The hurdles to planning a convention or corporate meeting seem to get bigger every year, but new technology has been able to simplify things for planners and offer solutions for many of the challenges they face. Many of the major meeting industry associations, such as MPI, PCMA and IAEE, have a lot of commentary that can help planners understand the tech out there, and just about every aspect of the meeting planning process can be assisted using technology.
Technology is important when it comes to planning events because it provides meeting planners with the data needed to make effective decisions that would be greatly beneficial for everyone involved. This helps ensure that productivity is maximized, no resources are wasted, and that the objectives of the event are met. But the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a curve ball into many of the meetings, conventions and incentive travel trips planned over the last year, and uncertainty still looms over what’s to come despite the vaccines. Thankfully, some innovative technology is helping planners deal with these challenges as well.
Don Donahue, senior director of business development for JoinIn, responded swiftly when COVID first became a problem for the industry by creating a new platform to help its international clients. “When the pandemic first hit, we quickly pivoted to building a virtual platform to serve [what we thought would be] our clients’ short-term needs, thinking all may be good and back to normal by fall,” he says. “When it became clear that was not going to happen, we invested more into the tools and services our clients, and many others, needed when we launched JoinIn [last] summer. The ease of use of our platform and customization, as well as post-event analytics, are key to meeting planners to represent to their clients as they look for virtual solutions.”
JoinIn is built from an event producer’s point-of-view. The platform offers high-touch concierge services, customization and fluidity, which takes away some of the intimidation people feel when thinking about attending a virtual meeting. “We also offer the ability to send your attendees the ‘fun’ parts of attending an event — gift bags, entertainment activations, engaging award dinners and ceremonies,” Donahue says. “We are doing our very best to close the gap between where we currently are, and where we want to get back to.”
JoinIn also offers a Virtual Briefcase, which collects content from the meeting, and a full-service exhibit floor, where vendors have five different custom booths to choose from where they can place their products and disburse information extremely easily. “To be successful, you need engagement, engagement, engagement,” Donahue says. “How do you keep people’s eyes on the content? Gamification, beautifully shot content [as opposed to Zoom calls] and interactivity are key ways to measure your group’s engagement in the content. We believe JoinIn provides this in a very easy-to-use way.”
Corbin Ball, CMP, CSP, DES, MS, founder and president of Corbin Ball & Co., a meeting planning and trade show specialist, notes there has been an explosion of innovation in the area of virtual/hybrid event platforms that will change the events industry significantly after the pandemic is gone. Hybrids combine a face-to-face event at a physical location, with a virtual online component for remote attendees. However, it’s important to realize that a virtual meeting is completely different from a face-to-face meeting. “Production values need to be high — think TV production values — the attendees’ attention span is shorter, the content should be very compelling and engagement tools [polling, social Q&A, breakouts, gamification] should be used whenever possible,” Ball says.
No doubt, the biggest result of the COVID pandemic on meetings and events has been the transition to virtual conferences, as almost all meetings that were scheduled for summer and fall of 2020 were held virtually for the first time. Event conferences are going to be changed forever, and there are several platforms that allow participants to explore just like if they were there live — walking through the aisles looking at vendor tables, stopping and meeting with reps, and going to listen to speakers is now all possible online.
For example, Keith Willard, an event planner in South Florida and president of Keith Willard Events, changed all of his meetings to Zoom in the nine months after the pandemic lockdowns started in March 2020. “The ability to connect multiple people in multiple cities and then share screens/share file options is a game changer,” he says. “Even after the world returns to a more normal place, I will continue to use the Zoom platform to meet with clients. The ability to do everything that I would do in person without having to get on a plane or stay overnight helps reduce the overall production cost and allows me a lot more flexibility with my schedule.” The ability to continue planning in this way is essential for a number of reasons, most importantly being that things still need to get done. “We still need to meet with the florist, entertainers, venues, etc., and Zoom makes that all possible,” Willard says. “The second part is to help people still have some normalcy and joy in planning. By still being able to continue with appointments, we can keep the dream alive.”
