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20 April 2014

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Organiser's guide - Technology for Conferencing

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Turn on, tune in: technology is transforming conference delegates from passive attendees to active participants. V&E checks out the developments behind this change.

Technology for Conferencing Spencer Wilson - 1211_tech-illustration_1.jpg

The days when delegates were asked to turn their phones off during conferences are long gone. Instead, audiences are now encouraged to turn devices to silent and engage with the digital side of the events they’re attending, interacting with speakers and sharing content beyond the walls of the meeting venue. Organisers, too, are making good use of technology, tapping into clever presentation kit to help their events look better, while clutching tablets with apps for on-the-go planning on the day of the event.

On the app
The iPad has rapidly become a must-have mobile device for business folk and developers have taken note, designing scores of useful apps for this growing market. Peoplehunt.me, which helps delegates find each other at events, is one of many worthwhile ‘native apps’ (designed for use on a specific device), but the most exciting developments are arguably at the browser-based end of the market.

Chris Elmitt, MD of audience engagement experts Crystal Interactive (tel: 020 3176 2000), explains that while native apps tend to be general and take long to develop, ‘browser apps’ can be whipped up on a bespoke basis, incorporating things like delegate handbooks and speaker biographies and in turn reduce printing costs for the event.

‘Not only can delegates access all the conference material through the app, they can also receive real-time information about which breakout room they’ve been allocated or the people they’re on a discussion table with,’ he explains. ‘Video footage and speaker presentations can all be made available for delegates to revisit in their own time, while built-in event content like interactive voting, real-time feedback and gamification add to the overall delegate experience.’

Technology for Conferencing Spencer Wilson 2 - 1211_tech-illustration_2.jpg

Checking in
Online registration and ticketing platforms are becoming more popular – and why not? ‘What many event organisers don’t realise is that, if you’re organising a free event, most of these services are absolutely free to use,’ says Peter Kerwood of the digital marketing agency Social Product. He recommends Eventbrite, which has recently launched a nifty mobile box office app called At The Door. Equipped with a credit card reader for the iPad, this allows organisers to view credit and cash transactions, along with additional guest information such as expressions of interest in forthcoming events, at any time during or after their event.

Screen tests
Just as social media has transformed traditional broadcasting by encouraging users to engage with one another online, screen technology has also grown more interactive. Conference organisers are, for instance, using touch screens to great effect, perhaps allowing delegates to explore a new product by flicking through images and specs, Minority Report-style, on large interactive screens. 

More hands-on fun comes courtesy of a new tabletop version of the YrWall Digital Graffiti Wall from Luma, which lets delegates create and print their own individually doodled badges to act as conversational icebreakers. The same company also has a new product that would sit well in a breakout area. Developed using a depth-sensing camera, the Motion Mirror is a screen capable of bringing content ‘to life’ as people approach. It also has recording capability, allowing delegates to create movies to be shared on social media.

Speaking of which, have you considered using twitter walls at your conference? V&E show supplier Thinkwall has one that may even make you some money. By incorporating the ability to schedule and display announcements on its twitter walls, the company has by default created an attractive forum for advertising, where banner ads can be lined up to appear at specific times during an event. By encouraging delegates to interact and talk about the event they’re attending, twitter walls can also offer valuable real-time feedback for the organiser.

Technology for Conferencing Spencer Wilson 3 - 1211_tech-illustration_3.jpg

Radio gaga
Achieving a deeper understanding of delegate behaviour is the holy grail of event planning. Organisers are turning to ‘radio frequency identification’ (RFID) coupled with ‘near field communication’ techniques to collect data from individuals with the swipe of a tag. 

Laura Moody, the MD of Blondefish (tel: 01727 701031) who uses the technology for its TapTwo product, explains how it works: ‘Attendees are sent the tags loaded with their personal details before the event. The tag is then used to access, collect and exchange digital information through a simple tap on RFID devices placed throughout the event. The data collected by the RFID readers let organisers know which delegates went where, what they looked at, and most importantly, what interested them for post-event follow-up.’

RFID readers can also be used as Facebook ‘Like’ stations, allowing delegates to post to social media channels and discuss what they thought about different aspects of the event. ‘Brands such as Vodafone, Bacardi, Smirnoff and Legoland are using RFID to create word of mouth and amplify live elements across digital channels,’ says Moody.  Similar technology can also be used to enhance visitor experience.

The Connect system from Red Group, for instance, helps delegates track each other’s whereabouts, obtain up-to-date event information and view fellow delegates’ profiles via RFID cards, which can be activated via touch-screens at the event, as commercial director Sven Hansen explains: ‘Delegates can leave messages or meeting invites for other guests through the system, which can also be pushed directly through SMS and email. The RFID chips, similar to Oyster Cards, allow each person to amend their profile, receive personalised event updates and email speaker presentations back to their inbox. Organisers can later access reports on delegate activities and session attendance.’

Technology for Conferencing Spencer Wilson 4 - 1211_tech-illustration_4.jpg

Mobile workforce
According to market intelligence firm IDC, remote workers (those operating from home or on the move without the support of a traditional office base) will make up 37% of the global labour force by 2015. Webcasting and virtual environment technology will therefore need to evolve on mobile devices in order to keep this emerging sector connected.

Virtual Events for iPad, available through the Apple App Store, provides attendees with multi-content views, including features that have long been standard with desktop webcasting, enabling them to see video and slides and use various interactive services on a single tablet screen. It also takes advantage of the iPad’s navigation features such as scrolling and pinch zooming.  For virtual event environments, the app allows users to navigate easily, view live and on-demand webcasts, chat with stand reps, access on-demand content and interact with other visitors in the Networking Lounge.

Cloud atlas
Organisers with their heads in the cloud are no longer the ones daydreaming of better conference planning. They’re the ones accessing files over the internet from anywhere in the world. Exploiting the potential to share and develop software and services online, ‘cloud’ computing is the perfect set-up for a company with a dispersed or mobile team looking to improve its communications and organisational structure.

Using ‘the cloud’ also means that the budget is not spent on expensive hardware or IT staff to manage and maintain in-house servers. Technology savings can be channelled back into the business, enabling events agencies and suppliers in particular to quote more competitively. Companies that use cloud software benefit from immediate updates, so their technology will never go out of date.

Online services such as Dropbox allow event organisers to share files and access documents using their smartphone, tablet or laptop.  Cloud-based presentation software such as Prezi may put those interminable PowerPoint sessions out of their misery, introducing features such as a zoomable whiteboard design that makes text and images pop off the screen, helping speakers keep their audience’s attention for longer.


This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events, Autumn 2012. Illustrations by Spencer Wilson.


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