Changing technology affects almost every facet of our professional as well as our personal lives, and it’s no different in the meetings game. While coping with tech change presents challenges, there’s no doubt that continuing advances hold tremendous promise for meeting planners.
“Technology can be a powerful tool for measuring and demonstrating ROI, for securing more budget and for ensuring attendees have a great event experience,” says Andrea Sommer, founder and CEO of Hiver, a London-based event technology firm. But she cautions against adopting technology just because competitors are doing it. “Technology should be considered holistically, aligned to and in support of the overall objectives of the event.”
Before the decision has been made to use a given technology, planners should exercise due diligence in evaluating its potential, says Harris Schanhaut, CME, an independent meeting planner with experience in a variety of areas including financial services. This includes ensuring others have had good experiences with it and that the technology will integrate into existing systems.
“It must also meet any applicable security requirements and most importantly, be at a cost point that will benefit the event without blowing the budget,” he says.
With every new event, it seems, planners are faced with at least one of two scenarios. Either a problem with existing technology brings some type of challenge, or someone (whether a vendor, team member or client) is touting the benefits of the next big thing in tech. It’s enough to make one’s head spin.
Simply staying ahead of the technology curve can be trying, says Sydney Wolf, senior event sales manager at metroConnections, a meeting services firm based in Minneapolis.
“Technology is ever-changing with a mix of capabilities and new developments.”
— Sydney Wolf
“As a conference and meeting planner, working to stay consistently updated on what’s new and trending to integrate it into your conferences and meetings is a challenge in and of itself,” she says.
Another challenge, according to Wolf, comes in the demographics of audiences. She notes that different audiences will have varying levels of technical savvy and know-how when it comes to new technology. That applies whether you’re talking smartphones, wearables, virtual reality or other technology.
For some planners, this might mean working against resistance to the “new” factor in a conference setting, such as moving away from the printed workbook to a fully integrated mobile app.
“This can often be an adjustment for audience members that are comfortable with the old school pen and paper,” she says. “Not only that, but some attendees may not know how to use the technology at all. You’re having to educate on the technology’s application in your conference setting, and you very well could be educating an attendee on the technology for the very first time.”
A reality faced by all event planners is the constant evolution of the industry’s technology needs and the need to keep up with it, says Shane Edmonds, chief technology officer for etouches, an event management software company based in Norwalk, Connecticut.
“From internal management to attendees and sponsors, there’s also a lot of pressure to make every stakeholder happy and to make the right technology investments with so many new tools and trends to monitor,” he says. “While jumping on the latest and greatest industry trends can be a great way to increase event success and ROI, planners need to have a solid foundation of tools to guarantee the most positive outcomes.” He adds that by having the event essentials covered, planners will have everything they need to successfully take their technology to the next level, whether it’s as conventional as implementing session tracking devices or as complex as building virtual or artificial reality experiences.
“It’s easy to get caught up in technological innovation, but event technology is only as good as its application,” Edmonds says. “Instead of keeping pace with this tech evolution for the sake of it, event planners need to ensure every tool has a clear purpose and fits cleanly within the event attendee life cycle.”
Edmonds reports that his company’s software has been used successfully by Allianz Australia, which delivers personal, commercial and corporate insurance products and services to more than 3 million policyholders. Prior to its adoption, event planning was not centralized and distribution methods consisted of planners using emails with a PowerPoint slide or PDF invitation or various third-party tools. That meant brand guidelines were not being followed and there was no company-wide view of events. With use of the software, event registration has now been simplified, and staff employ the related marketing tool to send personalized invitations to delegates. The system also supports email reminders and updates as well as a post-event survey.
“Technology is best when it offers a holistic solution,” says Thomas Allen, senior product manager for conference room technology provider EMS Software. “Relying on multiple planning systems can expose your operations to costly errors.” He notes this can be especially problematic in executing complex meetings that involve multiple contributors, from food and beverage providers to AV technicians to custodial crews. Accordingly, the technology chosen to manage the entire meeting life cycle must allow every stakeholder to communicate with planners and with each other.
“When changes occur — as they always do — automated notifications and approvals can streamline the entire process, alerting anyone involved in those particular logistics,” he says.
Just what developments offer the most potential? As hardware and software providers continue to innovate, the range of possibilities seems limitless. Event apps, as well as mobile technology itself, offer meeting attendees real-time info on everything from wayfinding to notes for presentations. Presentation technology provides increasingly effective visual and audio information for both in-person audiences and those connected across great distances. Online surveys allow opportunities for feedback.
At the same time, emerging advancements in virtual reality not only give planners advance views of destinations and facilities, but provide new options for supporting engaging presentations. And who knows where developments in areas such as voice-activated tech and artificial intelligence will lead? To top it off, the growing power of analytics means planners will have unprecedented levels of data for evaluating every aspect of the meeting planning process. In these and other arenas, both planners and those they serve have much from which to choose.
Among the most basic yet impactful approaches is the use of an event management system or platform through which planners can create a full-featured event website. Schanhaut notes that among other functions, emails can be sent to help encourage registrations and secure payments.
“This helps you track their progress as well as order the right quantity and types of meals, badges, lanyards, conference bags and other giveaway items,” he says. “The site can also be used after the event to send out surveys that will aid in the planning of future events.”
At the same time, RFID badges can be used to keep track of traffic in real time or alert exhibitors that a key prospect or customer is in the area.
On-location audio-visual technologies such as digital displays and flight boards, as well as informational kiosks with interactive floor maps and wayfinding, are easy to implement and provide welcome assistance to attendees, according to Allen. Planners and hosts can readily provide up-to-date info to attendees by deploying mobile tablet or smartphone apps. Allen notes that platforms such as those provided by EMS Software do all this through direct integrations with third-party digital signage partners and interfaces for internet-connected mobile devices and touchscreen kiosks.
