When it comes to meetings technology, change is the only constant. Just as you become comfortable with the latest and greatest tool, something new arrives to take its place. So it can be overwhelming just trying to keep up. But there’s no getting around the real necessity of staying on top of today’s robust technology options designed to improve meeting outcomes.
“Technology is an essential element when planning an event,” says Alan Doyle, vice president of MICE for Palace Resorts. “New tools are constantly being developed that help planners enhance their meetings and drive engagement with attendees.” As an example, he points to event apps, which continue to be cheaper to develop and easier to use, and which help attendees stay abreast of what’s going on. With increased demand for working toward paperless meetings, he adds, such apps help meet those goals while also encouraging attendees to remain engaged and to ensure that everyone has up-to-date information that’s available in real time.
“In today’s socially connected world, attendees expect you to be on social, so there you should be.”
— Justin Guinn
In fact, meeting planners who aren’t taking into account technology considerations for their business and that of their attendees are at an extreme disadvantage, according to Justin Guinn, market research associate of event management and meeting software reviews company Software Advice.
“Gone are the days of disregarding the technology behind the daily business needs of event-goers,” Guinn says. “It will lead to bad event experiences and decreased retention rates.”
Part of the challenge involves adapting to different audience expectations as well as various technology options.
“To stay relevant, it’s absolutely vital to take into consideration what technology is currently available,” says Cindy Y. Lo, DMCP, president and event strategist for Red Velvet Events in Austin, Texas. This includes assessing exactly what technology platforms a given audience is using. “For older generation attendees, I don’t worry about buying a custom SnapChat filter because they will most likely not even use it.”
John Kirby, complex director of sales at Westin Crown Center at Kansas City and Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center, affirms that the need for technology in meetings is more important than ever.
“Fifteen years ago, when interacting with planners, technology was an ancillary benefit that companies could use if there was any money left after dealing with the expense of rooms and food and beverage,” he says. “Nowadays, decision-makers within any entity will not approve an expenditure for a meeting unless there is a specific message to be delivered that is complemented with technologically driven content.” He says the usual expectation is for the audience to walk away with a clear message and call to action.
“The gambit that this covers is only getting bigger and bigger as the marketplace continues to expand and entities begin to collaborate in order to push their collective mission forward,” he says. “Effective leveraging of technology is often the vehicle that allows that to happen these days.”
Kirby recalls an event focusing on a new technology rollout that was targeting sales professionals. Problems began to surface when it became apparent that the group that had planned the meeting had not established an adequate budget.
“The meeting’s budget had been established the prior year, and this rollout was a new development, but had not been accounted for in the group’s scope of spending,” Kirby says. “We worked hard with our event partner to learn every facet of what this program change would entail to provide them with technological solutions that would help them accomplish their changing goals, and were able to introduce them to some new technologies they had not employed.”
The results included not only a successful meeting but insights on further technology development within the company. “It was a lot of fun to take a situation that could have been terrible, and by working together, shape that event into something that became the vehicle for larger positive change within that company as a whole,” says Kirby.
When it comes to making full use of technology, a basic requirement is adequate connectivity. Not long ago this was considered an extra, but now it’s a necessity.
“High-speed Wi-Fi internet must be available at every meeting,” Doyle says. “People must stay connected as the internet and smart devices are part of everyday life.” Other desirable technology applications for meetings include HD livestreaming, online translators and interactive voting.
Another consideration is the need to adjust to the needs of different groups and the local availability of support technology.
“Meeting planners need to identify the group’s audience and demographic, and fully understand their technology habits and usage,” Doyle says. “Learning this information ensures that the meeting planner has all the tools that are necessary to capture the attendees’ attention during a meeting.” He adds that meetings outside the U.S. may bring their own special challenges.
“Meeting planners need to identify the technology available at the host country, as well as the pricing,” he says. “There could be compatibility challenges and increased costs for higher speeds, depending on the country.”
With financial organizations, data security is especially critical, according to Ken Edwards, director, financial services for SmartSource Computer & Audio Visual Rentals. He says it’s important to build a secure wired or Wi-Fi network so that data are less open to everyone than would be the case in relying on the Wi-Fi solution provided by the hotel or venue. Too, the Wi-Fi offered by many venues does not have sufficient bandwidth or signal distribution options to provide for reliable connectivity for accommodating audiences for larger events.
The right technology used during a meeting also can support event marketing, according to Doyle.
“Social media, videos, live videos and blogs are all great options when promoting an event and also great for engaging with attendees,” he says. “These tools can help meeting planners understand the attendees’ opinions, likes and dislikes and can be used to ensure that future meetings are even better.
Guinn identifies attendee management and social engagement as the two most important technology functions for planning meetings and events.
“Attendee management offers meeting planners unparalleled organization and efficiency,” he says. “The tool works to manage and even automate communication with attendees as well as gather and store valuable information to increase the quality of their experience. And for social engagement, he touts the practice of leveraging social channels to build awareness and excitement.
“In today’s socially connected world, attendees expect you to be on social, so there you should be,” Guinn adds.
Karen Shackman, CEO of Shackman Associates, a New York destination management company, says a trend worth following is the development of turnkey apps that manage registration, help attendees network prior to arriving, optimize breakout sessions, geofence offsite after-hours opportunities and create a platform for continued engagement after the meeting ends. Among other options, planners and attendees can conduct private chats, connect via LinkedIn and view profiles of attendees they might not know before the meeting.
“Apps are becoming geo-enabled, which help attendees enhance their experience based on their location at a given moment,” she says. “Have downtime between work sessions? Apps can now let you know that an attendee you were hoping to find for networking is down the street at Starbucks.”
