Technology is a moving target. The hottest tech of 2017 can be a go-to for 2018 or already forgotten in the flood of new apps, new gadgets and new concepts. How do planners separate absolutely essential tech from the genuinely useful and the merely flashy?
We asked four industry mavens for their take. Corbin Ball, CSP, CMP, of Corbin Ball Associates is the event world’s original technology consultant and futurist. KiKi L’Italien of Amplified Growth focuses on marketing and communications tech. Brandt Krueger is an independent event technology consultant. James Spellos, CMP, founded Meeting U to help planners navigate the changing tides of event technology. The one thing they all agree on is that no single technology, app or device is right for every planner, sponsor or event.
What are the technology essentials today?
Corbin Ball: A mobile event app is the universal technology today. It’s not just registration and scheduling; your app should include surveys, polling and networking, all the things we used to do with paper. And in order for your app to function, you absolutely have to have Wi-Fi in all the public spaces and all the meeting rooms for all the attendees all the time, plus data projectors. And it has to be easy to use.
Brandt Krueger: Hone in on your meeting app. Attendee expectations for apps and for technology in general are rising. Attendees don’t expect the flashiest of event apps, but they expect it to work well. You’ve got to have scheduling and it has to be easy to read, easy to navigate, and absolutely up-to-date. You need mapping so attendees aren’t wandering aimlessly asking each other where the Oak Room is. And pay attention to ads and sponsorship blocks. I have seen too many apps where you rotate your phone and the sponsor’s message suddenly takes over three-quarters of your screen and the app is unusable.
KiKi L’Italien: Technology comes in from the very beginning with your marketing and advertising. Podcasts are one of the most effective marketing tools that event planners almost never use. When it comes to purchasing decisions, one of the most effective things you can do is to have your message in your potential attendee’s ear in a private moment. People trust that voice they have chosen to put in their ear buds. Podcast costs are much lower than other channels and conversion rates are higher.
James Spellos: Know your group comes first. But for technology, you have to have a mobile-first environment. Most people’s way of getting information these days is not from traditional PCs and laptops but from mobile devices. While this is something that should have been changed a couple of years ago at the latest, most organizations aren’t thinking mobile first in the design of their information, their use of social media, integrating their information, and how you manage the information on site.
What tech is nice to have?
Brandt Krueger: Continuing to build attendee engagement is important, bringing more attendees more deeply into the conversation around your event. More and more apps are including basic polling features. Attendees respond with enthusiasm, but you have to be sure your speakers know how to use the technology and actually do use it. Simple tools like Catchbox, a mic that attendees throw around the room, can work wonders for engagement. Basic survey functionality is another plus for your event app. Keep it simple—three stars, five stars, no stars—with a link to a stand-alone web survey for the detailed questions.
KiKi L’Italien: Think local, especially when it comes to artwork and visuals that are part of your event. Local providers, especially if you can work with local college or university students, can be incredibly effective, creative and cost-effective. You can blow your attendees away visually with the bonus of supporting the local community. Decisions to attend are more and more based on the social activities planners and sponsors are supporting. If attendees and sponsors know you are investing in the local community, they will be happier about investing in your program.
James Spellos: A conference app, and the integration of tech tools within the app so you are not reinventing the wheel on everything that you do. Gamification, augmented reality, elements that might become a component of your current or future meetings all will become easier if it is tied to the app that you are using. It goes right back to knowing your group.
Corbin Ball: Look for interoperability and analytics in your event app and other tech. On-site events used to be the black hole of data management because you really didn’t know what your attendees were doing and couldn’t change anything even if you did know. Nowadays you have a plethora of opportunities to collect data on every aspect of your event and what your attendees are doing on-site. You have to be able to collect that data, suck it back into the attendee record, and share it across all of your programs.
How do planners find the value point in technology?
KiKi L’Italien: It’s all about your investment and the time you are spending to achieve your results. Value doesn’t just happen, it is there because you balance the spend and the time invested against the final impact. That balance will tell you what technology to focus on now and what you might want to wait on for a later event.
James Spellos: Because nobody can keep on top of everything, you need to be doing a lot more listening than talking. Listen to your customers. Ask them questions at the previous meeting in terms of what could make this meeting more efficient, what technology could enhance your experience here? And network within your own industry to see what your peers are using. Jumping into the latest, hottest technology may not be the best move financially or logistically for your conference. It’s an ROI conversation about what the conference is providing the organization. Be sure that what you are providing moves the conference forward, moves the event forward, moves the networking and the communications forward.
Corbin Ball: Technology isn’t an end in itself, it’s a means to an end, a tool that gives you a more efficient event, a more impactful event, a more interactive event. Value is looking at your intentions and goals and using the most appropriate tools, which is why one size does not fit all. Much of the technology is about improving event processes, managing speakers, managing exhibitors, managing sales. That is much broader than the fraction that is attendee-facing. It’s a matter of your funds and how important any given tool is.
Brandt Krueger: Value is getting your core functions without overspending. There are event apps in every range, right down to free, though you have to ask yourself how they monetize a free app and what that means for your attendees. There are many good, smaller companies with all the core functions without the cost of the big names. Service is important. Too many big name companies lock people into contracts with a good rate and terrible service. Value is more than dollars spent.
What other technology considerations should planners keep in mind?
James Spellos: Consider the time it takes to set up technology and implement it. When someone comes up with a great idea three weeks out, you have set it up to fail in a bad way, not in a good way. You haven’t thought through what the needs are, how you will implement it, how your population can become aware of it. You have to plan for technology properly, just like every other element in an event, to maximize the opportunity for success.
Corbin Ball: Check with peers before investing in any new-to-you technology. Meeting planners tend to be pretty straightforward in sharing and want to help each other out. And when you are vetting technology vendors, always ask for references, then contact the references to see how it really worked.
Brandt Krueger: Being creative can overcome a lot of budget constraints and boost value. Doing more with less applies just as much to technology as any other part of the planning process. When people think of production mapping, for example, they usually think of the incredible expense of projecting onto the sides of buildings. If you are open to playing around, you can use off-the-shelf projectors and PowerPoint to project images and video and textures onto a cake, an ice sculpture, a piece of furniture, even a building.
KiKi L’Italien: Think moving images. Video is emerging as the expected medium, whatever the use—advertising, promotion for next year, bringing sponsors onboard. And when you work with a videographer, ask for the raw footage as well as your final product. Getting the raw footage doesn’t add much to the final price and adds tremendous value because you can use it over and over to create different types of content.