Technology that bridges distances offers similar advantages. While connecting audiences in different locations is no longer new, ways to make this happen continue to become more effective while supporting features planners find helpful.
“Leveraging online virtual meeting technology helps facilitate product education events in front of large groups that are spread across multiple locations.”
— Jason Walker
Jason Walker, managing partner of Smart Harbor, a provider of technology solutions for insurance agencies based in Columbus, Ohio says these technologies offer registration that can be embedded on websites, social media and email. In addition, they typically integrate with multiple calendars that enable the creation of automated invitations and reminders leading up to a presentation. Online virtual meetings technologies also allow for the simulation of “hands on” interaction through screen and video sharing, polling, chat and operator-assisted telecom.
The latest tech also supports interactions both before and after the meeting, according to Walker. “When helping to create a well-rounded experience for your participants, the promotion and marketing of events and also the follow-up communication are just as important as the actual meeting itself,” he says. Pre-and post-event technology solutions such as marketing automation, content management and customer relationship management (CRM) systems facilitate the promotion and tracking of event respondents across multiple digital platforms simultaneously.
In addition, Walker points out that many advantages provided by high-tech solutions come into play after a meeting has concluded. “After creating exposure and holding the meetings, data mining is imperative,” he says. He notes that post-meeting analytics platforms provide meeting hosts with full visibility into who did or did not attend their meeting, along with info gathered during registration that facilitates segmentation of the audience for marketing communications and compliance reporting.
“Throughout the process, you have gathered data points associated with each participant’s habits and behaviors, which you can use to understand their interests and develop personalized messaging and events in the future.”
Wolf believes the most powerful tool a meeting planner can have is data. “It allows you to generate buy-in from your decision-makers, provide projections for strategic growth and justify spending,” she says. “The more data you have at hand, the better.” Technology that allows you to capture this data about your attendees is critical, she adds. This might range from a robust online registration system, to on-demand mobile badge printing with real-time reporting, to session scanning via QR codes or RFID chips. Any data you can generate to study the patterns and behaviors of attendees can prove valuable.
Making sure tech tools are useful, but not the main focus, is an important consideration, says Jessica Williams, former co-facilitator for WiSTEM (Women in STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, a Chicago-based program that supports entrepreneurship for women).
“In our case, we want to use technology to facilitate more connections between people and make those connections meaningful.”
— Jessica Williams
“We don’t want people to rely so much on the technology but instead to use it as a tool for connection and conversation.”
She recalls a networking event where one objective was to avoid grouping the same women together in successive meetings. To that end, planners used smart badges to match female entrepreneurs with board members who might be able to provide tips in areas such as fundraising and client acquisition. “It gave them something to immediately connect on as the badges informed them about the things they had in common,” Williams says. “This practice leads to more meaningful connections that will continue long after the event is over.”
Wolf says her firm has seen the use of video development and editing raise the bar at many large-scale meetings. Within a general session space, her team has put video to work to create an immersive experience. “More and more, set design is moving away from a hard set and instead integrating wide-format screens or a collection of screens that work together to present a dynamic experience that immerses the attendees in a branded experience,” she says. “Opening videos with executives shown in remote locations that lead to the executives walking out on stage create a fun ‘wow’ moment.”
In making choices as well as using any given technology, a strategic approach is a must. “Technology is not always cheap,” Wolf says. “The costs can add up very quickly as you’re working to design and implement various solutions. Be strategic in your spending.” For example, she advises against paying for a mobile app just to check it off your list so that you have it. “Be extremely intentional about the use of your technology,” she says. “Take full advantage of all the benefits and capabilities of the tools that you are putting to work.”
In considering the purchase of technology for a specific event, planners should determine if the same solution can be used at future events, Schanhaut advises. That way the cost can be spread over the life cycle of the technology rather than affecting just one event’s budget.
“It’s easy to have a salesperson say their event management system is easy to use,” he says. “First get an in-depth, hands-on demo and build your own mock event to see if it’s easy to use and will accomplish what you want.”
Allen cautions against deploying unfamiliar technologies without testing as well as settling for “safer” tech that doesn’t meet the needs and expectations of attendees. “In today’s conference and event spaces, technology should be wide-ranging, embracing web, mobile and kiosks, so that attendees can choose to access event information in the way they are most comfortable,” he says. Most importantly, each access point must provide a simple interface for the attendees and reference the same source of data so that all information is always up-to-date, regardless of how it is accessed.
According to Edmonds, the best use of technology also includes taking full advantage of features designed to evaluate meeting success.
“Event planners today have the unprecedented ability to see how their events are performing in real-time and if their attendees are engaged at the event,” he says. He suggests that planners consider the advantages of knowing which session topics and speakers are attracting the most attention, which campaigns are delivering the highest onsite conversions and who are the most influential participants based on their networking data. Similarly, it can be advantageous to know what attendees visited competitors’ booths, understanding the areas of the show floor drawing the most (or least) traffic, and knowing shared characteristics of the most-engaged attendees.
“It’s important for planners to clearly define and dial into an event’s objectives,” Edmonds says. “Using technology without understanding the objectives does not deliver clear value.” Depending on how success is defined, planners can capture the right data and look at ROI on terms that are meaningful for the organization. He notes that some of the most common metrics for event performance include attendance, revenue, attendee engagement, registrations, brand awareness, qualified leads created, upsell and cross-sell opportunities created, and pipeline opportunities created, influenced or closed because of the event.
“When measuring performance, event planners should look beyond data points for attendance and revenue,” Edmonds says. “Metrics surrounding demand generation and pipeline acceleration are also crucial, especially now when event technology is creating innovative new ways to measure ROI.” I&FMM