A sign of the widespread integration of technology into the meeting experience comes from a respondent quoted in the American Express Meetings & Events’ 2020 Global Meetings and Events Forecast. Mobile apps, says the meeting professional, have become “the new lanyards.” Like lanyards, apps are ubiquitous at conventions, trade shows and many corporate meetings. But of course, their functionality is far greater, facilitating attendee communication and networking, document delivery, engagement, surveys and much more.
“We utilize a lot of the different functionalities of the app, but not necessarily all of them at this point.” Shana Hoy, CMP, CMM
In the report, Linda McNairy, global vice president at American Express Global Business Travel – Meetings & Events, in Jersey City, New Jersey, gives an example of app usage from her own experience: “We recently used a ‘getting to know you’ Q&A in our mobile app for our customer council meeting. One key question was ‘How many of our council meetings have you attended? We seeded this question knowing that our new global M&E leader would answer ‘First time.’ We then segmented the group, based on answers, and created team gamification challenges. This exercise worked well to foster a fun and competitive spirit between leadership and clients, driving deeper engagement with this very important group.” Given the versatility of apps as a meeting tool, it is not surprising that their use “to support meetings and events continues to rise around the world,” McNairy says.
Shana Hoy, CMP, CMM, event manager at Husch Blackwell LLP in Kansas City, Missouri, and her team deploy the e2m Enterprise Event App to support one of the company’s annual meetings. The product offers a full suite of tools, including: polling, a social media wall, personalized agendas, gamification, a chatbot and a videobot and more. “We utilize a lot of the different functionalities of the app, but not necessarily all of them at this point,” says Hoy, whose team “looked at eight to 10 different products that had our list of must-haves and like-to-haves, and did demos of a couple of others before we settled” on e2m. She offers a word of caution to the consumer in this area. “I will say in the last couple of years I feel like off-the-shelf app providers have maybe over-promised and under-delivered on what is included and what can be done. When we get into the nitty-gritty of the app, they say ‘We didn’t know you meant this’ function.” For example, she has found limitations in the wayfinding ability of certain apps, allowing users to wayfind in the exhibit portion, but not within the ‘maps’ portion of the tool.
Attendee engagement is one of the most dynamic functions of meeting technology today, and meeting apps are supporting that objective, often via gamification. “The creative tools we are seeing are games inside of an app, including trivia challenges, scavenger hunts and others that encourage competition amongst attendees,” McNairy says.
Among the most robust gamification tools is the SocialPoint Audience Engagement Platform, created by Interactive Meeting Technology LLC. The platform can be integrated into popular event apps such as CrowdCompass. SocialPoint includes a variety of games that drive different goals. For example, attendees can gain points by attending sessions or demos where they learn about certain products or services. Many attendees will participate just in order to earn points, but in doing so, they often realize “‘Oh, we actually need this,’ and so then the client is delighted because they got the people into the room,” explains Samuel J. Smith, managing director of Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Interactive Meeting Technology. “Here’s the session title, or here’s what it’s about, wasn’t enough of a draw, but that game added an extra incentive to get people in.”
As in many engagement-oriented games, the points lead to prizes, but an innovation within SocialPoint is the concept of intermediate prizes, which attendees can win even if they are not point leaders. “We put a big prize wheel in the lounge, for example, and then attendees can spin the wheel if they earn enough points. So the game will actually tell them, you’ve earned X number of spins,” Smith says. “Here’s why that’s powerful: From an engagement point of view, if you have a three-day game you need to keep everybody engaged, not just the people who are the top winners. Someone on Day 1 might earn enough points to boost ahead of everybody, but someone who’s just discovered the game on Day 2 can still win a good prize.”
Apart from gamification, apps can support engagement by integrating audience polling or Q&A functions. “The majority of our clients who deploy a mobile app use polling. Polling can be included in an event mobile app or as a standalone product, and we are seeing more and more innovation around these standalone mobile tools,” McNairy says. “We had one client who used polling in advance of a meeting to create breakout groups moving through the activities of the meeting. The overall meeting was bringing together two companies following a merger, so the polling provided a mechanism to bring people together in a networking environment and enable them to emerge from the meeting with a heightened level of engagement.”
