendee privacy in mind when implementing technologies that track and share personal information.


A few years ago radio-frequency identification (RFID) was all the rage. Many associations are now switching to beacons.

The benefit of beacons is that they’re interactive. They allow users to access information electronically when they want it (as an RFID device would), but they also allow meeting planners to push messages out to people. Push-messaging is an extremely powerful way to customize each attendee’s experience, says David Ely, head of sales and marketing for TurnoutNow, a cloud-based data analytics technology company.

“If we can see what people are doing in real time, we can suggest back to the attendees, ‘Based on your current activity, you might want to go to these 10 exhibitors, attend these 10 upcoming sessions and introduce yourself to these 10 people who are doing something similar,’ ” he says.

When beacon technology was first applied at meetings, cellphones were the beacons. The problem was that the constant communication between phones and receivers wore down attendees’ cellphone batteries. ASAE has moved to standalone hardware. “They’re small things, about the size of a quarter, that can be put anywhere, including on the back of a badge,” Henry says.

The data collected at a recent event was used a number of different ways, Henry reports. “We were able to get a heat map of where people were in the exhibit hall,” he says. “If we recognized there was no traffic in a certain area, we were able to put a boost station there. On day two there were a fair number of people going there. We knew down to the booth level how many visitors they got, how many unique visitors they had, the average stay time, even who those attendees were.”

That information is very valuable to exhibitors, Ely says. If a company can see that they did well at the event, the association can pitch them on buying a bigger booth the following year. On the other hand, if the company can see that people within their target market were walking by the booth and skipping it, they can think about ways to offer more value the following year.

Beacons also provide several direct benefits to attendees. “If there are beacons in every classroom, you can see when the room is full, so you can adjust air conditioning before it gets hot,” Henry says. Beacons allow people seeking CEUs or CECs to prove that they attended a particular session and stayed the entire time.

One of the most valuable parts of any event is networking. Beacon apps can be used to arrange meeting times and locations between attendees with similar interests. In some cases, apps can tell an attendee where a person they want to meet is standing.

Most people appreciate the benefits of beacon technology, but allowing attendees to opt out of it will allay concerns about privacy.


Cellphone apps have an important role to play at meetings. ASAE worked with to develop an app called Experience Guru. If people opt in to the service, the app checks in with them via text message during the event to make sure things are going well. For example, the app may inquire if their flight got in on time, if their hotel room is comfortable, and if the conference registration process went smoothly. Attendees text back a thumbs up, neutral sign or thumbs down.

The minute somebody gives a negative reply, ASAE’s team can respond. “If someone had a bad experience with their flight and they let us know, there may be cookies and milk waiting for them when they get to the hotel,” Henry says. If someone gets poor service at the registration table, someone will find them and ask what would have made the experience better.

“The idea is to have a way for people to tell you before the experience is over that something isn’t working well,” Henry says. By responding to people’s complaints in real time, ASAE can provide a much higher level of service. That means a much higher level of satisfaction with the event.

Audience Response Systems

Gorrindo with the American Psychiatric Association is a proponent of audience response systems (ARS) for voting and audience participation when they’re an enhancement to learning. “Sometimes people will think, ‘We’ll use the clickers or the phones to do audience response’ when raising your hand may be just as good,” he says. “What’s the value add? That’s what I always ask myself.”

He’s found ARS to be highly beneficial when discussing subjects where attendees may be self-conscious about raising their hands. He gives presentations on ethics at many events, and he finds that anonymity leads to higher and more honest participation. With ARS, instructors find they get great questions and comments that sometimes take their sessions in new, exciting directions.

“Going in, the faculty were a little bit skeptical,” Gorrindo says. “Most of them hadn’t taught using this technology before. But many of the faculty shared with me how surprised they were that the engagement was richer. They were worried the screens would be distracting and take away from engagement, but they led to really good interaction. Our faculty became our biggest champion to expand the use of this technology.”

Gorrindo says associations thinking about using similar presentation technology should identify faculty willing to try it early on, and give them lots of support before and during the meeting. “We did webinars with people ahead of time to let them see and play with the technology,” he says. “The first time they used it, we had someone from the staff on hand to back them up. You don’t want a faulty member to get halfway into their presentation and get overwhelmed and say, ‘Oh, forget it, we’re not using the technology.’

“We also give them permission and reassurance that if it doesn’t go OK, that’s fine,” he says. “It’s not always going to work 100 percent. People will still have great experience.”

