Twenty years ago, most planners depended on binders, folders and other paper-based systems. My, how things have changed. Today, planners can use thousands of event software systems and mobile apps to make planning more efficient and less costly.
Technology is also starting to take center stage in creating unique attendee experiences, which are more important than ever for planners.
According to the IACC’s 2017 Meeting Room of the Future survey, 80 percent of planners reported that their job involved more experience creation, a five percent increase from the previous year. Meanwhile, 75 percent of respondents agreed that creating experiences will be even more important five years from now.
Mobile phones and accompanying apps are becoming standard planner tools for creating meeting experiences.
According to the IACC’s survey, using smartphones for attendee participation was the top technology use that planners expected to continue growing over the next five years.
The reason: Mobile device-enabled apps make planning tasks more efficient for tasks such as registration, attendee polling, content management, data analytics, logistics management, site selection, gamification, speaker management and networking.
Linda Nelson, CMP, president and CEO of To Plan Ahead, an Asheville, North Carolina-based event management company, uses mobile apps for a growing number of tasks.
“We are getting very close to utilizing everything for our mobile apps or devices,” she says. “Currently, we use them for onsite registration, ticket and session counts and an interactive attendee chatline.”
Apps also obviate the need to use paper. “They essentially take away the need to print any materials, such as agendas, attendee lists, speaker papers, PowerPoint presentations and exhibitor and sponsor details,” says Nelson. “Mobile apps also allow the flexibility of being able to update materials on the fly; whereas, printed materials are typically out-of-date well before the meeting even starts.”
Beth Faller, vice president of meetings and events at Christopherson Business Travel in Greenwood Village, Colorado, also uses mobile apps for a multitude of purposes. “Mobile apps are becoming more common for events, as they can provide one central source of communication,” she says. “The apps are important for events to generate excitement, communicate updates and provide networking opportunities between attendees. Having a social wall and live streaming video during a conference provides a way for everyone to be interactive, but mobile apps can also provide additional communications post-program.”
Choosing the right event app can drive attendee engagement and provide value. Planners can download low-cost or free apps or pay to create their own tailored for specific meetings, a time-consuming and costly proposition. Apps that planners can use for more than one event are popular because they offer the most value.
“Having a social wall and live streaming video during a conference provides a way for everyone to be interactive, but mobile apps can also provide additional communications post-program.”
— Beth Faller
Regarding the future of mobile apps, Brandt Krueger, owner of Richfield, Minnesota-based Event Technology Consulting, predicts the following: “I feel like mobile devices and apps are going to evolve into just screens that fit in our pockets, and that the underlying services will become more important than the app.
“At some point, it will all be cloud-connected, and you can connect to your services on whatever device you want to use at the moment — phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer. Other than the restrictions that size has on the interface, it’ll basically be the same services across all devices,” he says.
Most attendees use at least two handheld devices and inundate themselves with even more non-meeting digital information. As a result, planners must compete for the digital attention of attendees during meetings.
According to Krueger, “People have literally been calling the latest information technology revolution ‘a distraction’ since the invention of the printing press. Whether mobile is actually a distraction depends entirely on the meeting purpose, environment and social norms of the event. It’s not necessarily something you can dictate as the planner. If you have an aversion to people being on their phone during your event, you can try and communicate that it’s inappropriate, but you risk alienating some attendees.”
It’s impossible to stop planners from using mobile devices for non-meeting purposes during events. However, planners can try to keep the use within certain norms, says Krueger.
“You can see lines being drawn as society tries to deal with this latest revolution,” he says.
“During social events, it’s OK to snap selfies and post on social media. At work, not so much. If those norms are different during your events, such as having private social chats, you must be clear with attendees that it’s not allowed and explain why. But you still might lose part of your audience.”
Nelson offers the following advice on mitigating mobile distraction: “It’s important to keep in mind what your meeting objectives are. Mobile apps can be very useful for gaining audience engagement and interaction if they are built into the up-front objectives where the goal is to create an open forum of ideas and suggestions.”
“However, if the meeting is a lecture or a dissemination of information, then mobile apps can be very distracting, so it’s probably a good idea to ask that they be turned off as a courtesy to the speaker and attendees,” she says.
The best way to prevent mobile distraction is to provide relevant, compelling meeting content in a way that captures attendees’ attention. That’s especially true for millennials.
The bottom line: If meeting technology doesn’t engage attendees, then they may engage themselves with non-meeting technology. “Planners need to make mobile apps easy to use and exciting to grab the attention of experienced and non-experienced attendees,” says Nelson.
Social media continues to drive attendance, engagement, sharing of meeting information and networking before, during and after meetings. More planners are using a multitude of online tools to create social media campaigns. The medium is effective because many attendees spend so much time using it. According to a comScore survey, mobile devices account for 80 percent of all social media viewing. That’s why it’s crucial that planners make their websites mobile-friendly and viewable.
Nelson uses social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn to promote meetings and boost attendance. “By posting details about keynote speakers and topics that will be discussed during the meeting, I can create excitement and a willingness of attendees to relay the information to their peers and upper management,” she says. “Another benefit is engaging attendees in a conversation or survey prior to the meeting to find out what challenges confront attendees and what topics they would like to discuss. We can continue the conversation throughout the event. They are also great platforms to promote sponsors and exhibit booth opportunities.”
While more planners are turning to social media, too many still depend on “old technology.”
According to Krueger, “It still feels like email is king for keeping in touch with attendees in the time leading up to an event, but they’re starting to use other channels to augment it, boost it and build hype as the event approaches. Planners are going to have to start leaning more and more heavily on these other channels as more and more younger attendees move away from email and toward social media and messaging services exclusively to communicate.”
