For years, partly because of its ever-increasing ubiquitousness and complexity, and partly because of the value of their always-limited time, meeting planners have had a love-hate relationship with technology. Today, however, meeting technology is in the midst of an innovation revolution that will ultimately transform the meeting industry from an isolated, business byproduct to a core element of its bottom-line success.
And that result will hopefully prove the credibility of a slogan in use since the Great Recession: “Meetings mean business.”
What meeting planners want most today, both in terms of their own needs and the needs of their companies, is greatly improved integration of individual technological components, or tools, into a fully functional, seamless platform.
“A challenge we, as meeting managers face now is that we don’t have full integration of event data into our marketing tech stack so that information can be shared across business systems. So there is a lot of event data sitting in a lot of disparate systems across the company. And I do not believe that the vendors in the event tech space fully understand how important this is.”
The fact that such integration does not yet exist to the extent it should is a “frustration point,” says Carolyn Pund, CMP, CMM, senior manager, Global SMM & Technologies, at San Jose, CA-based enterprise technology giant Cisco Systems. “A challenge we, as meeting managers face now is that we don’t have full integration of event data into our marketing tech stack so that information can be shared across business systems. So there is a lot of event data sitting in a lot of disparate systems across the company. And I do not believe that the vendors in the event tech space fully understand how important this is.”
“For example,” Pund says, “a vendor might sell the same product into six organizations of the same company, but [the vendor doesn’t] have the capability of tying that data together on the back end for them. So things like data integration across multiple systems within the same product, and then moving that data into the company’s tech stack are real issues that need to be addressed.”
Allie Magyar, a former meeting planner who founded and now serves as CEO of the Vancouver, WA-based event technology provider Hubb, whose major clients include Microsoft, Tableau and Kronos, agrees with Pund’s assessment.
“As meeting planners adopt more and more technology, having easier to use software, where information and data can be transferred back and forth, is of utmost importance.”
Why has it been so difficult to accomplish that kind of integration? “Technology innovation has actually been very slow in our industry,” Magyar says. “So there are a lot of companies with legacy platforms that were built before the evolution of application programming integration (API) was a thing. And that helped meeting technology companies with their sales. Until now, we’ve had a closed system that said, ‘You have to use us for everything. There is no other option.’ And what meeting planners are now starting to find is that all-in-one solutions aren’t focusing across [the integration of] 10 different products, because they can’t. They’re finding, too, that while all-in-one solutions might meet their needs with half of their products, they’re not meeting their needs with the other half. They’re also finding that the process is more complex and takes more time than it needs to if you have the right solutions in place and just need to integrate them.”
As a result, Magyar says, the trend now is toward open-API solutions that allow individual technology components to function more seamlessly with each other within a custom-tailored platform that consists of best-in-breed tools. For example, Hubb works with open-API Swoogo as the best-in-breed staff registration tool.
As a veteran global meeting manager at one of the world’s top technology enterprises, Pund points out that in order to be effective, an API integration “is most valuable when data is shared bi-directionally.”
“Complimentary data sets need to be collected and mapped between the integrated tools for the information to be valuable in both systems and offer conclusive reporting. That’s the best practice for shared data,” she says.
Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, Brian Ludwig, senior vice president of sales at meeting industry technology leader Cvent, agrees that improved integration of tools and functions is a valid and important objective.
“Right now,” Ludwig says, “planners can get something for registration, something else for a mobile app and something else for keeping track of the budget, but what they really want is an integrated system. They don’t want to import and export data from place to place. They don’t want to have to work in multiple systems. They want fluidity of data, so there is less manual manipulation of it. That’s what they do today. The bottom line is they want more stuff connected. And that’s what we’ll see in the next generation of API, which will allow different systems to talk to each other.”
The urgent need for full integration is “a big burden,” Ludwig says. It also now relates to compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). “We’re now in a GDPR world.”
Chris Soto, president of CTC Events and Productions in Fairfax, VA, is a Cvent customer. And he agrees that better integration of technology tools across the meeting industry is badly needed. “That would save us a lot of time because even though our different events are each unique, there is a lot of overlap in terms of planning,” he says. “And better integration of functions would definitely be an improvement. That’s really what is most needed right now. For example, we need to be able to reduce the amount of data entry required to use technologies like Cvent. And often, you have to re-enter the data for multiple meetings. The need to repeat yourself is time consuming, so we definitely need to reduce the duplication of effort that we see now.”
Along with a need for integration of functions into a platform is a need to also have technology do more than it has so far.
“The most innovative corporate users of meeting technology now use it for far more than just efficient planning or an improved attendee experience onsite,” Ludwig says. “They use it in order to assess and improve upon the bottom-line business results of their meetings and events.”
