Face time face-off

At the recently concluded global meetings and events exhibition EIBTM, the top prize in its Technology Watch – a high-profile recognition scheme for innovation in the industry – went to a content aggregation platform called BOBtv (Best of Business Television) by bXb Online. BOBtv is a web-based network that gathers and distributes content to interested parties, primarily industry professionals who are unable to attend actual meetings. For these remote delegates, all that is required to experience the event is their presence before a computer or mobile device, and a connection to the internet.

The internet has, over the years, allowed events to reach an exponentially wider audience. It has also streamlined many of the planning and staging processes of an event, such as migrating registration processes online, enabling quick and easy access to important documents for planners, and connecting attendees and exhibitors in ways that were never possible with paper. The recognition of BOBtv at EIBTM 2012 underscores the internet’s powerful role in meetings and events technology, providing a real alternative to face-to-face meetings. But does this mean we are slowly turning the corner on hybrid meetings as a second-best option, and moving into an era when experiencing events online is just as good?

A genuine alternative?
“There are many people out there who absolutely prefer to go to face-to-face events,” says Tony Lorenz, founder of BOBtv. “I am one of them. But to the extent that I cannot get there, which is most often the case, I have a second alternative.” BOBtv makes this second alternative as seamless and easy as possible. Subscribers to the network can participate in events from a remote location, live or on-demand, through video streaming. The idea is to expand the reach of an event with the help of the internet, and in doing so drive attendance in the future.

For most industry professionals, attending face-to-face events is simply not cost-efficient. “Often an association’s members don’t make it,” says Lorenz. “The decision’s already been made by the market. So what we want to do is take the extension of the event into the population of those who could not attend.”

However, while the internet can streamline and improve the online meeting experience, will the day come when technology is sophisticated enough to replicate actual face-to-face events? Merion Trask, managing director for IML, a provider of audience insight technology, believes this is possible. “I think technically, it will be able to replicate face-to-face events,” he says. “But I don’t think it will replace them.” If anything were to seriously impact the ability to hold face-to-face meetings, he thinks it would be other factors, “say, the cost of fuel goes up massively – other considerations”.

Chuck Ghoorah, cofounder and EVP sales & marketing of Cvent, a meetings technology company with over 150,000 users across 90 countries, observes that the rise in demand for virtual meetings in recent years has simply been to augment a live event. “As we become more connected digitally, we find that the value of face-to-face meetings is actually increasing,” he says. “Face-to-face events provide the opportunity to create meaningful business relationships. Our DNA is wired to prefer face-to-face interaction, and the primary goal of technology is to enhance and streamline that interaction.”

What’s interesting about technology is that the more it evolves, the clearer the nature and purpose of a meeting becomes. “I think the physical meeting itself hasn’t really changed over the years,” says Trask. “There’s always new equipment, new technology, but largely to do the same thing. I don’t think there’s been any major differences in what people are trying to get out of a meeting.”

Replacement or enhancement?
Katerina Tam, director of Hong Kong-based event management company International Conference Consultants, thinks that virtual meetings will become more and more popular – but that they won’t replace face-to-face meetings. “No matter how advanced technology is, it cannot offer the personal touch that face-to-face meetings offer to participants. The networking opportunities are equally important – if not more important – than the content of the meeting itself.” BOBtv’s Lorenz agrees that nothing can take the place of face-to-face events – but his view is that “there is an opportunity to help face-to-face events become more prolific, or more valuable, because of online channels that reach more people”.

After all, it’s the cyber platforms that today help spread the word, distribute information and make shared experiences – physical and virtual – possible, enabling increasingly elaborate, interactive and engaging meetings and events. Technology has streamlined, if not eliminated, the most tedious aspects of the meetings scene, and through the World Wide Web it amplifies its potential. The internet’s role, then, remains as an enhancer rather than a game-changer for the events industry – but its value is not diminished.



