Effectively using technology is as important to meeting and event planners as to any Fortune 500 company — maybe even more because when planning an event every dollar counts. Technology has become a mission-critical tool for meeting planners and for many, the internet offers inexpensive, viable solutions for their technology needs. With each new day, combining technology with meeting planning tools — through web sites, apps, social marketing and other IT initiatives — brings planners exciting opportunities to make each meeting and event a memorable one.
“In the early stages, event apps allowed attendees to have an event agenda, program information and electronic note-taking abilities in the palm of their hand,” Michael Toyne
As Michael Toyne, event solutions technology strategist at BCD Meetings and Events explains, around 2010 smart phones became popular and everyone suddenly had a mini computer at their fingertips. With these phones and tablets, attendees embraced a paperless existence; in particular, when traveling for meetings, laptops, notebooks and paperwork began taking a back seat to mobile devices.
“In the early stages, event apps allowed attendees to have an event agenda, program information and electronic note-taking abilities in the palm of their hand,” Toyne says. “Social media further shaped how mobile apps affected events, allowing the apps to improve networking opportunities, further key messaging, enhance brand awareness and cultivate interest thanks to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.”
Flash forward to today’s technology use, and the key word is “data.” As Toyne explains, by using technology to leverage integrations, meeting planners can now connect all aspects of event attendees’ interactions — before, during and after an event.
For example, exhibitors can use lead retrieval by leveraging the event app; information collected during registration can help tailor the attendees’ experience from personalization to targeted information; stakeholders can collect data, integrate with their CRM and analyze and track and support their return on event.
“They can consolidate lead retrieval from exhibitors, session check-in, mobile app usage, pre-event registration information and post-event surveys to create a true picture of an attendees’ experience, and tell a story based on their event goals,” Toyne says. “If their event goal is to generate more sales, they can track which attendees have an increase in sales after attending the event, and use data target behaviors to further drive revenue and support business goals.”
Lauren Caselli, meeting planner and owner of Lauren Caselli Events agrees. She says for a long time, the meetings and events industry lagged behind the general consumer industry with regard to event technology.
“It took what felt like forever to convince people to use such things as conference apps and on-stage Q&A software, because there was this feeling that meetings were supposed to be about people and not about technology” Caselli says. “However, now, with so much content being shared online, people don’t have to go to meetings anymore to get relevant content and so there is a push to now make meetings more fun, interactive; less slow-paced — which technology can help solve.”
This year, Cvent is celebrating 20 years in business and, as such, the Cvent team has been reflecting a lot recently on how the technology side of this industry has changed. What some people don’t realize is that Cvent’s CEO and founder, Reggie Aggarwal, actually started Cvent because he was planning events for a nonprofit and he knew there had to be a better way to manage them with technology.
“He has this terrible picture of his desk from that time that is the epitome of what event professionals loathe — disorder and chaos,” says Rachel Andrews, director of meetings and events, Cvent. “If anything, technology evolution within the meetings and event industry has been slow and steady. First it was the emailing of event invitations, then it was online registration, and then technology took over the onsite check-in and badging experience. More recently it was the addition of mobile event apps and virtual meetings. Only now, more than 20 years later, are we in a place where all of these things are expected. Event technology has helped to automate manual processes and streamline each piece of the event life cycle — but it’s taken a lot of time.”
According to Craig Dooley, senior vice president with SDI Meetings and Incentives, technology and new solutions in the meeting industry seem to follow a typical curve. “In early stages, there is a mad rush and confusion and predictions of seismic shifts in how we do business,” Dooley says. “As we gradually move through that curve, solutions rationalize, new ways of engaging and supporting customers are established and efficiencies are gained. In simple terms, we’ve moved from paper and manual management to cloud-based data and web programs to enable every aspect of the meeting industry — but ever-evolving and improving.”
For customer-facing tools, SDI is seeing web-based, self-managed registration is expected, and apps are quickly following for pre-event and onsite engagement. “Within SDI’s business, the back-end management tools in budgeting, space planning, resource management, reporting and analysis are all key tools that allow planners to be tremendously more efficient and provide greater customer service,” Dooley says.
