Twenty-five years ago, even a decade ago, it was difficult to imagine that so many meeting planning pros would use — let alone depend on — smartphones, apps and social media to set up and conduct meetings.
And, whether we like it or not, expect the dependency on technology to continually increase. It won’t be long before planners will routinely use today’s emerging technologies on a consistent basis. And if planners don’t jump on the bandwagon, experts suggest they will face a reduction in such areas as ROI, attendance, efficiency and engagement.
In spite of that advice, adoption among meeting planners remains gradual at best. About 60 percent of planners claim they understand and appreciate event management technology tools, but more than 70 percent say they devote less than one-fourth of their time using the tools, according to a study by Meeting Professionals International (MPI). Nearly 70 percent say they still depend on traditional processes such as spreadsheets to organize meeting data.
“I encourage event technology providers to have low-cost or free starter plans that work for multiple events. It might take you two or three events to figure out if a tool is right for you.”
— Brandt Krueger
One of the main reasons planners fail to learn and adopt new technologies is the lack of time to devote to every new option, explains Jeff Rasco, CMP, the founder and CEO of Attendee Management Inc., a Wimberley, Texas-based meeting and event planning firm. “Planners are seldom in control of the budgets sometimes required to implement the latest and greatest technologies,” says Rasco. “Technology has to be learned and managed — just one more thing on our overflowing plates. Often technology is thrown at planners with little time allotted for training, and user adoption becomes the No. 1 obstacle to success.”
Nevertheless, experts such as Corbin Ball, CMP, CSP, founder of Corbin Ball Associates, a meeting technology consulting firm in Bellingham, Washington, suggests adoption of new technologies is inevitable partly because of their proliferation. “The rate of technology change is accelerating with thousands of ideas, apps and innovations bubbling up to help meeting planners, exhibitors, venues and other meeting participants to do their jobs better and improve the attendee experience,” Ball says.
Among the thousands of apps, there are hundreds dedicated to meeting and event planning. They are becoming even more numerous and sophisticated partly because so many Americans use mobile devices. According to the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of Americans now own a cellphone of some kind, and 77 percent own a smartphone (which was 35 percent in 2011 when Pew conducted its first survey).
Brandt Krueger, owner of Richfield, Minnesota-based Event Technology Consulting, suggests the heavy smartphone use among planners and attendees is why more and more meetings have their own apps now. “By far, the No. 1 use of mobile right now is the event app,” says Krueger. “It’s funny to think back to the time when that was considered leading-edge technology, and now we’ve reached the point where even the smallest meetings and events are just expected to have a mobile app.”
There is an app for practically every task planners must tackle before, during and after meetings. Apps can purchase airline tickets; register attendees; book rooms and dining reservations; and help with RFPs as well as hotel and venue selection. Planners can use apps to track and schedule myriad tasks, create reports and share files.
Apps also provide programs and update changes (saving a great deal of paper and time); allow attendees to network before, during and after meetings; provide games and teambuilding activities; and survey attendees. Event check-in apps can help planners move lines more rapidly through registration stations, track attendee arrival numbers and identify VIPs.
Planners can even use apps to create another app designed specifically for a meeting. Such apps can be costly as well as time consuming for attendees to learn how to use. Therefore, apps that can be used at more than one event deliver the most value. Also, some people don’t want to download an app they may only use once.
Social media apps remain a strong and growing part of mobile usage among planners and attendees. “Twitter has faded a bit, but photo-sharing on Instagram and SnapChat are still quite popular,” says Krueger. “Know your audience and where they are interacting with each other. Be there.”
Online registration systems are among the fastest-growing meeting technologies. Planners can register attendees with apps and customized software systems, and design their own templates for specific meetings. The tools track registration numbers in real time, generate reports, and sign up attendees for sessions and events.
Despite the efficiency of online registration systems, many planners still don’t use them. “Though online registration has pretty much become the norm, there are still a lot of planners using Microsoft Excel and Word as primary planning tools,” says Krueger. “It’s hard to justify the cost and learning time for something that may or may not work for you and your team. It’s why I encourage event technology providers to have low-cost or free starter plans that work for multiple events. It might take you two or three events to figure out if a tool is right for you.”
The number of event software tools has grown to more than 1,700 since planners started using them in the mid-1990s. The tools are largely distinct, non-integrated systems. An integrated system that handles all aspects of planning from beginning to end would be easier for planners to buy, learn and use. However, building a one-size-fits-all software product is difficult because meetings, trade shows, incentive programs and special events all have their own different needs.
That’s partly why progress has been slow in developing integrated systems. “Data integration has simply not been an easy task,” says Ball. “Over the years, they continued to slowly improve into a wide assortment of online event systems to manage registration, exhibits, housing, room blocks, membership, event website analytics, budgeting, sourcing and more. However, for much of this time, these data sources remained in silos as they have been difficult to share between systems.”
Many of the larger event technology providers are providing their tools as part of a suite of non-integrated technology offerings. For example, Lanyon’s Active Network includes the following separate, non-integrated products: Starcite (sourcing and strategic meetings management software); RegOnline (attendee management); and Passkey (room block management). Cvent’s offerings include Crowdcompass (mobile event app); OnArrival (check-ins); and Elite Meetings/Speed RFP.
