Putting Big Data to WorkDecember 1, 2017

Crunching the Numbers to Create Better Events and Improve Meeting Outcomes By
December 1, 2017

Putting Big Data to Work

Crunching the Numbers to Create Better Events and Improve Meeting Outcomes

CIT-2017-12Dec-Issue-Big_Data-860x418Big data means big business for many corporate and incentive travel planners. Take David Saef, EVP of strategy and marketing at global event marketing company GES, for example. For Saef and his corporate meeting clients, big data plays an important role in the corporate and event meeting management activities he orchestrates. In fact, Saef has worked with many corporations to use big data analysis and insights to improve meeting outcomes in order to retain and grow audiences.

“We’ve used big data to adjust pricing to increase attendance, and we have used big data to analyze and customize marketing to attendee segments, recommended at-show activities to different types of attendees, and monitored social and traditional marketing tactics to improve open, click-through and conversion rates,” Saef says.

In addition, Saef has used big data to improve site selection by using data and focus groups to determine where to hold meetings, what type of venue and range of hotels and city offerings are key to multigenerational groups of attendees, and the format and content to improve the value offered to attendees, and sponsors and exhibitors.

Finally, Saef has worked with corporate groups to revamp post-meeting surveys to understand not only what attendees value, but most important, benchmarking a corporation’s offerings and value to other meetings and conferences attendees.

Saef is just one meeting professional who understands that big data can have a big impact on corporate meetings and events.

According to Meta S. Brown, author of Data Mining for Dummies (For Dummies, 2014), coauthor of Big Data Analytics (Prentice Hall of India, 2016), there’s certainly a need to make better use of data within the corporate meetings and events environment.

Big data is a loosely defined term, at best, says Brown, who also is president of A4A Brown Inc., a consulting firm focused on data storytelling and effective communication about data and analysis. It implies both quantity and complexity that push the limits of available technology for data management and analysis. It may include a lot of information that you may not think of as data, including text, photographs, audio and video.

For instance, think about the information gathered by a casino and resort chain: website activity logs, customer service requests, video surveillance, loyalty cards for gambling, movement tracking technology tracking customers as they change locations throughout facilities, and more. This is true big data.

Define the Goals

But it’s important for meeting planners to decide what they want from data before it’s collected. Defining these goals enables planners to determine what data is needed, how to get it and how to analyze it.

“Aim for data that’s relevant for solving business problems as it relates to corporate meetings and events. That means a meeting planner first must identify and acknowledge that a problem exists,” Brown says. “With that as a starting point, think through what kind of data is needed, and research the options for collecting and analyzing it.”

Recently Brown learned of an exhibition company that used location tracking technology to observe meeting attendee movement in real time. When overcrowding occurred, a staff member was sent to assess the situation, determine the cause, such as a registration bottleneck, and then call in help to immediately correct the problem.

“And if the crowd was enjoying something — like a great presentation — that called for action too,” Brown says. “Just different action.”

As this example shows, the object of any data mining exercise is to produce “actionable” intelligence.

“Businesses too often spend far too much effort analyzing data that yields little real intelligence when they should be focusing on actionable knowledge that can strengthen and improve their business,” says Mark Heymann, CEO and cofounder of UniFocus. “Organizations need to understand clearly what they are trying to achieve and then design the needs and analytical approaches they will use to meet those defined goals. It’s this information in relation to a comparative parameter — which can come from inside or outside the organization — that really tells the story.”

Why Big Data?

David Saef has led a myriad of projects with top event organizers to refine event strategies, grow an audience through segmentation and targeted messaging, deliver creative marketing campaigns, and identify improvements through event audits, focus groups and surveys.

According to Saef, using the phrase “big data” in the meetings and events space is tricky, and here’s why. While the meetings industry does have significant amounts of data and metrics to mine, due to the infrequent nature of events relative to other industries, it would be inaccurate to say that this industry is handling big data.

“With that said, the industry absolutely should be leveraging data and analytics to drive insights and increase value — for meeting organizers, attendees and sponsors,” Saef says. Some key areas in which big data should play a role include:

  • Customizing experiences. Today when we buy a book on Amazon, the company recommends 10 other books we might like. Yet when attendees register for a conference little insight is provided on how to spend their time or with whom to connect. “No longer. Big data analysis will provide customized recommendations on sessions, people to meet and important experiences to advance one’s career,” Saef says.
  • Marketing metrics. Millennials have been slower to embrace meetings and live events than older generations. In addition, they are not receptive to standard, email messages. As Saef explains, many people in this critical generation for live events has a visceral reaction to convention marketing — email, direct mail, Facebook, etc. “In this new era, it is important to mine data to know where people spend their time at the conference and online, what issues and topics they care about, and how they want to consume information,” Saef says. “Analyzing data from marketing tactics and utilizing insights from education sessions, speaker Q&A and online discussions will help meeting organizers provide relevant and impactful communications and recruiting activities.”
  • Measuring effectiveness. Too often meeting planners collect information on satisfaction. Did you like the hotel? Was the food good? Are you likely to return? In this new data-driven world, it is time to ask relevant questions that will measure business outcomes and identify improvements: What were your priorities from attending the meeting? How well did we meet or exceed your expectations? Which elements were most effective? How does this meeting compare to others that you attend or consider attending yearly? How has attending the meeting changed your perception of the meeting organizer? The profession? Are you likely to return next year? Which meeting elements were most impactful?

