It’s getting to the point where using technology to plan at least some aspect of a meeting is a must, not an option. More planners are turning to tech to make planning more efficient and less costly, and enhance the meeting experience for attendees.
Kathy Miller, CEO of Total Event Resources, a Chicago meeting and event planning company, has been using Social Tables for about three years to create room layouts and seating charts online. Social Tables is a web-based event planning platform for hospitality, meeting and event professionals.
Miller uses Social Tables prior to making site visits. “You can see rooms online from a 360-degree angle, lay it out and take it with you to compare it to the actual space and make adjustments,” says Miller. “The technology saves us time onsite. We did a 600-person meeting in Las Vegas last year and laid out the registration site with where we wanted branding, signing, desks and entrance treatments. We did the same for entertainment in the reception area.”
“I wanted to provide planners with the flexibility and automation that they needed to work with their existing event technology.”
— Lucy Watts, CMP, CMM
Experts predict that planners will eventually use technology for every phase of planning including research, site and destination selection, registration, networking, RFPs, sessions and post-event feedback.
Technology adoption rates among planners are growing. Almost 60 percent of planners use events or meeting management technology or software, and 96 percent find value in doing so, according to a study conducted by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) and Lanyon.
Another statistic bodes well for adoption rates: Fifty-eight percent of planners who don’t use technology say that it has the potential to improve their programs and processes.
Here are some of the technologies that planners value most, according to the study.
Miller frequently uses event management software that provides hotel, venue and destination sourcing tools. “We used to do it manually with national sales offices of hotel chains or CVBs,” says Miller. “Now you can use technology to pick the destinations and hotels you want, and sort through many things such as size of general session space, and specifications for food and beverage functions. You can sort the responses to compare specs such as room rates, food and beverage minimum and attrition — everything that’s important for a piece of business.”
Several firms are developing integrated software tools to meet the needs of planning meetings from beginning to end. “One of the hot button issues in planning technology is integration,” says Lucy Giovando Watts, CMP, CMM, a seasoned meetings and event planner. “There are lots of great technologies, but how do they integrate with each other? More companies are working to integrate technology so planners can go to one source and have a menu of tools.”
According to meeting technology consultant Corbin Ball CMP, CSP, companies developing integrated tools include Cvent, which offers Supplier Network (online registration) Crowdcompass (event app) OnArrival (event check-in) SignUp4 (SMM) Elite Meetings/Speed RFP (sourcing) and AllianceTech (lead retrieval).
Lanyon, a corporate travel software company, offers Active Network, which includes RegOnline (attendee management), Starcite (sourcing and strategic meetings management), Passkey (room block management and housing), GenieConnect (mobile event apps) and Wingateweb (exhibitions and lead retrieval).
The cloud is home to a growing number of integrated planning software tools designed to be compatible with other systems. Examples include Eventbrite event invitation, registration and ticketing software; etouches with 16 event planning and data analytic options; and EventGeek, which offers several event budgeting, logistics, analytics and marketing software options.
Giovando Watts developed an online platform designed to work with other systems. In 2016, she introduced Lasso40, which provides electronic check-in and e-signature capture at meetings and events.
Giovando Watts developed Lasso40 to solve one of her own pain points. “I manage the paper check-in and sign-in sheets for one of my Life Science clients. Many companies in the industry use a signature to show proof of attendance and calculate the per person cost using basic technology,” she explains. In the past, Giovando Watts captured the signatures in writing. “I had tons of sign-in sheets on my desk and was manually entering the data into a spreadsheet,” she says. “I thought there had to be a better way. I researched whether there was software that could do this, and there was, but they were expensive.”
So Giovando Watts created Lasso40 to capture electronic signatures and calculate the per person cost on the back-end, all for an affordable monthly subscription rate. “I wanted to provide planners with the flexibility and automation that they needed to work with their existing event technology.”
Lasso40 goes beyond Life Science events and can be used for any event across all industries that need basic electronic check-in or per person cost capture, such as incentives. In addition, the check-in app provides important data analytics for each event. “The software also provides the time that each person checks in,” says Giovando Watts. “The information can be used to adjust the staffing and start times of events, and verify attendance at continuing education sessions.”
There are hundreds of meeting and event planning apps with dozens more being released every year.
Planners can use apps to manage nearly every aspect of meetings and events. “One of the biggest shifts in planning is the ability to do every phase, from site selection to post-event feedback, using apps on mobile and tablet devices,” says Brandt Krueger, a consultant specializing in event technology based in Richfield, Minnesota. “Anything that once went into a planner’s binder can be put into handheld devices and then into the cloud and made accessible anywhere, anytime through the internet,” says Krueger.
Prior to meetings, apps can book room blocks, restaurant reservations and airline tickets while providing alerts when prices drop to a specified price. Apps can help with RFPs as well as site, hotel and venue selection. Planners can track tasks and calendars, generate detailed reports and share files. In addition, planners can use apps to create other customized and branded meeting apps.
During meetings, planners can download programs and handouts, as well as update schedule changes. Attendees can use apps to connect with each other via profiles. Apps can provide games, such as scavenger hunts, for teambuilding. Planners can use apps during and after meetings to survey attendees.
