Meetings technology is an ever-evolving menu of apps and platforms, systems and options designed for a faster, better, safer experience for all involved — from planners and attendees to speakers, entertainers and association executives. Rapid evolvement begs the question: Do we forget old tech and go with something new, or stick with the tried-and-true?
To start, it’s critical to be informed about the pros and cons of meetings technology. Victor Pynn, CEO of Vindow Inc., a cloud-based travel technology platform, says one thing planners should understand is how hotel sourcing platforms work. “Some hotel sourcing platforms prioritize, or limit, search results based upon paid placements, or fail to disclose hotel companies as major investors in the technology,” he says. The result is that they may not make property recommendations based on the planner’s needs. “It’s important for planners to be aware of hidden biases embedded within software that may be working against their best interests.”
While innovation continues to drive technology forward, that doesn’t mean planners and groups are ready to dive into every new product that comes along. Pynn says interoperability remains a challenging aspect for all technology. “There’s so much innovation going on in tech today regarding data intelligence and machine learning, yet the hospitality industry is very dependent upon legacy infrastructure.” Meaning not every new product or platform will seamlessly fit into that infrastructure.
Still, Pynn says, planners and organizations have a lot of cool technology to look forward to. “[Virtual Reality] (VR) will continue to grow in importance as more practical applications, such as virtual site visits, become available. And as an educational tool, VR will be a game-changer. However,” he adds, “VR will never replace face-to-face networking — or the cocktail hour.”
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is another “the-future-is-here” innovation that planners and groups will soon rely on more. “We’re just beginning to unleash the potential for artificial intelligence in event management,” Pynn says. “We tend to evaluate a meeting or event on post-event, objective criteria that we can quantitatively measure. But we all know that meetings and events are judged as much on the subjective, qualitative experience, and AI can help unlock insights into those aspects of an event and add predictive capabilities that create more customized experiences.”
As machine learning becomes more sophisticated, for example, AI-enabled technology can help analyze huge amounts of data, which can influence decision-making. “AI can help organizers make better, more informed decisions, which is critical to a planner’s success,” Pynn says. “AI helps sort through the chatter to reveal the information planners want based upon their attendees’ preferences, practices or specific criteria.”
Some changes in meetings today are not the result of technology, but technology can help planners adjust to those changes and integrate them into their events. One such change Pynn points to is the addition of hybrid elements to meetings. This is where venue choice can make a difference. “Since the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided, there’s less call for virtual meetings, but the hybrid meeting format is still hugely popular,” Pynn says. “Planners have realized they can expand their audience — and revenue opportunities — by accommodating virtual attendees. Venues that have the technology and expertise to make hybrid meetings easy to implement have a tremendous advantage,” he says.
Not surprisingly, the need for digital security has only grown as technology has advanced, and Pynn thinks more changes are coming in terms of cybersecurity protocols and practices. “Meeting and event planners are exposed to a vast amount of personal information from attendees, as well as proprietary information about business operations,” Pynn says. “Data security and privacy must be of paramount importance and scaled according to the relative risk. At the very minimum, planners should take care to collect no more personally identifying information about attendees than is necessary, and purge files once the event is over.”
As to how that will affect planners going forward, Pynn says, “I predict that, in the future, we’ll see planners having to go through security audits similar to those undertaken in other industries with higher risk of potential cybersecurity issues, to ensure that their computers/devices have the proper security software to protect client and attendees’ sensitive information. Savvy planners will start making use of security software right away to proactively address any potential security issue that may arise.”
While it’s exciting to think about VR, AI and other “sexy” tech innovations, Pynn says there are very basic “pain points” that technology must address. “Most importantly,” he notes is “bridging the ‘silos’ of information between the variety of suppliers that a planner must bring together to execute a successful event,” adding, “I’m excited about supplier partnerships that offer planner-centric solutions.”
Brandon Wernli, CEO of consulting group BW Events Tech, a strategic partner of Global DMC Partners, a collection of destination management companies across the world, says, “The events industry has always been an ever-evolving environment, and tech teams are always improving on their offerings.”
Events today often combine different elements. Hybrid options remain popular with some groups post-pandemic, and that means different types of tech for different elements of a meeting. “There are so many elements of an event that can be enriched by having a hybrid presence,” Wernli says, “whether it’s accessibility, increased audience engagement or access to new customers. We believe that events will need to continue to invest in their digital presence. Specifically, post-event, on-demand content can be a great way to tie the physical on-site world to the virtual world.”