He continues: “What we’re seeing now is a deeper form of integration into business operations. For example, you’ll see people from the marketing side want things like information on registrants at a customer conference integrated into their customer relationship management (CRM) systems or marketing automation systems. They want to be able to do things like ask, ‘Of the thousand people who went to my conference, what did that yield? How did that impact our new customer pipeline?’ More and more companies are realizing that integrating meeting activity data, such as engagement levels, increases business success.”
That kind of innovation, he says, will be a major driver of the future of meeting technology.
Pund, meanwhile, sees a need for easier deployment and use of meeting tools. “What we’re seeing is app-fatigue; people just want to have them web-enabled, so that they’re not constantly having to download another app taking up space on their device,” she says. “They want everything on the cloud. That means instant access. It means you don’t have to wait for your software to update every tine you open it. And that’s something that is starting to happen now.” It, too, she says will revolutionize how other meeting technologies work.
And a third issue of debate is the “all-in-one” technology platform versus one that is custom-created by the corporate user from an array of best-in-breed components. Again, somewhat surprisingly, Cvent does not take the position that it will be all things to all people. It is focused on building a system that allows for integration, and even working relationships, with innovative niche providers of specific new tools that enhance the overall process.
However, Pund notes, for now at least, the well-established, consolidated platform trumps the idea of one-off proprietary tools. “Until we get to a place where there is a way to merge data from multiple tools easily, being on a consolidated platform is best,” Pund says. “And from an enterprise perspective, when it comes to brand and security compliance, when you’ve got different business units using separate technologies, and building multiple different websites on multiple tools and apps, it becomes a maze. All of these aspects play into the need for a consolidated platform for the purpose of brand alignment and safety and security of [personally identifiable information], versus everybody doing their own thing. In enterprise event technology, the No. 1 reason for consolidating to common platforms is for security and data privacy.”
In the long run, the single-biggest and most important innovation in the use of meeting technology will be the deployment of big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to literally transform the meeting industry with knowledge derived from analysis. Meeting planners and their corporate superiors will be able to know, with certainty, whether a particular meeting was successful and why. And that knowledge will be based in attendee data so granular and complex it can only be imagined today.
Meanwhile, the attendee experience onsite will be taken to levels that also transform meetings for them.
“Those kinds of capabilities are ever evolving,” Ludwig says. “You see more and more technology offerings now that have them as their cornerstones. But we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg so far. There are just so many cool things that are going to come along in the next few years that they can’t even be imagined yet.”
Examples include the use of augmented reality (AR). “We’ve just barely scratched the surface of what AR can do at meetings,” Ludwig says. “For example, what if I was able to hold my phone up at a live event and as I’m looking at a speaker, or the trade show floor, or at other attendees passing by, get real time contextual information about [that person or] those things? That is game-changing stuff in terms of how meetings can be conducted and the experience attendees can have. That kind of capability is already happening. It’s just not happening in the meeting space yet.”
Another example Ludwig cites is the use of AI. “For example, you now see things like a chat box inside an event website or a mobile app or even onsite,” he says. “In the future, AI will allow you to provide even more kinds of live contextual help to attendees. That sort of capability relies on pretty sophisticated technology, but because it’s constantly becoming more talented, it’s only a matter of time until we see it being used around meetings and events.”
Ultimately, such technology will allow attendees to find directions within a convention center, or get information in real time about an upcoming session, or get information on a speaker while he or she is on stage. The possibilities are almost unlimited in terms of practical benefits to attendees.
Cisco and other large technology companies are also doing those kinds of things at its meetings. Meanwhile, Hubb introduced such capabilities at a major meeting last year for a Fortune 100 company.
Magyar sees an ever-increasing focus on the quest for and use of data. “Every time I talk to a client, I ask them ‘What data have you collected and why?’” she says. “I always ask ‘Why?’ And what they tell me is they’ve been collecting all of this data, but they don’t know what to do with it. So I think that in looking at the evolution of the meeting industry over the next few years, we won’t just be focused on data, but we’ll also be focused on the intelligent use of it. And that responsibility can’t be put on meeting planners. It has to be put on experts who know how to convert that data into business intelligence. That’s one of the biggest changes we’re going to be seeing over the next five years to 10 years.”
In the short term, however, Pund says, “In my opinion, AI actually compounds the complication of all this. And that’s because of the amount of data that you collect in an AI environment. It is an area of innovation and growth, and there is no doubt it is changing the landscape of how people attend meetings and consume information. But it’s a matter of how you use it. And right now, it’s an emerging era of technology.”
She agrees that some practical uses of AI, such as chat bots and onsite concierge services, are innovative today, but will soon become commonplace. “They’ve been a great benefit for attendees,” she says. “But there is just so much more to come with AI.”