Integration is improving with the help of tech firms offering cloud-based planning software that is compatible with other systems. The systems on the cloud, a network of servers, combine functions such as registration, room blocks, housing, membership, budgeting and sourcing. Examples include Eventbrite (registration, invitations); EventGeek (logistics, budgeting and meeting analytics software); and Etouches (16 compatible event planning modules).
Experts predict that the future of meeting planning will be forever changed and enhanced by the still developing virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tools that are showing up more and more these days.
VR offers three-dimensional walk-throughs of properties and full visualization of décor, lighting and seating arrangements. “Imagine walking into an empty ballroom, donning a pair of AR glasses, and having the convention sales manager walk you through various setup options for a space, including call-outs for power, overlays for ceiling height, rigging points and other technical specifics,” says Krueger. Virtual site visits won’t replace physical ones, but they may help eliminate a venue or two by reducing the number of in-person visits, saving time and money.”
Currently, VR developers such as Samsung, Microsoft and Google are spearheading VR research and showcasing its uses at industry events and trade shows. Eventually, VR is likely to help increase attendee engagement and increase planning and site selection efficiency.
One day, planners, properties and CVBs will commonly use VR for virtual site visits and destination tours. The trend has started already. For example, Shangri-La Hotels offers Oculus Rift VR site inspection tours; the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority provides Vegas VR, a downloadable tour of local sites; and Destination BC (Vancouver, British Columbia) recently launched The Wild Within VR Experience, using Oculus Rift technology, making it the first destination marketing organization in North America to use virtual reality to promote the destination. The Wild Within VR Experience is an interactive, three-dimensional video that allows travelers to experience British Columbia in a truly immersive way, as if they were actually there.
New tech tools also provide ways to measure attendee engagement and for good reason as engaged attendees are more likely to learn and retain knowledge, interact more with presenters and other attendees, and return to events.
Social media tools help measure engagement via surveys and monitoring the number of meeting-related posts, tweets, views, pictures and videos. Mobile event apps can track attendee engagement via networking and participation in sessions, activities and games both online and offline.
Audience response technology can increase engagement by allowing attendees to anonymously and honestly ask questions in real time during events.
The technology can sometimes be a bit challenging for meeting stakeholders. “At one corporate meeting I was working, management was hammering home the importance of workplace diversity and their commitment to it,” says Krueger. “An anonymous respondent said he was uncomfortable with the level of diversity and asked what he should do. The CEO explained that diversity was a company core value and that anyone uncomfortable with it probably shouldn’t be working there. For better or worse, that’s a conversation that probably wouldn’t have happened using traditional two-microphones-in-the-audience Q&A.”
Live streaming is growing by leaps and bounds mainly for two reasons: It allows long-distance participation in practically every aspect of meetings from keynotes and seminars to networking and games. More properties and venues are featuring the high bandwidth connections, software and equipment necessary for live streaming.
Live streaming grows as more social media services provide the technology and continue to improve it. Social media providers such as Facebook Live, Facebook Instant Video, Instagram, Snapchat and Periscope continue to enhance their technology, offering planners more avenues for video sharing.
Technology will eventually allow planners to use biometric systems to ascertain attendee information. “Technology has developed to the point where face recognition systems can determine attendees’ gender, approximate age, ethnicity, mood and even specific individuals in a photo database,” says Ball. “Postings on social media can be analyzed for sentiment as well. We will see these tools used at events and exhibitions to measure engagement, demographics, sentiment and even spot potential troublemakers.”
Examples of the systems, says Ball, include CrowdStats Audience Analytics, which offers “real-time insights into your audience behavior and interests.” The system analyzes “faces of an audience, collects the above-mentioned data, and presents the processed results in an intuitive dashboard in the Cloud.” Other companies in this area include Visage Technologies and Mood.me.
Experts say that adoption among planners will improve, albeit slowly. According to the MPI study, planners are discouraged from using new technologies for several reasons, such as:
“Because much of what we do requires us to get it right in one shot, it’s natural that planners might shy away from trying new things,” says Krueger. “It creates a Catch 22. If we can’t find ways to test technology at scale during live events, we can’t ever know for sure if it’s going to work properly or fix any bugs that might come up. And if there’s even a chance it’s not going to work properly, planners are going to be reluctant to use it at their events.”
Planners who educate themselves about event technology are most likely to overcome roadblocks to adoption. Experts advise that planners continuously network, socialize and ask questions about event technology. “Find out what other people use and what they like and dislike,” says Krueger. “Look for education opportunities at industry events and look at the tools planners use for those events. Our industry has been a word-of-mouth industry for a long time. That hasn’t changed in the digital age. Ask for references when considering new technologies.”
Rasco offers this advice: “You need to understand the systems well enough to work within them, but trying to do it all yourself only distracts from the primary focus of planning and executing your meetings,” says Rasco. “Read, take courses, attend webinars as you can, subscribe to newsletters from industry experts, get a technology mentor and definitely plan for the time and energy it will take to learn the tools well enough to manage them. Understanding technology diminishes fear of it.”
Despite the growth of technology such as live streaming and videoconferencing, experts say that the opportunities for networking, brainstorming and relationship building are still greater at face-to-face meetings than online.
On the other hand, the use of new technologies is likely to enrich and enhance meetings by helping to keep attendees engaged, entertained and informed. C&IT