There are numerous providers and products to choose from in this area, including more than a hundred live polling vendors, Smith notes. “But it’s also about how to get the tools to be utilized at the conference — that’s the challenge.” In some cases, the old pen-and-paper approach to live surveys works better. “We do use SurveyMonkey,” Hoy says, “but in all honesty, in a live program I feel like attendees are more apt to answer the six to nine questions about your program quickly before they head out of the room. So we’ve found that having that sheet of paper and having them checkmark the boxes actually gives us a higher percentage of return than trying to send something out to them after the program.” Hoy also cites “an uptick in usage of Poll Everywhere by our speakers in the last couple of years. We’ve seen both the flexibility and professional look of the product increase in recent years. One of the polls you can do is a word cloud, asking what is the biggest challenge you’re facing in a particular area, and they put up different words. This assists the speaker to guide the narrative live.”
The level of participation attendees demonstrate in games and polls is certainly one important metric of engagement. But technology is also facilitating a more direct measurement of engagement via biometric data, e.g., facial cues. It has been argued that these kinds of metrics, since they are based in unconscious responses, are better indicators of attendees’ actual engagement as well as learning. “While surveys have a role, research shows that self-reports are only 17% accurate at predicting outcomes like information recall and sales growth after training,” says Devin Carver, CMP, director of sales and marketing with Bishop-McCann in Kansas City, Missouri. “Decisions are largely made in unconscious, emotional brain regions.” It is thus highly valuable to be able to “distinguish what people say they ‘like’ from what their brains ‘love,’” Carver adds.
One example of a leader in the biometric technology area is Zenus, a Houston, Texas-based company that offers a mountable camera that analyzes facial cues relevant to engagement without actually ‘recognizing’ or identifying attendees. Identification is needed for registration, of course, and facial recognition technology is also applicable for that purpose. “The facial recognition processing time is still being fine-tuned, and there are still a few challenges with the technology, but ultimately, registration is more efficient with facial recognition,” Carver maintains. “Check-in is much quicker because there is no fumbling with tickets or identification, and it’s more secure. Besides streamlining the registration process, facial recognition also provides better overall event security. This technology makes it possible for event planners and program managers to strengthen security if needed, map user behavior and monitor attendee engagement levels without inconveniencing attendees.”
A new, wearable form of biometric technology comes from a partnership between Bishop-McCann and Immersion Neuroscience. The product, known as Immersion Events, consists of an app paired with a wristband neurosensor that consistently captures subtle changes in cardiac rhythm that indicate changes in attention, and both conscious and unconscious emotional responses. The data is sent to the cloud, allowing meeting hosts and speakers to evaluate, in real time, what aspects of the event are creating the most engagement among participants, whether a certain presentation, message, networking location and so on.
Planners may be concerned that attendees will become self-conscious wearing such a device, which in turn may inhibit the measurement of their natural responses. But Carver points out that it’s easy to forget one is wearing the band. In addition, “We most often review the data in aggregate because we’re looking for overall event trends. Thus, attendees have no need to worry about being singled out based on their specific reactions. Moreover, the solution only requires 30-35 attendees wearing the device to get robust and reliable results, so if you’re at a conference with thousands, more than likely you can find plenty of advocates to wear the band.”
Hybrid and virtual meetings are on the rise in North America and Europe, according to the 2020 Global Meetings and Event Forecast. “When comparing the 2019 survey results to the 2020 results of the percentage of planners who use hybrid/virtual meetings in more than 10% of meetings, North America has seen an uptick in that number, going from 43% to 58%,” McNairy reports. “Europe has seen an even larger increase, jumping from 49% to 66%. Central and South America, on the other hand, had a slight decrease from 76% to 71%, and Asia Pacific also had a slight decrease, from 70% to 66%.”
Husch Blackwell’s meetings operations reflect the North American trend. Hoy notes that “about a third” of the company’s meetings are currently virtual, “which is definitely up from recent years.” The company has been using ON24 as its Webinar platform for about four years. “It’s definitely a very professional-based product. I think the user experience is very clean, easy to use, and we’re able to brand it,” she says.
One of the features of ON24 she finds most convenient is Simulive, where presenters pre-record all presentation materials and deliver them to an audience at a designated date and time. The presenter can then interact with the audience through live text Q&A. Sim-2-Live allows interaction through both live text Q&A and via ON24-provided phone bridges. “We had a case not too long ago where we set a date for a live program and something came up and the speaker could not participate live. We were able to work with the product to switch it to Simulive, record the speaker a couple of days ahead of time and still have it be played during the live program time,” Hoy says.