Asking the Right Questions

The magic question that corporate meeting planners must ask is, “What do we do with all this data?” According to Erick Harlow, principal at Forensic IT, a St. Louis forensic technology and data solutions firm, there are three questions meeting planners should ask when looking for the “magic” in big data.

  • What do we know? That is, why are we thinking about big data? For example, we know travel to location A is down 10 percent.
  • What do we need to know? Why is travel to location A down 10 percent? Is overall travel down?
  • How do we get there?

For example, as Harlow explains, a travel company can observe that they are selling many fewer cruises than in previous years. Perhaps they sold 100 cruises in 2015, but only 75 in 2016 and only 50 are on the books for 2017.

So they can ask, “What do we know now?” We are selling many fewer cruises than the last two years. “What do we need to know?” Why we are selling fewer cruises. And then, “Let’s look at the available data specific to sales and cruises and determine why this is happening.”

The data, based on feedback from client forms and sales data, can reveal that people are afraid of cruises based on hurricanes and other stories in the news. It can reveal that the salespeople are pushing and selling more airline trips than ever and aren’t focusing on the cruises. It also can reveal that cruise prices have gone up, and that has had an impact on this type of travel, or perhaps sales commissions are greater for airline travel than cruise travel and salespeople are more focused on earning bigger commissions.

“In a nutshell, big data should allow planners to drill into data in order to answer questions,” Harlow says. “A question might be ‘What location has 30-minute access to a major airport and has more than three five-star restaurants within 20 miles?’ Once you have the data you need and have a strategic plan on how to use it, you can answer key questions to help you focus on activities that are a more efficient use of your time.”

Other questions that corporate meeting planners need to ask regarding how to best use the data gathered is: What are they trying to learn? For what purpose and how will this information be used to drive performance and enhance the meeting experience? This is a very important step — figuring out why a planner is collecting the data, what they hope to learn and what they will do once they have data and analytics in hand.

“Really think through the registration form,” Saef says. “Oftentimes this is the most important layer of data. Many meeting organizers omit questions that are critical such as ‘what are you seeking to achieve at the meeting’ and at the same time, ask other questions which are not relevant and not likely to be used later.”

Getting Started

As previously described, attendee movement tracking via RFID and other technologies is a good example of data that readily yields actionable intelligence. This information can be used to identify places and times where crowding occurs in real time, as well as areas that are not getting traffic.

“For corporate meetings and event environments, location-based services is an example of one application that could create a ‘big data’ requirement,” says Daniel Rodriguez, chief technology officer at United Data Technologies. “Using public data as well as private data about attendees can also create a more accurate picture of the attendee’s interests and consumption characteristics.”

Social media monitoring and web alerts also are data mining opportunities that can be used even for small meetings. Tracking enables planners to be aware when people are talking about events online, to know what’s said and to respond quickly if needed.

Another example of an easy, low-risk, place to start using data and analysis to drive action is through the use of email. Corporate meeting planners send many emails, and every message has a subject line. Testing variations of those subject lines on small groups will help determine which version gets the most conversions (opens, sales or any similar measure), and use the ones that work best on the full mailing list.

Why is this a good starter application for big data?

“You’re sending email already,” Brown says. “Most email software includes subject line testing functions — you’re paying for this now, yet may not even be aware of it. Anyone can put the information to work — just use the subject line that worked best in the test. It’s easy to do. And it’s easy to put the results into action.”

Finally, remember that big data does not need to be BIG. It simply needs to be relevant. “In fact, small-meeting planners can make significant changes by focusing on one or two areas initially,” Saef says. “Then, as they expand, the big data program uses the insights to drive improvements.”

Avoiding Mistakes

There are key mistakes that corporate meeting professionals should avoid when it comes to big data. These include:

  • Collecting lots and lots of data and not knowing why.
  • Being too ambitious and collecting loads of data, analyzing and then doing nothing with the analysis or insights.
  • Starting too aggressively on collecting and analyzing data but not educating and drawing “dataphobes” into the conversation. It is then just a matter of time before the program drops or dies.

Saef predicts the corporate meeting and incentive travel industry will see maturation in the use of data. “Hopefully there will be greater comfort of meeting professionals to embrace data to understand and improve meeting offerings and format,” Saef says. “This includes the expansion in the use of big data throughout the whole year to understand how one- to three-day meetings influence activity 24/7/365.”

Remember, the data gathered does not lie and will reveal the answers that are being sought by the planner. In order to be effective, however, the right questions need to be asked so that the data can be properly analyzed and put to work in the right way.

“If one cannot do this in-house, the right type of data specialist should be brought in to assist in this process,” Harlow says. “This includes utilizing the proper software for data collection, proper setup to look for exceptions and focus on the biggest need, and proper analysis once the data has been collected.” C&IT

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