Other key tools that have been embraced today with the corporate and incentives meeting segment and strongly in use are mobile apps. As Toyne explains, event apps have made strong enhancements to incorporate a full attendee experience such as polling, surveys, contact exchange, 1:1 meetings and more.
“Outside of also being a real-time communication platform, an attendee app can incorporate other technology needs, such as beacons, heat mapping, lead retrieval and more, to track and report back on an attendees onsite journey,” Toyne says.
Speaking as an event planner, there is a specific way Andrews like to do things and unless technology makes those things easier, she won’t use it.
“I think that’s how many of my peers feel. They don’t have the time to learn how to use a complex piece of technology — they need something they can use out of the box and that will help them work more effectively and efficiently,” Andrews says. “Website design is a big one. As one of the first touch-points event professionals have with their attendees, the registration website needs to deliver an engaging experience.”
But most event professionals do not have the coding needed to design the experience they envision. So tools that allow them to build a unique website that helps them drive more registrations and increase attendance are quickly adopted. Tools that automate data collection and organization are also key to a meeting planner’s success. For example, Andrews points to tools that automatically code and organize attendee information and session attendance, or that can automate email marketing messages based on geographic region or registrant title.
“Finally, floor plan and diagramming software and VR are more essential solutions that help venues and suppliers showcase event spaces or experiences, and help meeting planners design and map out an event without ever having to set foot in the actual space,” Andrews says. “There are so many moving pieces to planning and organizing events that any tool that can automate and reduce human error are widely embraced.”
In Caselli’s experience, online registration software has changed formerly clunky paper or phone registrations for events. Recently, there have been a slew of more affordable technology tools such as Eventbrite, Bizzabo and Ticket Tailor that have made it more affordable for non-enterprise businesses to host their events inexpensively and effectively.
“Additionally, I’ve noticed more conferences jumping on the conference app bandwagon, which is great since events are often marred by printed materials that become outdated by the time the event rolls around,” Caselli says. “Communication at events is always the biggest hurdle to creating a seamless attendee experience, so conference apps with push notifications have changed the game when conferences have onsite changes.”
Caselli adds that space planners have come a long way in the past few years. “Floor plans used to be a nightmare that we’d need to hand draw or hand create, but now, online software like AllSeated have made it easier to create a floor plan quickly and efficiently,” Caselli says.
In addition to the above, there are several ways in which these tools have improved the meetings and events landscape. Planners can:
Quickly communicate with their attendees important information, including last-minute changes.
Plan future events based more closely on what attracts and/or motivates their attendees.
Attract the attendees who meet their event and/or business goals.
Create targeted tracks and communication plans.
“Meeting planners should embrace technology because not only is it not going anywhere, it is constantly evolving and will only be expected to be used more and more in their events,” Toyne says. “Technology can be used to help define a client’s ROE by giving measurable data points to tell the story of how their event engages with attendees and drives the client’s meeting goals — be it sales, brand awareness, attendee engagement or more.”
Caselli agrees that technology is important to remove some of the less pleasant aspects of events. For example, Q&A and facilitated discussions are extremely important to attendee engagement and experience, but no one appreciates it when one person hogs the microphone.
“Using live streaming Q&A so that participants can pose questions via an app is better, allowing more questions to be asked and answered,” Caselli says. “All clients are looking for ‘the next big thing’ or ‘the best creative idea’ and what that really comes down to is making sure attendees have a truly seamless, engaging, fun event. A lot of times, those things can be achieved through removing friction points — a poor registration experience, poor communication, or poor onsite check-in — rather than bringing in fire-breathers and light shows, although those are helpful as well.”
A few years ago Andrews came across a tool called Passkey, which at the time, was offered by one of Cvent’s competitors. At its core, Passkey is a room block-management solution.