A new product on the market this year that supports small hybrid meetings is Microsoft Surface Hub 2S. The successor to Surface Hub has a much sleeker, 50-inch rotating touchscreen that enables video chatting with team members who appear life sized. Mounted on a custom-built Steelcase rolling stand, the Surface Hub 2S features Windows 10, Microsoft Teams, Office 365, Microsoft Whiteboard and the intelligent cloud. For companies that regularly stage team meetings with virtual participants and high-tech needs, investing in this state-of-the-art collaborative tool, which is priced at about $9,000, may be justified.
Among the latest tech tools that support the logistical side of planning is EventTraX, offered by One10 Marketing, a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based meetings and incentive company. According to Patty Ely, One10 senior business analyst: “One of our high-tech clients expressed a need for a comprehensive way for conference organizers to manage suppliers and track all equipment items needed at a conference event venue by individual room. One10 developed an online tool, EventTraX, to ensure the proper equipment is available from the right supplier, in the right place, at the right time, from event set up to event tear down.” The tool enables the user to assign each equipment item a timing code that determines when the item must be available for use in the room, and when it must be removed from the room. “EventTraX proved to be so beneficial to the client that One10 is now enhancing the product to include food and beverage tracking as well,” Ely adds.
Hoy’s team recently appropriated a project management tool, Wrike, to support companywide meetings oversight. The tool replaced the Word and Excel docs that were being used to track ‘to-do’ items and the event pipeline, which includes more than 250 events per year. “I’m really excited about Wrike because we’ll be able to set up templates, so when a new event comes in you can pop that template in and assign it to one of the event planners on the team. I, as a manager, can go in and see where they’re at in the process and see if they’re falling behind or if someone has additional availability,” Hoy explains. “And each team member can customize those checklists and then have a daily summary across all their events.”
American Express Meetings & Events offers meeting management tools such as Attendify and Meetings Express. Planners using these tools benefit from “a complete view of all attendee records, event data, and custom fields from integrations all in one place,” McNairy says. “All of our solutions drive key data into Meetings Insights, our data and reporting platform, so that we can enable valuable insights for our customers into both their individual meetings or events as well as across their entire meetings program.”
The most comprehensive approach to companywide meeting management is of course the strategic meetings management program (SMMP), and a tech platform is indispensable to such a program. Cvent, the major player in this space, offers a scalable, automated platform that supports the SMMP at Northbrook, Illinois-based UL LLC, a global safety, sustainability and security certification company. “A group outside of our team built their own in-house, central calendar for just their events, but their system is not enterprise-wide and there were no triggers, automation and workflows underneath it all, and that’s something that’s really needed,” explains Victoria Johnson, CMP, CMM, global manager, Strategic Meetings Management, Global Meetings & Events Services at UL. “When somebody registers an event in the Cvent platform, an internal company can customize all of the workflows so they can be triggered. For example, if sourcing is needed, it’s triggered to the sourcing group. So it’s an intake form that’s scalable, automated and customizable.” UL’s Meetings & Events Services group also fields various requests and FAQs not handled through Cvent, and the company has recently implemented the help desk software Zendesk to provide AI-mediated replies to FAQs addressed to various service groups, including Meetings & Events.
Johnson notes that she looks forward to a revamp of the Cvent platform expected this year. Currently, the intake form “resides on a portal with a hyperlink that says ‘click here for the meeting request form.’ It can’t be a designed icon, for example. People don’t have time to read; but they do go right to an icon and there’s not iconic graphics right now, so that’s a limitation. Cvent says they’re going to make the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ better, and the intake form itself will be more robust and have conditional logic for a better user experience.”
Last month, Cvent enhanced its platform through a partnership with miMeetings, a leading provider of managed ground transportation solutions for meetings and events. According to Cvent, planners can now source, select and compare multiple ground transportation vendor bids and negotiate pricing directly within the Cvent platform; eliminate transportation errors with patented flight validation through real-time FAA connectivity; and leverage comprehensive post-event accounting and reporting by incorporating ground transportation spend directly into Cvent’s budgeting tools.
The best tech tools on the market, like the Cvent platform, are regularly evolving in response to planner needs. Hoy has provided feedback to tech providers she works with, and says that in many cases her suggested changes have been incorporated. “I don’t know that any product is perfect, but a lot of them are really close,” she says. Sometimes, instead of shopping for a new event app or meeting management software tool, it pays to stick with a familiar product and push for a little improvement. C&IT