Should Your Conference Go Paperless?

Jodi Goldbeck believes she’s seen the future of large meetings and conferences, and she only had to travel as far as the Twin Cities to do it. And while the grass isn’t necessarily greener in the land o’er the Muddy Mississippi, the future Goldbeck has envisioned is as green as Aldo Leopold’s garden.

Goldbeck, an instructor in the Meeting and Event Management Degree Program at Madison College, recently attended World Education Congress 2014 in Minneapolis, an event put on by Meeting Professionals International. When she arrived, she was impressed not so much by what was in front of her as by what was missing. Gone was the bulky printed conference guide, replaced by a new MPI Global Event App for Android, iPhone, and iPad devices.

Madison’s ConfPlus is one of many firms developing apps for use at corporate events.         

“It was phenomenal from a pure attendee perspective,” said Goldbeck. “You could see where everything was, who the speakers were, and then a brief description of each.

And then at the end of [the conference], you could actually rate the experience and give your comments right on the app, which I had never seen before at an event. So I loved that. I am so into that.”

Perhaps even better, the app had interactive and real-time features that would have been impossible to incorporate into a printed program.

“It gave you event updates if a room change happened or anything like that,” said Goldbeck. “You could message other attendees through that app, so if you didn’t have somebody’s phone number to text them, you could do it right through their app. … So it was really cool that they were able to integrate this Global Event App into the experience and have attendees really use it. And I saw people using it all the time. We literally didn’t get one piece of paper while we were there. They did a newspaper that we got at our hotel room, but at registration we never got one piece of paper.”

Meanwhile, the event app gave Goldbeck an exciting glimpse at a greener, sleeker, more tech-savvy future.

“Personally, I love not getting a bag filled with a bunch of fliers and a bunch of paper, because it’s just going to go in the recycling bin,” said Goldbeck. “We were told beforehand that this is how they would communicate, so we knew going into it that you would not get a paper copy. You had the option of printing it out beforehand, but the people at registration literally handed you your nametag and then told you about the app.

“It makes everything a lot more smooth because you’re not handing out a bunch of stuff while people are asking questions. It can be found right there on the app. So it makes it more smooth, it makes it more green, and it makes things more convenient.”

Homegrown apps

It’s perhaps not surprising that the use of apps is becoming more pervasive among both event planners and conference-goers. The proliferation of apps like EventBrite, SurveyMonkey, Twitter, Foursquare, and many others has made both planning and attending events a breezier and more richly rewarding experience.

But creating a custom-made conference-specific app is a new wrinkle that appears to be gaining favor among event planners.

It’s also furthering the prospects of at least one local company.

ConfPlus is a Madison-based IT firm that has created custom apps for numerous conferences around the world, across the country, and locally. The company has designed apps for organizations as diverse as the Public Relations Institute of Australia, the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, and Madison+Ruby.

Company co-founder and CEO Cathy Liu said she got the idea for the custom app service in 2011 after going to numerous conferences and inevitably pitching the bulky conference book into the recycling bin after the event was over.

She and her co-founder, Huaming Li, launched ConfPlus the following year.



Through ConfPlus apps, event organizers can create schedules and update them as need be, while attendees can create customizable agendas, including schedules, reminders, and meeting requests.

The company’s apps also enable sponsors to tap into the exploding mobile advertising market, while adding an interactive component to their advertising. In addition, they incorporate several social media functions, providing attendees an easy way to connect with each other.

“People can view and post to Twitter through the app,” said Liu. “You can also send a message [to fellow attendees] to make personal appointments, and you can exchange contact information instead of exchanging a business card. You can also send LinkedIn requests and connect through the app.”

According to Liu, there are different entry points for organizers who might be interested in using one of ConfPlus’ apps. A more basic service, known as Express, requires users to build their app through an admin portal and offers a more limited suite of features, including programs, personal schedules, and notifications. The company’s “Professional” and “Ultimate” options, which are more suitable for larger and more complex events, offer greater customization and staff support.

