Though it is a technology praised by some people and feared by others, artificial intelligence, or AI, has been embraced by many meeting planners.
Users say it reduces the time they spend on administrative tasks and creating written material, allowing them to spend more time on tasks that require deep thinking. That shift is ultimately increasing event organizers’ value proposition.
Meeting planners who fear AI seem to worry that it will replace them. But that same concern arose when video conferencing emerged and, in both cases, it turns out that the new technologies only enhance the profession’s efficiency.
Examples include wearable tech that captures real-time data, revolutionizing how event planners gather insights into attendee behavior; software that automates various aspects of event planning; a service that offers web-based reality activations; super charged mobile event apps that help with personalization of events and overall event management — registration, data capture and venue booking.
All these tools are capable of streamlining event professionals’ everyday work for organizational efficiency and opening up new possibilities for attendees’ experience. But as we see AI transforming events and gaining a critical role in the industry’s future, can it be trusted?
“AI is not replacing event organizers; it’s thinking with you, not for you,” declared technology evangelist Dahlia El Gazzar, CEO, Dahlia+ Agency. “AI platforms help you create content but they can’t exist without your brain.”
“I don’t think AI will replace as many jobs as it creates,” added Samantha Jordan, a futurist at the Future Today Institute and the keynote speaker at last year’s annual Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals. “But the people who use AI will replace those who do not.”
Definitions for AI are murky. Computer scientist John McCarthy, of Stanford University, described it last year this way: “It is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs. It is related to using computers to understand human intelligence.”
AI was introduced to the scientific community in the 1950s but it made news last year after a company called Open AI introduced an AI chatbot, called ChatGPT, in late 2022. The user-friendly tool collects information, or “prompts,” from individuals and then provides detailed results, or “outputs,” in seconds. By all accounts, the outputs are thorough and, the more information that’s provided in a prompt — much like using Google or a similar search engine — the better the results are.
For those intimidated to write prompts, or not sure what they should include, event organizer Lisa Schulteis, founder, ElectraLime, and an AI user, explained it best, saying, “If I tell my husband, ‘Go to the store and buy me chips,’ God knows what’s coming home. He’s a healthier eater than me so he might get a baked veggie chip, which wasn’t what I wanted. But if I say, ‘Go to the store and get the family size bag of Ruffles and the largest of two sizes of Lay’s French Onion Dip with the orange lid,’ I’ll get what I want.”
The executive director of the Northwest Event Show, Schulteis added, “When I first started putting questions into AI I was asking basic questions, and getting decent answers, but when I started giving more details and background, the outputs were dramatically different.”
Schulteis and several other planners use ChatGPT-4, which costs $20/month, but earlier versions are free to use, while other AI tools also are free of charge or inexpensive.
For meeting planner Huong Nguyen, CEO & founder of Shiloh Event Management, using various AI platforms to take notes during client calls provides several advantages over typing or writing notes while also trying to hear requests.
“Previously, for every meeting, we had an event coordinator type up the notes and then recap them, which took two to three hours. AI does it in 30 minutes to an hour,” she said. “Now, we have more brain capacity and extra time to elevate content.”
That means finding creative ways to present sessions instead of the traditional format of speaker(s) talking to a captive audience, Nguyen said, boosting attendee engagement. Alternatives that Shiloh Events now can create include game show formats, debates where attendees can vote or even a “fishbowl” set up where attendees jump in and out of a conversation spot.
Note taking on AI also gives planners the opportunity to more actively listen, and it’s more accurate since humans are more likely to make mistakes or get distracted by emails, calls or other work, Nguyen noted.
Another step where AI can be helpful is in site selection, said Sarah Shewey, CEO and founder of Happily, an event production firm.
Not only does the technology find more accurate information, it does so much faster than a human-led investigation, she said. “When you search currently, at best you go to venue directory sites, put in the city and other filters, hoping the database is current, but a lot of times new hotels are not in those directories and we’re planning a year or two out. Also, sometimes capacity or other information is wrong.”
With Chat GPT-4, according to Shewey, “I say, ‘show me all hotels that will open in 2024 with x number of rooms’ and it will give me that information, with descriptions. In total, for a process like site selection, Chat GPT-4 saves at least four hours and, at best, 20 hours.”
The time needed for such a task, and the hassle factor, also shrinks with AI because there’s a greater likelihood of finding at least one result that clients will approve, cutting down on the ‘back to the drawing board’phenomenon that comes more often with a planner’s web search, she explained.
That radical shift enables Shewey, and planners with her firm, to “think more about how to make that venue experience amazing. I can have more interesting conversations with my client about what their goals are and maximize our production value, essentially making their budget go further.”
Chat GPT-4 is currently at a maximum number of subscribers, Shewey noted, though it is expected to open up again. Meanwhile, she asserted that Bing.com, Microsoft’s search engine, offers up similar functionality due to Microsoft’s $13 million investment in Open AI.
Several planners find that AI is useful for brainstorming. El Gazzar commented on an upcoming 200-person event that has been held annually for a decade. The client is seeking new networking ideas so the technology can be asked to come up with new event formats, speakers, or it could be fed topics of interest to the group and asked for novel approaches to presenting the information.