To be able to run an effective online meeting, a planner needs to know and understand intimately the program they are using. “Zoom has lots of options, including sharing your screen, creating breakout rooms, video sharing and such,” Willard says. “If you don’t know how to do it, then these accessories are useless or clumsily used. One easy one that comes instantly to mind is the use of a waiting room. Zoom now requires a password for a waiting room. A simple click will play a sound to let you know that there is someone waiting to come in, but if you don’t know to click that option, you could easily forget.”
Additionally, those running the meeting must ensure that all the participants know what tools they need to be a part of it. For instance, Willard does a weekly show and has to be fairly specific about the use of headphones. “Most would play the sound through the computer speakers, but it creates a feedback loop that they may not be able to hear, but everyone else can,” he says. “This can also be said about internet connection and equipment. Examples would be that many try to connect using an iPhone. How you get to the options on an iPhone is very different than a computer.”
A big part of planning starts with a floor plan. Allseated is an online floor-plan program that allows planners and venues to create floor plans that can easily be shared with the client and other vendors. “I pair this with Zoom so that I can work with the client in real time to adjust the floor plan, and with a click of button, turn into a 3D rendering where we can virtually walk through the space,” Willard says. “Having the ability to adjust floor plans on the fly is more important than ever now since guest lists seem to be changing by the hour.”
Deanna Nwosu, CMP, DES, founded Deanna Camille, a meetings and events company in the Cleveland, Ohio area. Her team offers valuable support to planners and speakers alike. She is in favor of Slack for communicating virtually. “It’s a great way to communicate with vendors and share files as I’m working on them,” she says. “The ability to set up different channels means I can set one up for each event and attach vendors where applicable.” She also likes using Google Suite products such as Sheets, Docs and Slides, as editors can all work on the document simultaneously. “Using Google docs is great for engagement in virtual events too,” Nwosu says. “Speakers can create a page for notes and encourage attendees to add their takeaways, and now you have a collaborative learning environment and a post-event, crowd-sourced resource.”
Other live event-streaming services that meeting planners can take advantage of are GoToMeeting, Skype for Business, On24 and Aventri, which has recently integrated virtual events into its platform with the ability to host meetings as small as five attendees to large single sessions of 5,000+.
While smart watches and similar wearable devices were created to track fitness levels for the most part, scientists at Stanford University found they may have a higher purpose in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. In a study, researchers found that since these devices are measuring vitals all the time, they can detect when someone starts to get ill, because the heart rate jumps about four days before COVID symptoms appear. This is something that meeting planners and the venues hosting conferences think could help them in keeping those who are positive for the coronavirus safely out of their events, and are now expected to be part of pre-show checks.
Additionally, wearable devices and phone apps utilizing Bluetooth tech can also assist in helping control social distancing. For instance, last fall, Northstar Meetings Group relied on this sort of tech for an in-person meeting attended by 75 meeting professionals and 1,000 remote attendees that took place at the Mohegan Sun in Mystic Country, Connecticut. All attendees wore social-distancing wristbands provided by PC Nametag, which buzzed and set off an alert whenever someone came within 6 feet of another person with a wristband.
Streamline Event Agency provides full production services and prefers to create, capture and push the content across the JoinIn platform. “We provide a virtual streaming kit that is shipped to our speakers in one Pelican case,” Donahue says. “It contains a high-end ring light, 4K camera, top-quality microphone and teleprompter all in one unit. Once the client logs on, we can take over and control the shoot to insure brilliant quality.” However, if a client has a production company in place, JoinIn can work wonderfully as the host platform only. In these cases, Donahue recommends planners invest in good cameras, lighting, audio, and scenic creative pieces to provide the best audio and visual elements at a conference.
Willard notes a good camera that has a microphone built in will take you a long way. “Most people that are attending an online meeting will never have to go much further than a camera/microphone as far as equipment,” he says. “As a planner, I upgraded my camera, bought a separate microphone and upgraded my Wi-Fi. The camera is able to adjust to any light, which allows me not to use a ring light, and a separate microphone that is directional to reduce any noise that may be coming from another room, and Wi-Fi, because nothing is more annoying than when a person’s image freezes over and over and over.” He also invested in online production software that allows him to produce event advice programs that can either be pushed out to Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn or record to a podcast.
