Connecting people is something that both meetings and technology do well—which is why they go together so naturally. There’s an app or gadget for nearly every step of meeting and event management, from pre-planning to on-site organization, and attendee experience to data analysis. But with technology not only at our fingertips, but also in our ears, built into our glasses, wrapped around our wrists and always in our face, it can be a fine line between being plugged in and being overloaded. When personal connections are the focus, it’s important to make sure that technology supports a meeting or event’s success—and doesn’t steal the show.
“You can literally have too many flashing lights, and the technology becomes distracting. It has to complement whatever you’re doing,” says Jessica Levin, president and chief connector at Seven Degrees Communications in Woodbridge. There are many tools and strategies that are integral to a modern meeting’s success, but applying technology for technology’s sake can risk shifting the focus from a human connection to a high-tech one. It’s important to first have a clear vision of the meeting or event you want to produce, and then determine how to create it. “You don’t necessarily have to describe the technology you’ll need, just the results that you want to make happen,” Levin says.
To find the right tools to create the vision, there are countless consultants, experts and online resources to stay up to date with the latest technology. “It’s easier to catch up if you’re always on top of it,” Levin says, but if you’re at a novice level when it comes to event technology, “the thing is not to fear it.” Rather than thinking about how much there is to learn, Levin says, “Look at it and ask, ‘What tools are available to me?’ It’s really a mind-set.”
CONSTRUCTED FOR CONNECTIVITY
The 100,000 square feet of versatile function space at Harrah’s Atlantic City Waterfront Conference Center offers two notable backdrops for meetings and events—one is the scenic Absecon Bay and the other a canvas of support and resources for technological customization. A new build that opened in September, the conference center is the largest between Baltimore and Boston and was designed to include hardware and features that are valuable to today’s tech-savvy planners.
“When you have buildings that were designed in the past, [technology] was usually an afterthought,” says Steve van der Molen, vice president of meeting operations in Atlantic City for Caesars Entertainment, which owns Harrah’s. “We pre-empted that, because we know based on our experience and our customers’ feedback that there is a need for that, so we incorporated it into the design process. We are set up for success for years to come.”
Some of the cutting-edge features of the conference center include:
• The ceilings of the two-story center feature more than 144 rigging points on each floor, allowing for endless possibilities for a setting customized with truss, speakers, lighting, graphics, video screens and other equipment to support a high-tech environment.
• An expandable broadband system, which can control bandwidth available in the center based on the size and usage needs of each particular group, makes sure everyone can get connected. There are power and data jacks built into the floors of the facility every 30 feet to keep devices charged.
• Take your vision to the big screen— make that the humongous screen—on the 7-foot-by-20-foot LED video monitor in the conference center that is available for custom content.
• A parking spot might not seem hightech at first glance, but the Waterfront Conference Center has four spaces for satellite trucks alongside the building, which is equipped with openings to feed cables directly (and neatly) inside, streamlining live broadcasts.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
If technology is an integral part of your program, having the power and bandwidth to support it is even more important. Kim Bladen, senior corporate meeting planner at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, plans meetings that gather 14,000 teachers in four locations to score Advanced Placement exams. Because of slated dates when tests are completed and scores are released, these programs must advance on schedule. “We use a lot of bandwidth for a lot of the subjects that we’re scoring online,” says Bladen. “For that we need to make sure we have abundant internet providers, and we have to make sure that there’s an uninterrupted power supply, so that if one breaks down, it can automatically move to the other without disruption. We have a timeline that we need to stay within for our scoring of these exams, so if we have 100 computers offline, that can really throw a wrench in things.”
SIMPLIFIED S ITE SELECTION
As she plans programs across the globe, HealthLogiX Meeting Planner Heather Eick, based in Parsippany, turns to TripAdvisor to visit destinations through the candid eyes of travelers who’ve been there when site inspections of her own aren’t a possibility. “I know I can find true pictures of a hotel’s rooms and meeting space there,” she says, noting that photography on a venue’s website can be enhanced and staged strategically. “If you want a true idea of what you’re booking, TripAdvisor has been the best tool for doing that,” she says.
A MEET AND GREET IN MOTION
It’s always nice to run into someone you know when traveling to a meeting or event. Inviting attendees to introduce themselves on a video backdrop that rolls throughout the conference creates a sea of familiar faces and helps small talk transition to focused interactions. MPI New Jersey Chapter President Pam Wynne, HMCC, CMM, CMP, global events project manager at Events, by Travel and Transport and Ultramar, says the alwaysupdating video backdrop at the 2015 MPI World Education Congress in San Francisco accomplished a number of goals, not least of which was serving as an exciting visual focal point through the program. In sharing a piece of their mind, attendees establish themselves as an expert at what they do. “It’s a live interaction of content,” Wynne says. “It really becomes a great way to promote yourself as a supplier.”