“Any event professional can tell you that room block logistics is one of the most tedious and time-consuming aspects of our jobs,” Andrews says. “I went to Aggarwal and gave him my business case for why I wanted to use it for our events. He was 100 percent on board and I’ll tell you what — it was life-changing technology. Now, years later, Passkey is an integral part of the Cvent platform. It came full circle. In short, it’s a combination of things that have made our jobs easier with the addition of technology. It’s the automation of manual processes, the reduction of human error, the consolidation of information and the collection and dissemination of data. When technology offers all of these things, there is no going back to Excel spreadsheets and sticky notes.”
Some of Cvent’s clients are seeing massive increases in attendee engagement with the implementation of a mobile app — while also reducing printing and labor costs. Mobile apps offer additional attendee touch points to gather session or event feedback, to drive engagement through gamification, or to highlight a unique offering by sending push notifications when an attendee passes by an RFID beacon.
“It all comes down to how the technology enhances the attendee experience. By delivering a more engaging and unique experience, attendees will become repeat customers and can become your biggest advocates,” Andrews says.
While each technology tool used within the meeting and events arena makes one aspect of event planning easier, they also present a problem: data integration and tool fragmentation.
As Steen Tromholt, CEO of Conferize explains, the solutions are often not complete, resulting in a fragmented experience for both users and organizers. “I see bigger events invest a lot of budget into custom design and attempts to extend and increase the attendee experience,” Tromholt says. “Usually things look good, but the digital design extending the event experience is usually lacking. The reason is: It’s hard.”
As Tromholt explains, usually data is stored in different clouds with little or no integration. “That’s the real problem. You see organizers manually trying to update the data sets across their various tools such as tickets, websites, CRM, email marketing and social apps, etc.,” Tromholt says. “Of course there are ways to integrate though APIs, etc., but it’s usually a technical effort most organizers don’t have in-house. Or you’ll have to invest in an expensive high-end enterprise solution, that’s usually overkill for the needs of events.”
And while there are over 200 event-specific mobile apps, usually they’re hard to integrate with the core planning setup. “We think there are a few good ones, though we haven’t seen a ‘go-to’ social solution to improve the attendee experience,” Tromholt says. “You’ll need first to solve the core jobs-to-be-done of organizers before you can really improve the attendee experience, because it needs to be an integrated experience and rely on the same dynamic database across the various parts of the products suite.”
Although the meetings and events industry has come a long way from the days of Excel and long, paper to-do lists, there is still so much opportunity in the technology arena within the meeting and events industry. Attendee tracking and feedback, event reporting and delivering a better understanding of how to maximize event ROI are all areas where technology use is still in its nascent stages of adoption. “VR and AR offer different types of opportunities that are less focused on streamlining manual processes, but rather on increasing engagement and enhancing the overall experience — helping event organizers make a lasting impact with that elusive ‘wow’ moment that attendees will talk about long after the event is over,” Tromholt says. “It’s certainly an exciting time to be in the industry, and I see technology continuing to play a significant role.”
Caselli stresses that the point of events is to get people to engage with other, real humans. “I think people will continue bringing exciting technology to events,” Caselli says. “But I think that eventually, in order to be ‘different,’ which the meetings industry loves, planners and clients will start swinging back towards the center, limiting onsite technology usage for communication only, and encouraging fun ways for participants to connect face-to-face instead of through their devices.”
And Tromholt agrees when he says that the fundamental value of meetings is the absence of technology; meeting up in real life. As Tromholt explains, more than ever we need to discuss and solve important topics and advance quite a lot of discourses within climate, sustainability, business, financial, medical, etc.
“We can’t do that without better meetings. Today we get less than 50 percent of the value that we should’ve gotten as attendees,” Tromholt says. “We need carefully tailored tools that augment networking, knowledge sharing and active participation. To achieve that, you need a two-sided — for planners and attendees — holistic solution that doesn’t interfere with the core offline value of meetings, but significantly improves the value and effectiveness of meeting up in real life. So, good event tech is as little event tech as possible.”C&IT