In most cases, Ball does not recommend purchasing expensive A/V equipment unless there is repeated regular use. “For example, if you are running a small, single-room event many times a year, the purchase of a data projector would be justified,” he says. “However, if you are running a large annual convention with many breakout rooms, it often does not make sense to purchase, maintain, ship, setup and secure a large inventory of data projectors that will likely be obsolete in a few years. The equipment and setup of large general sessions should be left to the production company pros.”
One of the worries of anyone who enters a meeting now is being in a crowded, poorly ventilated room. The same is true for traveling on a plane or train. Chad Leveritt, principal of Summit Consultants Inc., which performs highly specialized mechanical design and energy analysis studies, notes hotels and others in the hospitality industry need to consider improving air quality and air movement in accordance with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) airborne infectious disease mitigation recommendations.
One of the most obvious ways to fight pathogens and improve air quality is by utilizing outdoor ventilation, but if meeting outside is not an option, venues can rely on air dampers to eliminate air circulation; disable demand-controlled ventilation; add portable room air cleaners with MERV13 filters to trap airborne viruses; introduce indoor air-quality sensors and bring in Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) technology to assist in killing microorganisms. Joe Urso, founder, chairman and CEO of ActivePure, an air- and surface-purification technology proven to kill pathogens and contaminants, notes the issue of traveling for conventions and meetings is all about trust. “For peace-of-mind, attendees must trust the air that they breathe and the surfaces that they touch are adequately disinfected and clean,” he says. “Within our own homes, we feel safe because we know the measures we take to ensure safety. However, when we leave infection control to others, we must trust that they take the same steps we do. Often, they do not.”
He notes the safest way to travel is to bring an active air-purification device with you. Active air-purification systems take regular air and water molecules and convert them into supercharged molecules. Released back into the room, these supercharged molecules fill the entire space. “The supercharged molecules are on a mission to literally seek and destroy pathogens and contaminants within a space — on surfaces and in the air,” Urso says. “This process happens in real-time, 24/7.”
Even if a space has been disinfected with chemicals, once humans enter, the space is no longer disinfected. Humans breathe, talk, sneeze, cough and touch surfaces, potentially contaminating the air and surfaces with millions of microorganisms. And even if a property claims to have ionization, UVC lights and other HEPA filtrations in place, these are not adequate solutions for real-time disinfection or decontamination of an active, ongoing place. “Also, [meeting venues] are by their very nature, high-traffic areas, and new contaminants are constantly being introduced,” Urso says. “Ionization, UVC lights and HEPA filtrations simply cannot clean the air fast enough. For airborne contaminants to be contained in capture-based air purifiers, the contaminant must make its way into the device through the air and then travel through its capture mechanism [usually a HEPA filter, carbon or UVC light]. If a space has an active air purification system in place, the supercharged molecules are continually looking for and destroying these new pathogens as they are introduced.” Look for these types of systems to be widely used in venues going forward by savvy planners and attendees.
There is no doubt that virtual meetings are here to stay and will be a big part of the industry going forward. “Even when meetings are completely safe to attend in person, the add-on of a virtual platform will give companies, organizations and associations the ability to sell far more tickets to those interested who may not want to travel or have the budget,” Donahue says. “Integrated virtual will be a positive the event industry takes away from this devastating year.”
Technology has already come a long way in the last five years. Planners now have the ability to book appointments virtually, connect virtually, do floor plans virtually and even build 3D models to help clients visualize their spaces. “We used to have to pay someone to build even the simplest 3D model,” Willard says. “The fact that I only have to click a single button and the space is converted instantly to 3D modeling now is wonderful. Moving forward, it’s just going to get easier and more advanced.”
For planners to stay competitive in 2021 and beyond, it’s important they start figuring out how to make the most of the available technology. C&IT