There are several emerging technologies that planners will eventually use as commonly as apps and social media. The tools include artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AU), facial recognition (FR) and artificial intelligence (AI).
Various types of AI, such as chatbots, robots, “eventbots” and booths, are starting to pop up at meetings and conferences to answer basic attendee questions and market services and products via voice and text. The technology can respond to inquiries about registration, meeting schedules, speakers, sessions and other details.
For example, Frederick, Maryland-based MeetingPlay, a mobile event apps company, offers an app that answers voice and text questions about agenda details and scheduling.
Eventually, AI will respond to complex attendee inquiries and be integrated with social media.
According to Nelson, “There is much talk and experiments currently going on whereby hotels are using robots to deliver room service items like extra towels, pillows and food and beverages. While this can sound innovative and maybe even fun, I foresee reliability issues, but more importantly, losing touch with the human element. However, robots can be a useful and more cost-effective solution to communicate information at a huge meeting or convention.”
The popularity of basic voice-activated AI technology, such as Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa, are expected to pave the way for the creation and acceptance of meeting-specific AI conversational assistance at meetings.
“AI and machine learning will play a bigger role in customer service, as chatbots and virtual assistants grow in popularity,” says Krueger. “Behind the scenes, marketers and salespeople can use these technologies to fine-tune their events with incredible precision, ensuring each attendee gets the most out of the experience. We already know so much about the psychology of events, but AI has the power to help us learn even more.”
Virtual reality and augmented reality will eventually allow planners to increase attendee engagement by creating interactive, immersive experiences through the convenience of VR headsets and AR glasses.
Short definitions: VR is a depiction of a real-life environment. AR superimposes computer-generated images on what a viewer sees in real life.
According to Krueger, “These technologies, whether phone- or tablet-based or a stand-alone headset, could be enormously useful. Imagine walking into an empty ballroom and being shown in AR what your room setup would look like for 100 people in a classroom setup, or in rounds? You can walk through the space while your device overlays a 3D-representation of each setup.”
Substituting VR for some site visits could help planners stretch their budgets. “I’ve seen planners make three or four site visits by the time an event happens,” says Krueger. “If even one of those could be replaced by a VR walk-through or visualization of the event, millions of dollars could be saved annually in the industry, as well as significantly reduce the impact on the environment due to transportation.”
Both VR and AR are still under development and are gradually making inroads into the meetings industry. Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Samsung are investing heavily to develop the technology, and it will take years to produce practical, affordable everyday uses for planners.
Meanwhile, leading-edge uses of VR and AR include the following:
VR platforms such as Oculus Rift, popular among gamers, is gradually making its way into the meeting and events industry as convention and visitor bureaus, hotels and venues offer online VR views.
For example, Destination British Columbia uses VR to promote the beauty of its outdoors. Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts offer VR site inspection tours. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) provides Vegas VR, a downloadable app exploring local sites.
Best Western hotels provide VR tours of its 2,000 properties. Attendees at a Marriott conference used AR tokens designed by MeetingPlay to educate employees about the hotel’s brands after its merger with Starwood. Virtual images appeared when conference attendees held their apps over the tokens.
Facial recognition (FR) isn’t science fiction anymore, but it’s not commonly used — yet. Like AI, FR is becoming more familiar to people through everyday technology. Google, Facebook, Snapchat and Apple have made big investments in developing facial recognition technology. People use facial recognition technology to unlock Apple iPhone X.
In the meeting realm, Event-interface, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based conference platform firm, partnered with Houston-based Zenus to introduce FR-based meeting check-in. Also, the IMEX America 2017 conference used FR software to print name badges. Experts predict that FR will eventually replace passwords.
For the most part, planners still lack the convenience of multiple planning tools on one platform. However, meeting technology companies, such as Aventri (formerly Etouches), Cvent, Eventbrite and EventGeek, are starting to combine some event technologies into one platform. Merging platforms enables aggregation and analysis from several sources, including apps, registration systems, social media and attendee profiles.
According to Krueger, “The convenience of ‘getting it all in one place’ and having all the data flow properly from registration to onsite badging to the mobile app to the post-event reporting is incredibly appealing. It’s important for planners to push this issue with their technology vendors.”
Nelson agrees but offers a note of caution. “Merging platforms could be the way forward,” she says. “It sounds very simple, but sometimes when you try to merge too many platforms into one, it can become very cumbersome or you end up replicating certain modalities that just don’t work well.”
The growth in meeting technology options and complexity coincides with relatively slow adoption rates among planners.
Krueger says, “Adding complexity increases risk, and if you’re going to increase risk, you have to justify that risk very carefully and thoughtfully. Emerging technologies are inherently unstable and risky, so their use is going to be limited usually to only the most daring and those with the highest budgets. Then, it slowly filters down to the rest of us once it’s been ‘proven’ to be reliable.”
Many planners also lack the time to learn new technology. Some fear or don’t like the new tools. Others simply find it difficult to break old habits. “I think it’s like anything,” says Nelson. “People get used to doing things in a certain way and can be reluctant to change. Other big factors probably are cost and making sure that the new technology really has merit and is not just a passing fad.”
New meeting technology tools are constantly under development, and there are thousands that address all aspects of planning. However, the needs of each meeting differ, even if it involves the same group year after year. Planners can save time and money, and meet strategic goals, by choosing the right technology for the right meeting.
Experts advise asking the following questions before choosing a meeting technology:
Technology will not replace face-to-face meetings, but it can focus attendee interactions and make them more productive if used in a creative and targeted fashion.
As the rate of meeting technology accelerates, planners will have even more choices, and they will become less costly, simpler to use and more integrated with each other. The challenge for meeting planners is to find the technology that best fits their needs to engage attendees while achieving strategic goals. C&IT