Organizers used an iOS app called Gloopt to record and compile the 60-second-or-less professional videos. Once the camera stopped rolling, a copy of the video was emailed to the participant so they could share it on social media to further enhance their own brand. The clips made during the 2015 WEC can also be viewed at mpinewjersey.gloopt.com. “It’s a great way for people who didn’t attend the conference to see what’s going on and maybe reconsider and decide they need to be a part of this next year,” Wynne says.
GRAB YOUR AUDIENCE’S ATTENTION
The right technology can funnel your attendees’ focus exactly where you want it—to the message that unifies your conference, the skills you want them to learn or the brand that you’re building. And instead of simply observing, participants can interact with what you’re presenting and engage with each other.
• Fun and Games: Gamification brings together fun and learning, and adds an element of competition to get people working together throughout a program. Working with the sometimes distracting electronics that attendees tote with them (tablets, smartphones, laptops), a techbased game can instead align these devices with a stakeholder’s message. “When we think about how we can use different technologies to really put people into a positive mood and really engage them, gamification is a great way to do that,” says Wynne.
Some options include a scavenger hunt of barcodes that reveal product information or exclusives when scanned by a QR-reader (try the SCANVenger Hunt platform), encouraging guests to answer questions or share insights on social media tracked by an event hashtag (livecube gathers messages and awards points and badges along the way), or let them show off their genius with a collaborative quiz of session materials or industry knowledge (GamifyApp makes this easy).
“This can be an educational tool and an engagement tool to get people learning about the brand,” says Levin. “They’re learning, but they’re learning in a fun and engaging way.”
• A New Way to Raise Your Hand: A speaker may have the stage, but the audience’s attention has the power in the room. Find and manage speakers and exhibitors who can capture it using the Abstract Scorecard and Conference Harvester, two programs from CadmiumCD’s event management software platform. “With this you get all of the information that you need,” says Levin. “You’re able to collect headshots and bios. You’re able to really customize it so that you can get the information that you need in one spot, and it makes it easy to evaluate it.”
And for those addressing the crowd, technology offers ways to connect directly before, during and after a presentation. “Any time we’re going to have a keynote, we insist that they write us a teaser article talking about their topic and area of expertise,” says Wynne. These get posted to a LinkedIn group created for conference attendees or linked on an event’s Twitter page so that the conversation can start before the session begins, and attendees sit down with a working knowledge of a session topic.
“Then you have your technology that enhances education,” says Levin. “Things like polling, things that allow you to ask questions and interact with speakers.” One such tool is SlideKlowd, which makes high-level interaction possible while measuring engagement and tracking questions and responses.
For larger crowds, Catchbox gets people talking and keeps them on their toes. The throwable microphone, built inside of a padded, wireless cube, lets conversation and Q&A happen naturally without the delay of walking a microphone around a room.
Hosting a meeting? There are dozens of apps for that—EventMobi, Whova, Pathable, QuickMobile, DoubleDutch, GenieConnect by Lanyon and CrowdCompass by Cvent are just a few. Among other features, apps can share presentation materials, provide a networking roadmap, collect social media buzz about the event in real time, gather instant feedback, and help planners with data management and analysis. They become part of premeeting, on-site and takeaway experience of a program that matches the way that many attendees conduct business already. “Having a really good meeting app makes it really easy for attendees to engage with the organizers, the speakers and other attendees,” says Wynne. “Look around—people don’t even carry big bags anymore. They carry their phones.”
With so many feature-rich options and potential benefits, finding the right app might be overwhelming. The easiest solution is to envision what you want from your finished product experience. “Like anything else you can buy, you can get the low-end version or the high-end version,” says Wynne. “Design it from the back to the front. Don’t buy the high-end model if all you want are the speaker bios and the agenda to be displayed. Decide how you want people to engage and then select your model and options based on that.”
THE TOTAL PACKAGE
Many companies offer a suite of programs that can accomplish a number of items on a planner’s to-do list, like RFP generation, venue sourcing, attendee registration, mobile app building, participant profiles and connections, data reporting, budgeting, email marketing and much more. “What we’re seeing is that companies are combining the technology so that a planner only has to buy one platform,” says Levin. “It makes the whole process seamless, and that’s a major trend that we’re seeing.” Topi, Bizzabo, a2z, Inc., Events.com, Experient, Cvent, and Lanyon are some of the companies with these options.
Bladen says that the growing options offered by Cvent’s Event Management Software have been a big timesaver, particularly in reporting and analysis. “When we first started using Cvent, it was just for sending out the RFPs and getting the proposals,” she says. “Over the course of time, we started using the registration and the data storage.”