How Technology is Changing Association Meetings

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In a recent article for Associations Now Magazine, Melanie Kaplan described the dramatic increase in the use of new technology and software applications in the management of meetings and events.  "Developing an event app—which can contain schedule information, facilitate registration, provide updates and room changes, and administer the post-event survey—can be a smart strategy" says Kaplan. "But there's more to it than just throwing the newest and shiniest hardware around the convention center." She interviewed several executives to get their view on the rapid changes and how the industry is adjusting.

"Technology at an event is successful when it's interactive," says Ann Windham, president and CEO of Imagine Xhibits, Inc. "It's not the technology itself. So if the technology is creating an experience that's memorable—faster access, shorter lines—then it's doing its job and people remember it. It's got to be more than just the cool factor."

The big issue with technology, says Francis Friedman, president of Time & Place Strategies, is understanding what audiences want and then figuring out how to give it to them. "We've become a digital and device society," he says. "But the organizer has to program his or her show so it's uniquely different from anything out there. It's about answering the question, 'Why should I attend your event?'"


Kaplan points out that gone is the day when meeting organizers would ask attendees to turn off their mobile devices. "Today, they wouldn't dream of making that request because they understand how devices can help attendees get more out of meetings." says Kaplan.

Teresa Perrell, conference manager for the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS), says she is also developing an app so participants can earn continuing education credit for the sessions they attend by entering a code given by the instructor. "When it comes down to it," she says, "it's really about what our people want to be able to do."

The now ubiquitous tablet appears to be a big plus for show management who according to Kaplan, now use it for everything from site previews to badge-scanning, and even as an uber-remote control.  Windham says the cloud is key to using this new technology effectively. She might be managing concurrent events in Las Vegas and New Orleans, and carrying around two giant binders isn't an option. Through the cloud, she can revise registration lists, flight schedules, and room blocks, allowing colleagues in other cities to see and review her changes and updates. 

And the benefits of meeting related apps go far beyond the meeting itself.  "...we will start our digital platform at the meeting, but it will continue long after that," says Johnnie White, executive director of the CRF Center for Education. "We'll continue feeding content to the app. It will have content for all meetings throughout the year."

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Trees are being saved and attendee muscle fatigue is being reduced as from hauling around pounds of written material. Attendees can now get their meeting documents and powerpoint presentations all right on their tablets or smartphones.   But imagine putting a presentation in their hands as it's happening—via smartphone. Friedman says "While they are watching the presentation on stage, they can capture it on their device, send it to a friend, tweet it, send the speaker a comment, and send questions up to the stage in real time, which enhances the conversation," he says. "Not to mention, those in the back of the room who can't see the screen will actually be able to read it." 

Another growing trend according to Kaplan is near field communication, or NFC. "It's a form of wireless communication embedded in some smartphones, similar to RFID (radio frequency identification) but used for very short-range communication—such as between two devices or a device and an NFC-enabled tag...The microchip can do everything from track attendance to manage meal payments."

In the future, Windham says, "trends will include technology that is part of us—from Google Glass to projection mapping, which can project 3D glaciers 360 degrees around a room to make a visitor feel like he or she is in Alaska. At the same time, technology will continue to get smaller—desktop computers will become obsolete, and we might one day be communicating through wristwatches." 

Melanie D.G. Kaplan writes regularly for The Washington Post and is a contributing editor at SmartPlanet/CBS Interactive. This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "The Tech Effect."

The entire article, ASSOCIATIONS NOW, September/October 2013, can be found here.