When customers use the latter two options, they’re able to send all the information they’ve collected pertaining to their event to ConfPlus and the company takes it from there, creating a readymade app for one’s conference. Starting at around $5,000, that solution is quite a bit costlier, says Liu, but to many organizations that can use ConfPlus’ solutions to bypass printing costs and enhance the appeal of their events, those added costs might be worth it.

Libby Gerds, co-founder of Groundwork Consulting, helped to organize August’s Forward Technology Conference, which was part of Madison’s weeklong Forward Festival.

The Forward Technology Conference is not a huge event, attracting just a couple of hundred people, but Gerds worked with ConfPlus to create a custom app, in part to demonstrate to the conference’s tech-curious crowd the kinds of solutions that are out there.

“I think if you have a big conference, it’s definitely worth the money,” said Gerds. “For us, we’re trying to work out a way to sort of help each other out with this app, because our conference is just not big enough and doesn’t involve enough components to really save us enough. But I think for these really big, complex, multiday, multi-location events, it would be worth the money to make sure you’re not printing four-color glossy, giant conference packets. I think you’d pay that off pretty quickly.”

Do-it-yourself solutions

Brian Lee, president of Revelation PR, Advertising & Social Media, agrees that the potential for saving money by transitioning to an app-based conference experience is high, particularly considering the flexibility that an app offers.

“What you can do with [a custom-made] app is reuse it year after year, so if this is an annual conference meeting, expo, or whatever, all you have to do is update the data, but the app’s already made,” said Lee. “The costs go much lower than printing and redesigning the program each year.”

In addition to ConfPlus, Lee recommends a service called EventMobi, which gives users an easy way to create their own apps. Featuring a registration function as well as surveys, live polling, and custom event games, EventMobi apps also run on any device and can be used offline.

“So it’s basically the best of both worlds,” said Lee. “You have an app that can be updated and that everyone can use, and you don’t need Internet access. I’m not quite sure what the cost is to develop this type of app, but I do recommend this. You can offset the cost by selling ad space within the app, like you do with your [printed] program. Perhaps you can even afford not to print the program.”

But while custom-made solutions like ConfPlus’ upper-level premium apps may not always seem cost-effective for smaller organizations, less expensive options, like EventMobi and ConfPlus’ Express, which require users to do more of the heavy lifting, are often far more feasible, says Lee.

“I’ve seen more and more startups out there that have some kind of platform that allows you to, quote-unquote, create your own app,” said Lee. “And they’re actually pretty easy. It’s a lot of drag and drop and filling out things, and there’s a lot of custom templates that you can just modify. So for EventMobi, they’ll have areas that are preset that will typically be used in most conferences, such as agenda, speakers, exhibitors, and it’s just a matter of you filling out that information. It’s pretty much done for you. So there’s no hiring some kind of outside consultant to build this app for you. It’s made so that conference organizers of any level can do it on their own.”

For professionally created apps, such as the kind ConfPlus offers through its premium services, the startup costs may be more, but there also tend to be more bells and whistles, and the bulk of the work is handled for you. But as with any app — from EventBrite to Twitter to a custom event-specific app — you need to assess whether the technology you’re using is suitable for your attendees.

“In terms of ConfPlus, they’re pretty much telling us what information we need to provide to them, and then they do the building, and it’s information that we already have,” said Gerds. “So it’s agendas for the day, what room are we going to be in, who are the speakers, their bios, etc., which are things you gather anyway when you’re planning these kinds of events. So those are easy from our end.

“One important thing to remember about these apps in general is to look at your audience and make sure they’re going to be receptive to the client-facing side of these apps, that they’re going to be responsive to your emails, and that this is really the way to promote things for your audience.”

Meanwhile, the day when all conferences and meetings essentially go paperless could be coming sooner rather than later.