She cautions that the big issue related to AI, aside from its remarkable capabilities, is the growing conflict between the accumulation of personal data and attendee privacy.
“That’s a big deal,” Pund says. “When you’re trying to understand someone’s behavior, or predict it, and you’re getting so much information about what that person needs from a ‘personalization’ perspective — which is a good thing — there are some attendees that say, ‘I want you to know what I want.’ But then there are others who say, ‘I don’t want you to know anything about me. Stay away.’ So especially in light of the privacy [debate] that’s going on right now, there needs to be a balance between how and what you gather and permission to use that data. And the crux of the whole thing is what people opt in for. In other words, when you opt in for one thing, it doesn’t mean you’re giving a company carte blanche to assume you’re opting in for endless offers, invitations or marketing messages. They have to give you permission for specific uses.”
Given the ever-widening entrenchment and complexity of meeting technology, there is also a purely practical trend in terms of its use. And it is based on the understanding that meeting planners are not technology experts, nor do they want to be. Their basic role in planning and sourcing a meeting has not changed much in the last 50 years.
As a result, more large companies and large third-party independent meeting planning organizations are opting to designate a meeting technology manager or team that functions on behalf of all meeting planners within the enterprise.
That is happening because using technology can seem too difficult for someone who doesn’t have the technical chops to manage it,” Ludwig says. “And it is a genuine trend now.”
Magyar sees it as a major trend with her clients. “We’re involved with a lot of high-tech clients, so it’s just more natural for them to think in terms of doing that,” she says. “So at this point, almost all of our large enterprise clients have had a digital strategist or event tech team in place for years. And that will start to trickle down now into all other industries.”
And once again, Cisco was at the forefront of that innovation. It has had meeting technology teams in place for a decade, Pund says.
Although there is now at least one meeting tool or app available for any imaginable kind of need, there are still a few things planners would like to see that have not come to full fruition yet.
One is related to the production side of meetings, Soto says. “We now see things like projection masking. With that technology, you can transform a ballroom with video technology and create an experience, whereas before you had to spend a tremendous amount of money on physical design and decor.” In other words, projection masking creates virtual decor. And, Soto says, the use of projection mapping is already a bona fide trend. It will just get better as next-generation technology evolves.
On his wish list is a greatly improved capability to do virtual site visits to hotels and other meeting venues around the world. “We do some international events, and we have one coming up in Barcelona,” Soto adds. “Right now, we have to get on a plane and go to Barcelona to do a site visit. I think, and I hope, that in the future, technology will allow us to do a site visit from our desks. And what that means is going beyond the floor plans and other site data that is available online now. Using things like 3D technology, we should be able to ‘see’ the venues and go through the meeting space or a ballroom in detail.”
Convention centers and hotels, he says, should be doing a much better job than they are so far at providing access to such technology. “For example, I should be able to see where the hang points are for rigging, and so on.”
One company aggressively addressing that largely unmet need is Concept3D. Its software platform provides immersive digital experiences with 3D modeling, interactive maps, and VR-enabled virtual tours that brings any physical location into an intuitive and navigable digital format, the company says. “Conventions centers, hotels, resorts and other meeting locations that are enabled with Concept3D’s 3D mapping and planning platform make it easy for corporate meeting planners to explore the space, request proposals and work with the onsite staff to rapidly develop and revise room and breakout space options in either 3D or 2D,” the company said in a statement. “The platform easily filters space by type, capacity, desired layout and square footage, and gives event planners the ability to explore the entire event space, as well as nearby hotels, attractions, restaurants and transportation. Before and during the event, attendees can use the platform to navigate the area with point-to-point directions to breakout sessions, concessions, restrooms and other needs. The platform also includes in-app notifications that can be triggered by activity or timing so visitors can be presented with the most relevant information.”
The most important aspect of the future of meeting technology will be the ability to use data to transform events from a bottom-line business perspective, Magyar says. “Instead of basing your events on whether attendees smile when they leave or not, you’ll actually have real data on how you’re moving the business forward through sales momentum, integration of marketing tools and so on. Technology will be perceived as a business-impact tool. And that’s the thing that will really start to demonstrate the value of meetings and events to the organization. “
Ludwig concurs with that sentiment. “Ultimately, the future of meeting technology lies with actionable data on attendees,” he says. “And that horizon is tied to big data and artificial intelligence. If you look at Google or Amazon or Facebook, they now know everything there is to know about you and what you do. One day, and it will be probably a decade from now, meeting planners will be able to know that much about their meetings and their attendees. And once you can get that information and make it actionable, the value of meetings and events will increase dramatically. And if we can prove that meetings are working, then companies will hold even more meetings.” C&IT