Kirby is high on mobile meeting apps. “The cellphone has become the single-most personal product in the marketplace that virtually everyone must have,” he says. “We live on these devices, and are connected to them as much or more than a family member in a lot of cases.” He says that leveraging this technology creates wins for both the user and the environment. Advantages include reducing the use of paper, eliminating the associated cost of printing and shipping, and providing the organization a vehicle to mine data from users. With the latter, results may provide better insight into what does and doesn’t work well when designing and laying out the schedule of events for a meeting.
Edwards also suggests leveraging technology to build relationships with attendees. To that end, his company created a technology lounge fully equipped with charging stations for mobile devices. While waiting, they can also view brand messages on kiosks or engage directly with representatives of the organization to build rapport and establish a relationship.
Shackman says developments with presentation options hold the potential to enhance communication among speakers and audiences.
“While there is continuing debate on how to use social media and texting during business components at meeting, we are seeing a trend that creates a hyper-intelligent, private system that increases face-to-face interaction,” she says. “The key is to provide moderators with more control than ever over questions, answers and even who gets asked the questions.”
With this kind of technology, attendees now can ask unlimited questions, and moderators can quickly filter out ones that don’t make sense or disrupt the flow, Shackman says. Furthermore, because speakers can clearly see the questions being asked, they do not get lost among the noise of status updates.
An ideal way to make a meeting more productive is to use technology that empowers the moderator, according to Don Joos, CEO of ShoreTel, a telecommunications company with headquarters in Sunnyvale, California.
“There are many communication tools that can foster productive conversations and participation in meetings,” he says. “For instance, by integrating calendaring, instant messaging and presence into the meeting calendar, attendees are more likely to arrive on time and participate during the meeting.”
Joos notes that temporarily shifting control to another moderator or participant to share documents fosters participation and inclusion. Too, some presentation technology includes the capacity for participants to display emoticons asking the speaker to slow down or speak more loudly, or allowing them to ask a question.
Also of great benefit is the use of tablets equipped with software applications to collect and aggregate data from attendees, notes Edwards.
“The data obtained can then be used to track and direct the meeting audience toward programs, areas and activities which will be most meaningful to them,” he says. “The market intelligence gathered facilitates effective target marketing which, in turn, can generate solid leads.” Other possibilities for attracting and engaging attendees include high-impact digital signage, charging stations for mobile devices, and kiosks imparting news and event-related program information.
Some technology can be especially attractive for planners seeking cost-effective, sustainable solutions, Edwards says. He points to lower-cost staging as especially responsive to budget containment, with some platforms available at half the cost of traditional stages while also being more environmentally friendly. Similarly, beacon technology, QR codes and RFID enable collection of data from their event attendees to gain a better understanding of those constituents and their interests. By placing readers throughout a venue, planners can track attendees’ behaviors and then target-market to them to generate better leads and conversions.
Edwards also emphasizes the importance of recognizing generational differences.
“Technology that meets the needs of today’s multigenerational audience is something that should be on all meeting planners’ radar,” he says. For millennials, who tend to rely heavily on mobile devices for communications, sophisticated registration software solutions is appealing, and at the same time, it enables planners to produce and print coded badges that can be used for lead retrieval and attendee tracking. Baby boomers and others who grew up in the age of television, on the other hand, may value the digital signage as a much more entertaining and engaging way to get info on program agendas, exhibitors, sponsors, news tickers, entertainment schedules, transportation and weather information. At the same time, audience response systems allow all the generations to communicate their opinions and questions in real time with meeting planners as well as their exhibitors and sponsors.
In pre-event preparation, it’s important to check out basics such as audio and video in different venues well before meetings get under way. Doyle notes that he has seen negative results when technology planning has been insufficient.
“If the audio is not working correctly or the video is not the right resolution, it can be frustrating and interfere with what you’re trying to communicate,” he says. “You need to be very careful with using frequencies when you’re in the same area as translators, wireless microphones, Wi-Fi and other technology to avoid conflicts that could essentially disengage your audience.”
Once a meeting is underway, other considerations should take precedence. To improve productivity, meeting attendees should shut down any other apps and electronic devices, says Joos. He cites research findings that 25 percent of participants do other types of work during meetings.
“Instant messages and email can be distracting, so politely ask meeting attendees to silence their phones and computers to stay focused,” he says.
In dealing with technology across the board, finding the right balance between internal and external support can be a key.
“If you are already overloaded with your meeting logistics, identify an individual on your team that can take charge of this area,” Lo says. “It really does need a dedicated person to make sure it’s happening pre-event, during the event and even the week following the event.” She adds that if you don’t have the right resource in-house, contracting with outside experts is a reasonable alternative.
Edwards suggests seeking out a technology partner who can help manage the entire event, from how to best convey your event’s central theme, to determining how to capture and use data effectively to drive marketing and sales goals.
“That resource should have a proven track record in managing events in the financial sector and a deep understanding of industry-specific needs,” he says.
Edwards advises including the event technology partner in planning meetings. “The more information your partner has at the earliest stage, the more helpful the partner can be in recommending technology strategies built around your event theme,” he says. “Your technology partner also can help guide meeting planners from year-to-year on how to grow and develop their events with the latest technology without having to increase their budgets.”
Whether working in-house or with outside firms, don’t be afraid to experiment, Lo says.
“All too often, I see events not using the latest stuff because they are afraid or they don’t make it a priority,” she says. If you’re willing to put yourself out there, it will often come back more positive than negative even if it didn’t quite work out the way you had in mind. At least the attendees remembered you did try to do something different.”
Kirby agrees with the value of checking out new technology: “Don’t be afraid to explore different options in the marketplace that might be useful to enhance an event you are planning,” he says. The world is getting smaller, and technology will ultimately allow you to bring the world to your event.” I&FMM