“Yes, especially for large organizations that are able to build an app and have the budget to do that, I do think that [going paperless] is becoming the norm,” said Goldbeck. “I think it’s more normal than not at these larger events. Smaller events will probably take a little longer. I sit on the board of directors for Meeting Planners International Wisconsin, and we are now told that if you want to print the agenda, go ahead, but we will not have paper copies waiting for you; we’ll just keep everything on the iPad.

“I think now, especially with people in the meeting industry, they understand the value of being more green and more efficient. So I think it will [become prevalent] in every industry possibly in a few more years.”



A Barrelful of Apps

While comprehensive event-specific apps are gaining in popularity, there are dozens of widely used apps that can make any event planner’s life a whole lot easier.
The following are just a few suggestions, courtesy of Madison College’s Jodi Goldbeck and Revelation PR’s Brian Lee.

EventBrite: EventBrite allows users to create an event page, sell tickets, and collect money online. It also has tools for promoting events through email or via social media and for tracking attendance. During the event, you can use an Entry Manager app to check people in and scan barcoded tickets at the door. You can also collect money through EventBrite’s At the Door iPad app.

“First of all, you create a registration page and you can customize it with your own logo, social media links, plus you can have different pricing, such as early-bird pricing, and it also integrates with Facebook, so you can see whether your friends are going,” said Lee. “And then from a business end, a marketing end, you have built-in analytics available, meaning you can track which of your promotional efforts are directing the most traffic to your registration site.”

Super Planner: Designed for the professional event planner, this app includes a variety of tools, including calculators for venue capacity, catering numbers, staging, and staffing. In a world that’s increasingly going paperless, it allows you to eschew those back-of-the-envelope calculations in favor of keeping everything well in hand on your mobile device.

LiveTweetApp: With Twitter becoming ubiquitous in the social media sphere — and in social settings such as conferences — event organizers need a way to maximize its potential. LiveTweetApp allows conference organizers to eliminate inappropriate tweets that trolls and spammers might try to slip past the barricades.
By relying on the app, you can feel secure in prominently displaying your tweets, which can greatly enhance attendees’ experience.

“I would recommend to meeting organizers that you … display these live tweets in the common area or the keynote speaker room or the room where you have your meal, where the most eyes can see it,” said Lee, who also recommends springing for the LiveTweetApp pro version, which costs $40 for 24 hours of usage. “And if you’re going the hashtag route, you’re going to want to use a hashtag that’s short and easy to remember. For example #XYZExpo2014 is better than #XYZassociationannualexpo2014. I mean, that’s just too long to write and remember. And have that hashtag everywhere — promotional materials, program, your website — and make sure you have your emcee remind attendees of it.”

SurveyMonkey: Post-event questionnaires are crucial to improving conference-goers’ experience, and SurveyMonkey offers an easy way to solicit feedback from attendees.
According to Lee, the app is easy to use, and what makes it particularly appealing to many event organizers is its ability to integrate with EventBrite.

“If you have been using EventBrite for registration, now you can import that attendees list right into SurveyMonkey, which is nice,” said Lee. “The free version allows you 10 questions, but I think that’s plenty actually. You probably don’t want more than 10 questions anyway. The other limitation to the free version is that you can only get 100 responses before it stops the survey. I feel that sometimes that’s more than you would get anyway. If you have a 500-person conference and 100 people respond, that’s a pretty good percentage.”

For users who do want to upgrade to the Select version, the price is $26 a month.

Evernote: While people don’t necessarily think of event planning as a primary use for this popular app, Goldbeck notes that it’s a valuable site-inspection tool that gives event organizers an easy way to take pictures and notes and record voice comments during their pre-event walkthrough. It can also help organizers create lists and capture ideas they might have while they’re planning conferences and other events.

Speedtest: Nothing’s worse than showing up at a venue on the day of an event and realizing the Wi-Fi connection is sketchy. Speedtest gives you an easy way to check your mobile network speed.

“These apps are just making our lives as meeting professionals so much easier,” said Goldbeck.

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