Developments in meetings technology, everything from mobile event apps to beacons and live streaming, are revolutionizing the way planners are surmounting physical barriers and delivering personalized and interactive experiences at conferences and tradeshows.

“I’ve been watching meetings technology for 19 years now and I’ve never seen a more exciting time,” said meetings tech consultant Corbin Ball of Corbin Ball Associates. “The sky’s the limit on how you can use it to make improvements to your meeting even while it’s in progress.”

Through such tools as beacon technology and mobile event apps, planners are gaining real-time access to attendee behavior and preferences, information that can be used to make on-the-spot changes to programs and help attendees at even the largest events find the content and networking opportunities most relevant to their needs, according to Ball.

“Meetings were once the black hole of data management—there were surveys afterward, but we were flying blind while the meeting was taking place,” he said. “Now every touch on a mobile event app can be tracked, scored and rated.”

South by Southwest
As a prime example of how planners are using technology to improve the attendee experience, Ball pointed to the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference, a 10-day annual event in Austin, Texas, that showcases the newest products and strategies in music, film and interactive technology. For organizers, a key challenge is enabling the 100,000-plus attendees to navigate their way through the 6,000 or so events taking place in more than 500 locations throughout the city, said Scott Wilcox, SXSW’s director of technology.

“Our goal is to leverage the best in mobile technology and data to help people get the most relevant and personalized experiences possible,” Wilcox said. “During peak times we may have 116 events on 24 topics happening simultaneously, plus dozens of artists performing on different stages. We look at how we can make those choices easier. It’s about creating a tech-enabled and seamless experience.”

To achieve this during the 2016 conference last March, Wilcox and his team worked with its mobile app provider, Eventbase, to develop SXSW Recommends, a feature in the app that suggests specific events for people to attend. The recommendations are based on criteria from the attendee’s profile, such as industry, interests and sessions they have favored in the past. It also takes note of the attendee’s real-time location and behavior based on GPS tracking and beacons placed around the venue.

The organizers also worked with technology provider RightRound to deploy 1,000 beacons, Bluetooth-enabled transmitters that connect with mobile devices, throughout the city. Through a combination of the beacons and the event app, SXSW was able to send 167,000 recommendations, some in advance and others as push notifications, when the app detected free time in an attendee’s schedule.

To ensure that attendees would have quick Internet access wherever they went, SXSW also had RightRound install some 11 miles of Ethernet cable and supply additional bandwidth in all the venues.

“Mobile carriers don’t always cover everything, so we had to bring in extra Wi-Fi support for all the venues,” Wilcox said. “People are now living in the physical and digital world simultaneously.”

For next year, SXSW organizers are looking at adding more data sources to the attendee profiles and enhancing the technology further to “create truly individualized and tailored experiences,” Wilcox said. “It’s about giving people the right information so they can make the right choices when they are ready to.”