Miller uses an app for a meeting of a large beverage company. “They get about 2,000 people and 200 exhibitors,” says Miller. “The exhibitors want to attract booth traffic and educate people. Each division of the company had a team prepped with three key points about their division. Each team was sent out to have conversations with attendees about the key points, using QR codes (pixilated icons that can be scanned with a smartphone) on name badges to find the right people. They converted the number of conversations into dollars and donated the money to Wounded Warriors charity. “
Registration software is one of the most commonly used meeting technologies. “There are lots of registration-related apps, too many providers to count at this point,” says Krueger. “The technology has exploded along with the mobile phone revolution. Most event apps offer some registration component, but some provide it as a stand-alone service.”
Options include full-service registration and housing firms, do-it-yourself templates and customized registration software. Some registration tools also allow planners to engage with attendees and generate reports.
Web-based event registration tools can handle a range of tasks. Attendees can sign up for sessions, access event information in real time, input travel information and pay registration fees. Some tools allow users to access attendee lists and receive alerts for VIP and special-guest arrivals.
Most planners once handled RFPs through written forms. Now, RFPs are largely handled online. Eighty-one percent of planners who use meeting technology use an option that allows them to send an RFP to several properties and respond in the same platform that permits easy comparisons, according to the GBTA survey.
Meanwhile, 70 percent of planners use technology to compare property information. “There are lots of platforms helping with site selection,” says Krueger. “A lot of mobile app providers are starting to include that as part of their services. You can punch in the type of event, date and desired location, and the app will find locations that are already hosting a similar kind of event.”
One of the fastest-growing uses of social media is live streaming, which allows real time participation in nearly every aspect of meetings, including seminars, breakouts, gaming, networking and keynotes. Live-streamed meetings are on the rise as more venues and hotels feature high bandwidth connections, many ceiling-mounted microphones and state-of-the-art software.
Live streaming increases attendance by allowing people to participate from anywhere in the world. “We will see increased demands for live streaming events by attendees,” predicts Ball. “The challenges for event planners will be increased Wi-Fi bandwidth demand.”
He adds that nearly every social channel has added or enhanced their video offerings over the past two years. The list includes Facebook Live, Facebook Instant Video, Periscope, Instagram Story, Snapchat Story, Meerkat, LinkedIn and Snapchat Geofilters.
Adoption of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) eyewear for site and destination tours is slow. Seventy percent of planners say they still use pen and paper to record information on site visits, according to the GBTA survey. However, experts predict that the technology will catch on within five years.
The technology currently allows users to see the visual reality of a space along with information about it. Virtual reality has several uses, including VR site and destination tours, which more properties and CVBs are offering.
The Las Vegas Convention Authority (LVCA) provides Vegas VR, a download that showcases city sites. Shangri-La Hotels provides Oculus Rift VR site inspection tours available for download. Trade shows are using VR to immerse booth attendees in sales, marketing and product experiences.
Several companies, including Google, Samsung, Facebook and Microsoft are pumping billions into VR development and are demonstrating it at events and trade shows. “I’m excited by the possibilities of VR,” says Krueger. “The technology is almost to the point where you can walk into a ballroom with a phone and use it to get a full 3-D rendering to scale including the measurements. An app would send the information from the phone to VR glasses, and you can use the information to lay out the room — seating, lighting, stage, props, sound, everything.”
Another type of experiential technology also is expected to eventually have an impact. Video mapping projects realistic images of anything onto large surfaces such as the sides of buildings, says Miller. “A client is launching a new product in February, and we were talking to them about video-mapping the outside of a building, she says. “They would be able to see the product itself and how it’s used, or the corporate offices or the headquarters city. It’s technology that will get more advanced and widely used.”
As technology options increase, planners must step up efforts to educate themselves about what’s available. According to the GBTA survey, “Many planners express frustration with not knowing where to go to learn about products in the marketplace that could address their specific needs. With a plethora of technology already available, it is imperative that planners look to industry trade publications to learn about the latest features, attend industry events to see new technology in action, and talk to peers to learn about the most current offerings.”
Experts offer the following advice for planners who know little about technology and want to use it to plan meetings.
Make technology education an ongoing part of staff meetings. “We meet once a week and talk about the latest technology available, and what we already have and how to use it better,” says Miller. “For instance, our creative manager is responsible for training staff on using Social Tables. She introduced the tool in a weekly meeting, sharing what it does so that we could use it to help clients visualize what a meeting room looks like in 3-D.
Miller also suggests talking to planners who are tech-savvy. “Ask what applications they are using and how they are being used,” Miller suggests. “There are different ways that different planners can use a mobile app, for instance.
Tailor technology to the meeting. Don’t use technology just to use it. “Take a look at your event and its objectives to determine which technologies can help you achieve your goals,” Giovando Watts advises.
That’s especially true with apps because there are so many of them. “What is it that you want attendees to do or know each day, and how can apps help?” asks Miller. “We have certain groups that love to use technology, while others don’t. Some groups download apps but don’t use them. You have to know your audience.”
The meetings technology revolution is just getting started. “Meetings, special events, trade shows, conventions, incentive trips and more — each have their own widely varying set of needs,” says Ball. “Consequently, a huge number of event software tools have emerged. I track nearly 1,700 products in 60 categories,” says Ball. Expect many more products in more categories. C&IT