For Schulteis, AI is helpful for writing session descriptions, speaker or executive bios and marketing materials. “I’m a bullet point girl so I’m not a great copywriter. I write out whatever we’re working on, whether it’s an email, a marketing plan or something else, and my favorite question for chat GPT is ‘How can I say this better?’
It’s also beneficial when creating event design ideas, she noted. While planning to feature a quiet room at an upcoming trade show, both for weary and neuro divergent attendees, Schulteis asked an AI platform how to communicate the room’s purpose without offending anyone and what sensory items should be included that would bring some visitors energy while not disturbing others and more.
In other instances, Schulteis said, she and her team turn to AI to refine a sustainability pledge for exhibitors. “We ask, is there anything missing from this list of ways exhibitors can be more sustainable and is there a way to improve the document to make it more enticing for people to participate or does anything need to be clarified? I tend to submit multiple questions and it works with that.”
And in further proof that humans are needed to run AI, Schulteis noted that she always reviews the language proposed by AI to make sure it’s correct, and she even runs it through plagiarism checkers.
AI can generate information for planners to create optimal education, as well as learning environments.
“It can scan event participants’ social media accounts to figure out trending topics,” said Jordan. “It’s been used to sense customers’ propensity to buy certain things over others, so you could use it to figure out how people are feeling about an event space. Understanding an attendee’s mood, you could automatically update their schedule.”
For example, if someone is sleepy, a message from AI can send them to a recharging station. Conversely, she noted, if four attendees are feeling energized, they could all be directed to get together.
Once the event is over, AI is great for analysis of the program’s success, added Schulteis. She uses it to generate lists, for example, of the top titles that came to the event, which can be used for future marketing, or for a summary of post-event surveys listing the top pros and cons.
AI also can gather information on a planner’s past work, providing new ways for event organizations to demonstrate their value. El Gazzar said, “AI-based transcribing tools can slice and dice client interactions and, with permissions, give event organizers recordings that demonstrate what they do.” Or AI-loving planners can consolidate information from numerous sources they’ve gathered from researching a session topic and quickly pull out the top 20 trends.
In other words, it can generate almost any combination of information one can envision. AI can evaluate what you’ve done in the past and give you new ideas again. It analyzes deeper than you know.
Of course, as with any new technology, there may be privacy issues that arise, but in these early days of AI tools, users are exercising caution and anticipating regulation to happen in the future.
Although the technology is moving at lightning speed, there are still next iterations that planners are intending to develop or hoping to see come online.
Shewey is working to develop an AI tool to foster event attendee networking while, for Nguyen, an ideal next step would be more robust data analysis that could compare budgeting grids with actual costs, quickly spotting billing errors and spots where there was excessive spending or where too much money was allocated.
“Right now, going over that for food & beverage, audiovisual and all the other areas is like finding a needle in a haystack,” she lamented. “But with AI, we could get the information in seconds.”
On the content side, said Jordan, meeting hosts could have AI chat bots of keynote speakers, and/or breakout session panelists, with whom attendees could communicate before an event.
“You could have asked us questions about which sessions you should attend or which ones we find interesting,” she said in her remarks at FICP. It was unclear if this technology is a dream of Jordan’s or if it exists, however, if it is already in place, it’s not yet commonly used.
Attendees could even inquire of speakers, or perhaps event organizers, on where to go in a meeting’s destination, whether or not to stay an extra day, etc. “Having an AI chatbot will yield a more comprehensive understanding of event participants than what would just typically be gleaned through survey data alone,” Jordan said.
“Think about how much better you know someone after having a conversation with them versus just reading their biography,” she noted. “So AI chatbots will enable us to have these kinds of conversations and these connections at scale. You will be able to host events for folks that were once beyond reach due to language constraints, collaborations with vendors and previously inaccessible locales that will now happen with ease and clarity. Attendees will be able to communicate in ways that would have been impossible before, and we all will be able to communicate in our native language but understand each other perfectly. So, this doesn’t just increase connections. This increases your ‘total addressable market.’”
For down the road, she sees AI will be able to dynamically schedule events based on real time data like weather forecasts. She also suggested that AI developers create a mechanism whereby attendees, especially first time attendees at a large event, could take a pre-event virtual walkthrough to get accustomed to the venue layout.
As an example of how this would work, she noted, “I attended South by Southwest for the first time in 2022 and that was pretty intimidating. I would have gotten a lot of value if I could have walked through a typical day in the life there during the actual event. Identifying and connecting with the right people at events can be difficult, but during the actual event, AI will make it much easier to connect.”
In a similar vein, Schulteis sees potential in the technology for creating more interaction with, and among, attendees. “I want to start using it more to improve engagement. We use chatbots already before events as a really easy way to get on the right path, asking online visitors if they want to talk about attending or exhibiting.”
She continued, “At a show I went to this summer, [on the registration] one of the questions was ‘what topics interest you?’ They used AI so that every night I received an email with a list of sessions that might interest me, when they were being held and where. So, I didn’t need to pull out the agenda, they just handed that information to me.”
Of that measure taken by show organizers, Schulteis said, “It’s such a small step that makes a huge impact.” She now wants to use such an approach to create more of a customized attendee experience, whether that means suggesting sessions to attend, networking opportunities, conversation areas or off-site activities.
“Those are opportunities we all need to harness,” she concluded, “so we can provide those great experiences to attendees.” | AC&F |