1. Meetings technology will continue to get cheaper and easier to use.

Web services and open-source technology will make it easier, cheaper and faster to create, distribute and use technology in planning. Some of these free or low-cost options include Guidebook’s DIY meeting mobile app, ConstantContact’s Online Event Registration, Google Hangouts On Air for video conferencing and Joomla’s website building and content management tools.

2. Tablet devices will make paperless conference binders a reality.
Light and portable iPads, Galaxy Notes and other tablet devices are making access to event materials as convenient as possible for meeting planners, discarding their need for paper document.

3. Conference attendees will no longer need paper.
All information pertaining to an event – speaker bios, session notes, exhibit info – will be housed in mobile apps, which can be native (downloadable to your device and accessible without internet connection) or web-based. Mobile apps also sport other features such as interactive maps, social networking capabilities, feeds for real-time updates on the event, polling, appointment making and agenda planning.

4. Mobile apps will enable site inspections.
Venues are building apps for meeting planners, attendees and visitors in order to engage them even before they arrive. These apps usually include interactive maps and virtual tours, offering far more than brochure or website images.

5. Tiered free wifi will become available in most venues.
Wifi has become a necessity at events, with attendees, planners and exhibitors demanding internet connection. Convention centres and many hotel groups – including The Peninsula, Hyatt Place, Accor, Four Points and Shangri-La – recognise this, offering free wifi in lobbies and meeting spaces.

6. Event wifi problems will get worse before getting better.
Attendees have multiple devices accessing a single wifi signal at an event, and expect the same quality of broadband connection as they would get at home or in the office. While the technology exists to provide high-density delivery of wifi, equipment and bandwidth is expensive, and meeting planners and venues sales teams will have to work out a way to supply the increasing demand.

7.New indoor positioning options will provide better event and exhibition way-finding and mapping.
As of July 2012, over 10,000 indoor maps were available for venues such as airports, shopping centres, museums and hotels. Though challenges remain for this type of technology – some apps are available only on Android devices, exhibit halls constantly undergo changes, etc – there is a natural demand to bring this technology to event facilities.

8. Internet video will see unprecedented growth for event marketing, communication and audience engagement.
As the costs of producing and distributing videos online drop dramatically, events are going to leverage them to expand their reach. Videos can be used before, during and after an event to deliver information and drive attendance at future events.

9. Hybrid events will continue to grow, spurred by an increasing variety of low-cost distribution options
With smartphones and laptops fitted with HD video cameras, and free video-streaming options and recording services now available online, hybrid events have become far easier to pull off. Yet event producers are still discovering how best to use these new tools to engage a remote audience.

10. Consolidation and acquisition of meetings tech vendors will continue.
Larger event technology companies are expanding their offerings to include beginning-to-end meeting solutions in an integrated platform. This makes it simpler for meeting planners and event attendees, who will need to engage with only one technology solutions provider.

11. Event gamification will increase attendee engagement and drive behaviour.
Gamification – using game theory for traditionally non-game activities, such as an event – can be used to engage attendees in a number of ways. These include completing a social networking profile or earning a frequent shopper loyalty award, challenges between participants and scavenger hunts around an exhibit hall.

12. Social media will continue to integrated in the meeting planning process
Social media has significant potential to enhance the attendee experience: networking via LinkedIn and Facebook enables participants to find contacts with common interests; Twitter hashtags promote widely discussed topics on-site as well as real-time news and updates; Pinterest has proven a fun and interesting platform to share information and ideas on venues, speakers and destinations. Social networks can also provide feedback to help improve events.

13. Despite the increased use of virtual meetings technology, face-to-face meetings and trade shows will remain viable
There is a role for hybrid and virtual meetings in short information exchange. Meetings, however, are relationship-based and provide a richer, more targeted and focused learning experience than any virtual meeting. Virtual meetings will replace face-to-face meetings when virtual honeymoons replace real ones!

Source: Corbin Ball Associates, www.corbinball.com

Johna Baylon


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