Electronic Sign Boards

HIMSS uses televisions instead of the printed reader boards next to meeting rooms to inform attendees what is happening in the space. One of the benefits is that if a meeting room changes, the sign can be revised from a central location. Attendees can use a QR code on these digital displays to have an electronic copy of the speaker’s handouts sent to their tablet or smartphone. This allows them to take notes right on the handout and email themselves a copy of it when they’re done.

Riley says HIMSS frequently utilizes the new electronic sign boards at convention centers around the country. The boards can be customized every day to show changes in the program, promote high-profile events, and share sponsor ads.

The important thing with sign boards is to keep the content fresh, she says. Change the messaging every day. Use data from beacons or other resources to highlight hot spots. This will generate more buzz about what’s happening at the event.

Sign boards can be another way to push relevant notifications to attendees. Ely with TurnoutNow calls this crowd shaping or experience shaping.

“Everywhere the attendee goes, they feel like the event is customized to them,” he says. “It makes the event really personal. Attendees feel like you really know what they want.”

Touch Screens

Interactive screens are increasingly used at conventions and meetings. HIMSS uses tables with touch screens to encourage attendees to take surveys or engage in fun activities such as quizzes and games. They put the tables in the cellphone charging areas, which also double as networking centers, and they find the touch screens increase the networking value. Attendees tend to discuss quiz questions and survey questions rather than drawing inward to answer emails or texts.

HIMSS also uses touch screens in the exhibit hall to provide attendees a more museum-like experience. When an individual enters a certain area of the hall, a screen explains what and who is in the exhibit. Attendees can research companies, download their materials and watch success stories before they talk to vendors.

“That way they don’t feel like they’re walking into a booth and being bombarded by exhibitors,” Riley says. “They can hang back and use the technology to figure out what they want to see.”

Virtual/Augmented Reality

Sean P. Feehan, vice president of operations and global business development for GWF Associates in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, says he sees big potential for virtual and augmented reality at meetings. Many corporations are already providing 3-D and 4-D experiences to attendees. (“The fourth dimension can mean the addition of motion or effects like wind and water,” he says.)

“We’ve been doing it for a long time, but now we’re seeing it become even more popular in the meeting and event space,” Feehan says.

There are still barriers to providing 3-D and 4-D experiences. “With the 4-D technology, you really have to have systems built into the environment,” Henry points out. “It does speak to what we might see at destination centers and convention centers in the future. Right now it’s too expensive.”

But new virtual and augmented reality devices are coming online all the time. Samsung put out its Gear VR headset, which delivers virtual reality experiences via a smartphone, in 2015. Facebook-owned Oculus released its highly anticipated Rift headset earlier this year. While the devices are still prohibitively expensive for most associations, they’ll get more affordable as the field expands.

Microsoft is working on a product it calls the Hololens, which it bills as embracing both virtual and augmented reality. When you wear it, you can see holograms that aren’t visible to the naked eye. “You look around the world and see things pop out intuitively,” Feehan says. “There’s no more looking for a QR code. All users have to do is look around a room to see content customized to them.”

Watch for big increases in the use of virtual and augmented reality technologies like these in the next three to four years, Feehan says.

Robots and Virtual Booth Attendants

“The next big thing we’re starting to see is more and more uses of robotics,” Feehan says. Picture animatronic mannequins that tell stories and deliver brand messages, or robots that can share information and answer questions in a one-on-one setting.

Virtual booth attendants are a similar technology. Henry describes them as plastic figurines that display a person’s image and share prerecorded information with attendees. “If you were standing four feet away you would not know it’s not a person,” he says.

Companies can use recorded images of celebrities or well-known figures in an industry to attract even more people to the booth. Feehan points out that these virtual booth attendants are a way to solve the age-old problem of needing one person in two (or more) places at the same time.


Unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as UAVs or drones, aren’t showing up at many events yet. Feehan thinks drones have a place, but there are still a few barriers to their widespread use. Operators are working through safety concerns, and meeting planners are working through attendee concerns about privacy.

“People are completely OK with photographers walking around, but as soon as they see a drone in the air, there’s this big brother feel to it,” Feehan says. Once those issues are resolved, expect to see drones flying over event facilities on a regular basis.

These and other technologies have so much potential to improve user and vendor experiences that it can be hard not to go out and jump at the latest and greatest thing. There’s something to be said for letting others try out new technology and work out the kinks and best practices before investing in it.

The other critical thing to consider when implementing new technologies at a convention or meeting is the audience. Riley with HIMSS says her association has tried many things that flopped because they didn’t think about users first.

“You need to understand what makes their experience exciting,” she says. “A doctor is going to feel very different about some of the technology than an IT person and a millennial. Experiment with it. Start out slow.” AC&F

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