Meetings at the intersection of technology and innovation

If you haven't attended a corporate event recently, you might think you've been dropped into another world. Web-based technology software is fast replacing custom-installed software, mobile and location-aware applications are serving every need from information gathering to wayfinding, and increasing use of social media is enabling meeting planners and presenters to more easily connect with attendees.

This is a small sampling of how technology is changing the conference experience, and some of it will be in use during the first annual IB Expo & Conference, to be held Oct. 19 at Alliant Energy Center.

Diane Morgenthaler, vice president of marketing and strategic development for the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Nick Topitzes, president of PC/Nametag, said the use of social media is accommodated in centrally located kiosks and in meeting rooms, as some are projecting Twitter feeds in between sessions or during sessions. From the vantage point of presenters, those Twitter feeds are a double-edged sword. "We're seeing people getting up and walking out because they are telling each other, 'I don't like this speaker,'" Topitzes said.

 

Bar none at IB Expo

Social technology also comes in bar codes. BoothTag, a mobile bar code traffic generation tool for trade shows and events, will be in use during the IB Expo & Conference. According to Bill Finn, president/CEO of Finn Digital in Milwaukee, BoothTag takes advantage of Microsoft Tag Reader, a free downloadable application that is compatible with the iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile 7, and a host of other platforms. The reason Microsoft Tag Reader was selected is there is one reader compatible with nearly every phone available, and one common location to download it; the URL for that is gettag.mobi. To eliminate confusion when using that website, or when in the "apps store" for the Android market, there is automatic phone detection and the right software is automatically downloaded.

IB Expo attendees with smart phones are encouraged to download the free Microsoft Tag Reader software in advance of the show, and Finn recommends they sign up in advance for a BoothTag account at http://inbusiness.boothtag.com (first, they must register [free] for the expo at MadisonBusinessExpo.com). When attendees scan a bar code, which will be located throughout the show and at expo booths, the next thing they'll see on their phone screen is information about the exhibitor booth just scanned, including links to contact information and company blogs, a website address, video, and product information.

According to Finn, at the recent CompTia national conference in Washington, D.C., where BoothTag was implemented for the entire event, more than 10,000 scans were performed, which is a record. Here's how it will work during the IB Expo: Anyone coming to the event with a smart phone will be able to scan a bar code that is placed at each exhibitor booth. Every time an attendee scans the bar code at an exhibitor booth, they will receive points, and those who accumulate the most points will receive (yet-to-be-determined) prizes. "That really incentivizes attendees to circulate around the trade show and to scan bar codes at each exhibitor booth," Finn noted. "The benefit to the attendees is the prizes and the record of networking, but the benefit to the exhibitors is that bar code scan, where there is an exchange of information between the registered attendee and the registered exhibitor."

As part of the exchange, exhibitors have a list of time- and date-stamped information of when attendees approached their booths, and they can follow up by downloading it from http://inbusiness.boothtag.com. "The benefit to In Business is that it provides a value to exhibitors with a mechanism to circulate traffic and drive folks to the exhibitor booths," Finn explained. "Secondly, there are all kinds of statistics. We effectively have the equivalent of Google analytics for the trade show floor."
In addition, a heat map of the show floor will reveal the location of the hottest activity. Maps and charts of scanning activity over time will be provided, so attendees and exhibitors will be able to see when there is a lot of activity and when there is very little activity, and as an organization, In Business can identify what it is doing at the event that fosters activity.

"The one thing exhibitors want is more potential leads approaching their booth, and BoothTag does exactly that," Finn said. "It breaks down that fourth wall. The old scenario is the attendee walking down the middle of the trade show aisle, and you've got the exhibitors standing there staring at them, and every so often exhibitors come out with their bar code gun and scan the nametag. BoothTag turns that on its head. We give attendees the reason to actually approach the booth and break the ice."