Combining different types of meetings comes with tech challenges, however. “From a digital side of things, engaging someone through a computer screen is a lot different than in person,” Wernli says. “Without the amenities and options that are available on-site, such as coffee bars, physical networking spaces and event lunches, it’s easy for attendees to experience fatigue or take a break and not come back to the screen. Keeping it fresh by adopting new technologies and ideas for the best attendee experiences is our top recommendation when cultivating a virtual environment.” But, he adds, creating an equitable experience for both in-person and digital attendees “is a growing challenge.”
As the enthusiasm and excitement surrounding in-person events has increased since the pandemic, Wernli says digital events aren’t making the same headlines they did in 2021. “That being said,” he continues, “the development of virtual events remains a game-changer for this industry. Not only do they expand the audience your event reaches, they’re also more accessible and can be key content hubs. Hybrid is the future of on-site events, and we think it’s important for planners to go into building out an event experience and site with that in mind.”
One area of event technology garnering a lot of interest among planners and event organizers currently is group registration. “Conferences are encouraging attendees to come on-site with their colleagues, and some are even providing financial incentives if they do so. “This can be a tricky process,” Wernli says. “What if all the names aren’t known? What if the number of team members changes? How do you manage refunds? All of these are important considerations to mitigate as events are implemented.”
Another area of tech event management is in conference apps. Wernli’s group recently refined its Progressive Web Apps (PWA). Instead of being tied to an external app, a PWA can be run as a mobile on-site tool through Swoogo. What this means, Wernli says, is that “all data is stored in one central place, and there’s no need to worry about additional [application programming interfaces] (APIs). Groups are able to keep their full branding customization and specify designs based on their [user experience] needs, and instead of hunting through an app store, there’s a call-to-action on the home page of the PWA that prompts to install on mobile directly.” He continues, “Additionally, the PWA can host agendas, venue maps, social integrations, surveys and much more based on a group’s needs and desires. As robust as this is, we are also working to push out the ability to add in notifications for early [this year].”
As for VR, Wernli says it may not be a critical element today, but he thinks it will soon grow in importance. “Earlier [last] year, we created a task force to explore this new and developing technology. We’ve been doing research, and are excited for the next steps of how VR can be leveraged for events as a whole. While VR can require some technical investment on the part of attendees, we don’t discount the impact VR will have on events in the near future.”
Audience interaction and participation during conferences and events has been a crucial part of content delivery and audience engagement for many years. That remains especially true for virtual attendees. “One of the key metrics when judging a virtual event’s success is attendee retention,” Wernli says. “We’ve recently expanded our arcade of virtual games to include classics like Galaga, Pac-Man and Minesweeper, as well as a dozen other games to allow attendees to interact with while enjoying event content.”
Wernli says several notable companies are shaking up the industry with their innovation and development in engagement and retention. “Walls.io has a very clever social wall API that planners and organizers should know about. It’s clean, implements well to the page and offers a great attendee experience. Additionally, we recently used eventmoji at a hybrid event, and it was an absolute game-changer for audience retention.” He continues, “Essentially, users are able to create hero avatars that represent them throughout the event platform. These avatars are then used throughout the site in gamification and also appear next to digital content to represent who is watching the session. A leaderboard, for example, can be powered by eventmoji. At the center of all these tools,” Wernli says, “is a focus on connection, personalization and promoting fun to complement event content.”
It’s a given that event technology will continue to change. Wernli is most excited about the development of an on-site solution that can be a one-stop-shop for all on-site data gathering, meaning attendees can check in, print their badges, scan into sessions and talk to sponsors all while having their information gathered into one system. “ShowUp shines with its data gathering of the on-site experience. Phase one launched [last] fall. We recently released ShowUp’s lead-retrieval system, and we’re excited to deploy our session-scanning solution [early this year].”
Some changes within tech are less exciting and more challenging. Martin Bay, senior vice president, meetings & expositions, with association management company Kellen, is looking forward to improvements in RFPs and sourcing, but notes that challenges are created when long-used, tried-and-true platforms are taken offline, such as Pathable.
Another frustration has to do with access to room-block reservation data — or not. “Many systems have online portals in place,” he says. “However, many don’t. And that means you have no choice but to send requests to the hotels themselves to provide reports.”
Elissa Ewers, senior director, digital strategy with PRA, whose DMC offices across the globe work with associations and others on effective business conferences and events, is a go-to for meeting tech solutions. Like others, she sees things swinging back toward “normal” as the pandemic wanes.
“Planners are getting back into solutions that helped make their lives easier and didn’t get a lot of attention during the virtual-event boom. They’re going back to the staples of event management solutions, looking for solutions that will engage and assist attendees for seamless on-site experiences.”
Staffing in the service industry, however, continues to be a challenge, but tech can help mitigate that to some degree. “Self-service platforms allowing attendees to help themselves make it easier for attendees to change their itinerary without having to talk to a person,” Ewers says.
