Tech has a growing presence at events, but should planners be more judicious in the way they use it?
The last conference I attended was a bottomless pit of boredom. The keynote speakers were tedious, the catering bland and the venue about as inspiring as a motorway service station. As for getting hold of a decent brew: nigh on impossible.
Yet this wasn’t some half-baked, hastily thrown-together event. It had been months in the planning and clearly had some serious cash behind it. A decent portion of the budget had undoubtedly been assigned to tech: there were meet-and-greet robots, VR headsets, live polls, social media boards and selfie stations, where delegates had yet another excuse to lose themselves in their smartphones.
I went home in no doubt: the medium was the message. Most of the actual content was swiftly forgotten.
There seems to be a growing consensus – even from figures within the tech sector – that experiences like this are becoming all too common. Planners, they warn, are being wooed by gadgets, which are distracting them from their primary objective: delivering a stimulating event.
‘A big mistake that planners make is to get a shiny new toy and throw it into an event without actually figuring out what it’s going to do for that event,’ says Miguel Neves, an event comms expert and founder of Social Media Chefs. ‘Strategy must always come before technology. If you do this then I think you’re in a good place to make use of all the bells and whistles of technology.’
In other words, plan your event and then work out if technology could be useful – not the other way around. It sounds obvious, but Neves says many organisers are falling at this hurdle.
Mehram Sumray-Roots, co-founder of YADA Event Technology Limited, agrees. ‘Technology should enhance an event,’ she says. ‘It should be an enabler. It should be connecting people, not taking away from the conversation. Live events are experiences – and experiences can’t be replaced by technology.’
Less is more
As with many other things in life, technology is often more effective when it is used sparingly.
‘If there are one or two pieces of technology that can make an event better, then I think it’s important to focus participants’ attention on those,’ says Neves. ‘If there are another three or four tools for everybody to experiment with, then the likelihood is that people won’t pay much attention to them and you are destroying the chances of that being a successful addition to the event. There’s only so much attention participants can give technology.’
Another common mistake that planners make is to neglect to familiarise themselves with the gadgets they expect delegates to use. This can have disastrous consequences.
‘I went to an event recently where the technology didn’t work properly. It made the event seem budget,’ says Sumray-Roots. ‘They’d actually put quite a lot of money into the event, but because they hadn’t used the technology properly it had the complete reverse effect.’
Such scenarios could be avoided, argues Neves, if planners recruited an appropriate person to oversee the integration of technology at events: someone to bridge the gap between the tech company and event organisers.
‘The planners usually put so much work in and the tech companies put so much work in, but somewhere in the middle there’s usually a piece missing,’ he says. ‘Sometimes it feels as if there isn’t enough integration between everybody to really make things work properly. I see that a lot. It’s rare for an organisation to budget for someone to fulfil that role.’
Then there’s the issue of marketing. Naturally, marketeers love technology such as event apps and social media boards because they’re good vehicles for their messages. However, critics claim that excessive marketing can impact the take-up of the technology.
‘Loads of events have apps, but I don’t necessarily believe they meaningfully contribute a lot of the time,’ says Simon Clayton, chief ideas officer at event registration company RefTech. ‘I think there’s too much obsession with marketeers trying to put all sorts of fluffy rubbish in there, which detracts from the use of some of them.’
Back to basics
Perhaps the biggest surprise I had while researching this article was just how candid some of my ‘techie’ interviewees were.
‘I’m a geek, I’m a techie and I love gadgets,’ says Clayton. ‘But in the events world, technology doesn’t seem to make any dent. The meeting industry is about face-to-face contact, talking to people, and there’s a limit to how much you can improve on actually seeing people and talking to them.’
Some events are now eschewing technology altogether and taking delegates back to basics. One notable example is Off Grid, which, for the last three summers, has been taking place on Osea Island in Essex’s Blackwater Estuary.
Founded by Jeremy and Aimi Hill – a husband-and-wife team with backgrounds in media and technology – Off Grid is an annual jamboree for creative types, including techies. Attendees gather on the island for several days every July, where they listen to talks, socialise and share ideas about anything from robots to gardening.
Off Grid isn’t anti-technology as such, but the lack of mobile reception on the island forces people to engage with the content of the event and each other – rather than their smartphones.
‘Initially, you get people running around trying to find a signal, but then there’s a sudden liberation,’ says Jeremy. ‘It’s about making sure people are there in the moment – and it seems to work.’
As well as putting on interesting talks and workshops – none of which, incidentally, are videoed or streamed online – attendees are encouraged to swim in the sea, play football and cook dinners around a campfire.
‘The physicality of it seems to really create something different,’ says Jeremy. ‘We don’t make a point of avoiding technology; we just tend to prioritise other stuff over the top of it.’
Jeremy believes technology can detract from the purpose of an event. ‘Good events should be about connecting people and inspiring them,’ he says. ‘I think that comes from conversations, I’m not sure that it comes from lots of social media.’
Clayton has similar doubts. He feels that planners should exercise caution before using technology at their events.
‘If there is technology that can add value and enhance your event then great, but there’s very little technology in the events industry that can actually give you a measurable return,’ he says. ‘And if you can’t measure a return on it then how much use is it?’
Before using tech at your event, read this checklist
1. Break your event down
Think about the different aspects of your event and what you hope to achieve. Is there any way your event could be enhanced by technology? Be honest.
2. Consider your budget
Some event tech is really expensive; some of it is affordable. Will technology bring you a return on your investment? Do you have the budget for it?
3. Do your research
Don’t be afraid to ask providers why their technology is right for your event – what do you stand to gain? Most providers will want to make sure that it works for you.
4. Don’t be blinded by gadgets
‘Don’t necessarily go for the technology that shouts the loudest,’ says Mehram Sumray-Roots. Not only does it tend to be more expensive, but it might be superfluous – or worse still, may not meet your needs.