At the recent CompTia conference, a national information technology training organization, it was heavily promoted that attendees could gain points toward prizes by scanning the bar codes of other attendees. Finn said a lot of interpersonal activity occurred because of that. "When an attendee scans a bar code, whether it's a booth bar code or a fellow attendees' personal bar code, there is a two-way information exchange that happens. On the BoothTag application on my phone, I have a time- and date-stamped record of all the folks I've connected with, the individuals, and then also of the booths I've visited."

The advantage for both vendors and attendees is that it focuses interaction on dialogue and not the more passive activities of exchanging business cards and notes. "Very often in a trade show or a conference environment, it's a whirlwind. You spend a lot of time talking to many different people, and BoothTag is a great way to record those connections and go back and revisit them later for follow-up."

BoothTag has a Web-based portal that attendees and exhibitors can visit before and after the event, where they can see all the information they have on their smart phone. It's a duplicated browser-based portal, and exhibitors also can conveniently download spreadsheets and contacts, and update their profiles. By making it a game with prizes, Finn believes providers are putting fun back into business. "We all know when we go to trade shows, we want to meet people, we want to make connections, and BoothTag is a convenient way of giving people a fun hook to make those connections a little bit more enjoyable."

Bar codes are just entering the consumer market. With the non-stop technological march, Finn believes some patience will be required, especially with the 2-D bar codes employed by BoothTag. "We keep thinking that we have to keep moving ahead for the cutting edge, but what's actually happening is we already are on the edge," he said. "We need to let the not-as-involved-with-technology folks catch up to what we're doing."

Conventional use

Convention organizers certainly aren't immune from technology. Janine Wachter, director of convention and event services for the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, noted how convention managers are using online housing services to track hotel bookings, how conference presenters are using presentation servers to load their programs in advance, and how would-be attendees use presentation collection technology to gain access to conference programs (podcasts or webinars) after the fact.

A few years ago, the concern was that emerging innovations like virtual technology would compromise face-to-face interaction. Instead, it has been used more selectively – including for virtual farm tours from around the globe at World Dairy Expo – and to support traditional interactions. "What we have really seen is that technology supports and makes face-to-face events more efficient, more in-depth, and allows them to be more productive," said Ted Ballweg, assistant center manager for Alliant Energy Center.

In some cases, it takes awhile to arrive. As part of a city department, Monona Terrace has the advantage of high bandwidth at the gigabit speeds offered by WiscNet, the state's research and education network. That comes in handy when serving upwards of 100 people who use that same number of laptops or handheld devices in a small, concentrated area.

High-definition video uses a wider-screen format, but it has been slow in coming as an alternative to PowerPoint, which is done in a 4-by-3 format. HD is finally starting to show up in digital presentations, and Monona Terrace, which is already preparing for Internet protocol version six, has been waiting. "We're seeing laptop computers that actually will change that format to the wider screen and actually fit HD, so we're seeing more and more HD presentations," said Jeff Griffith, building maintenance supervisor for Monona Terrace. "The devices have been lagging behind where the technology has been."

The big screen is where Tri-Marq Communications intends to make its mark on the convention industry. Tri-Marq is based in Hollywood because it does work for the motion picture industry, but it also has offices in Chicago and Milwaukee and has served local clients like the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Tom Graybill, director of sales for Tri-Marq, said its ultrawide-screen technology, also known as the WATCHOUT system, is designed to enhance the conference experience by creating blended images with projection technology. The ability to use any size screen – the largest so far has been 60 by 20 feet – offers flexibility in providing larger bites of information and imagery on multiple screens, and moving higher-resolution images from one screen to another. "They are creative tools that give us a much larger palette in which to present information, entertainment, and content in a more appealing way for audiences," Graybill said.

Corbin Ball, president of Corbin Ball Associates, runs a website that tracks 1,500 technologies, many of them for the convention industry. In his view, the most promising are emerging technologies for mobile apps that do everything from lead exchange to conference exhibit guides. "There are more than 100 products in that space," Ball said, "and they do everything in one – the Swiss army knife approach."

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