Some technology has been around for years, but is only now making a substantial impact. As Ewers puts it, “The QR code revolution has finally happened. If one good thing came out of COVID, it was the wide-scale adoption of QR codes. For registration platforms, this is huge for the check-in process, both for the event and for specific sessions for which a user is registered,” she says. “It makes it a lot easier to deploy staff with their own devices to scan users. It also empowers scanning for item redemption to ensure that one person didn’t visit the gifting table to do all their holiday shopping. Attendee adoption wasn’t as common as it has become now.”
Tech can create opportunity for planners and groups. One example is the increased use of wearable technology. “I remember several years ago attending an event where we handed out electronic pedometers as a health challenge. With the expansion of wearable technology where users are bringing their own devices, this is still a huge opportunity to tap into what is already on their wrist,” Ewers says. “Most wearables we see are for temporary use and wristbands are issued for either check-in or item redemption. Some large events are leveraging wristbands as on-site payment to go cashless on-site. This is helping improve operations and expedite checkouts.”
While products, platforms and systems naturally come and go, Ewers says fewer organizations are depending on one “ultimate” system to meet their needs. “I’m seeing clients moving from a one-solution suite to a mixed basket of tools to find best-in-class experiences for the attendees. The idea of monolithic systems that serve a client from beginning to end is becoming the exception,” she says. “The deeper integrations and partnerships with solutions that enhance a solution suite are great because they offer clients choices on solutions that will best serve them without losing core solutions that help deliver events at scale.”
In terms of audience interaction and participation, Ewers says it’s manageable on a smaller scale, but not yet on a very large scale. Still, there are good products out there for engagement that planners should know about. “Products and companies are trying to move upstream to larger scale events, or at least attempting to reach scale,” Ewers says. “Q&A had already started migrating to a virtual version, but how do you engage a conference of many thousands on the same engagement solution? The answer is, right now you don’t. The risk of the connectivity on-site not working makes trying to do something large and simultaneously either expensive or a non-starter.”
What works well for a very large event, Ewers says, is breaking it down to make it feel smaller. “Using audience-response systems like Glisser or Poll Everywhere in a breakout is more manageable than trying to do it in the keynote session. I’m seeing a demand for more contests on a team level within the audience-response systems,” she says. “TINT has released some great social media and contest experiences that help tap into social media aggregation in a fun way that encourages participation. TINT’s Tag-o-War enables the use of hashtags as a voting mechanism for a large group of attendees. Photo contests promote specific photos for social platforms while providing a giveaway to attendees.”
In addition to changing technology, Ewers says she’s seeing the format of meetings themselves changing, a shift to what’s being called the “11-1 model.” “That means 11 smaller web conferences to maintain year-round engagement, and one large in-person event to help build relationships and promote networking. This model works well for associations and corporations alike,” she says.
Although Augmented Reality (AR) and VR may not yet be commonplace, Ewers says large trade shows are ideal for AR, some of it already well used. “22Miles has been offering AR wayfinding for large shows, helping attendees find a specific booth or room, which adds utility to the AR side,” she says. “It’s a great way for larger shows to incorporate AR into the overall event. The problem with VR,” she adds, “is that many people feel nauseous if they stay in more than 30 minutes, which is why it leans to a short experience instead of a longer experience.”
Technology evolves so quickly that most of us can’t keep up with all of it. So what are three tech trends that every planner should know about? Ewers offers this list:
Web3: In some form, there will be a revolution to data ownership and identity that upends the current paradigm of the internet. Whether it is the current Web3 as we know it or another form, expect regulations and privacy concerns to drive changes in how we connect to different solutions. It’s important for event planners to understand this shift, as it will also change how they engage with people online. This won’t happen overnight, but it’s already happening in other areas of the web.
Solving Hybrid: With the trends shifting on remote work and how it overlaps with in-person work, that impact is going to extend into the events space. Figuring out the hybrid best practices will likely be a priority, and an evolving space for the next one to two years. Where there’s chaos, there’s opportunity for experimentation — new tools, functionality, startups — which will all require a tolerance to try something new.
ESG: Ask your digital providers to provide any environmental, social or governance details. More organizations are looking for these details and for suppliers who understand how to quantify and report on these metrics. Suppliers who have this information handy will make it easier to meet client demands rather than trying to pull it together after the request has been made.
Much is new, but traditional technology still must perform, particularly Wi-Fi and internet connectivity, which must work for all attendees. “In order for many attendee solutions to work seamlessly, quality connectivity is critical,” Ewers says. “For large audience-response system experiences, I need all 20,000-plus attendees to be able respond, and I need to see those responses in real time.” | AC&F |