The discussion revolving around event technology in destination meetings has exploded in the last year among hotels and tourism bureaus trying to come to grips with the exponential growth in demand for event tech and the onslaught of new tech providers.

Central to the conversation, the debate about virtual meetings encroaching on face-to-face meetings has the hospitality and tourism sector aggressively promoting the value of in-person meetings and business events. At the same time, many travel suppliers are adapting quickly to the need for more fluid and dynamic meeting design integrating new forms of technology and digital communications at every level.

On Monday, American Express Meetings & Events released a new research report called Great Expectations: The Evolving Landscape of Technology in Meetings. A total of 336 meeting planners and 161 attendees, mostly U.S-based, answered survey questions relating to virtual meetings and event apps.

While event tech is nothing new, 2014 marked a turning point in adoption among meeting attendees. IMEX America in October 2013—the country’s largest meeting industry gathering—launched its first-ever Tech Hub & App Bar. During its sister show in Europe this year, IMEX Frankfurt, usage of the dedicated event app rose 600% according to IMEX figures.

Likewise, the most popular area at the IBTM America industry trade show this year was the new TechBar, operated by The Meeting Pool, designed to educate planners about the latest event tech.

That said, there is widespread uncertainty among the industry today with regard to the overall return on investment of event tech. Because of the newness of so many platforms and providers, meeting planners often have relatively few benchmarks that have been established over time. Compounding the challenges, there’s a wide swath of planners, attendees and hospitality/tourism executives who are undereducated about technology to really appreciate, let alone calculate, the potential ROI of event tech.

“These technologies provide planners with greater opportunities to increase engagement and generate and capture real-time feedback, while attendees can gain a richer and more connected experience throughout the event life cycle,” said Issa Jouaneh, VP and general manager of American Express Meetings & Events, in a written statement yesterday. “What our research has found, however, is that there can be an ‘expectation gap’ between the technologies meeting planners believe should be incorporated into an event, and the solutions attendees expect to be part of their meeting experience. What they have in common is that as good as technology is, there is simply no substitute for in-person meetings.”

The Virtual Meetings Debate

The AMEX report asked how many meeting planners offer virtual meetings at least 50% of the time, dependent on the group’s size. Attendees were asked how often they attend online events based on the same criteria. Planners responded that they offer an online meeting option at least 50% of the time for smaller events (10-49 attendees), compared to 42%, 32% and 24% for medium, large and very large meetings (500 or more attendees), respectively.

Meanwhile, 38% of attendees participated virtually in at least half of their small meetings, going down to 18% for very large meetings. It would seem as a meeting grows in size, the perceived value of attending that meeting increases due to higher levels of available networking opportunities and educational experiences.

The survey responses relating to reasons why planners and attendees don’t offer/attend more virtual meetings is interesting, and it forms part of the argument that hotels and tourism bureaus use to support the value of face-to-face meetings.

A total of 68% of planners argue that attendees are too easily distracted when they attend virtual meetings, while almost half (45%) of attendees agreed with that view. Furthermore, 74% of attendees and 85% of planners responded: “In-person meetings are more valuable to me because they allow more social interaction.”

At the same time, the report adds: “Surprisingly, attendees and planners agree that cost and technology issues no longer seem to be major virtual meeting hurdles. Only 18% of attendees and 16% of planners agree that: ‘Meeting and event organizers can’t afford to make meetings available virtually.’ And only 18% of attendees and 24% of planners feel that: ‘There are too many technology issues when attending meetings and events.’”

Two more stats illustrate some of the confusion in the meetings industry today regarding technology.

When 63% of attendees say they would attend more virtual meetings if the option was available, and only 36% of planners feel virtual events provide a good return on investment, the report suggests: “These attitudes and this disconnect are responsible for the slow adoption of virtual meeting solutions.”

The Rise of the Meeting App

An event app is basically like a dedicated social network and appointment calendar for the community of participants at a specific meeting. They can be as simple or as complex as a meeting planner wishes, with pricing to develop them ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars.

The Meeting Professionals International (MPI) organization went completely paperless for the first time at its World Education Congress this summer in Minneapolis. QuickMobile created the event app, as it does for IMEX America, which hosts a myriad of functionality including personalized session scheduling, session content and speaker info, social media, an activity feed and feedback forum, and in-app email among delegates.

MPI decided to go without any written material this year because the advances in app technology, better UX/UI, and higher adoption rates today support it. How planners and attendees in the AMEX Report ranked various app features is illustrated in this chart.

Technology_in_Meetings-REPORT-1

The AMEX survey shows that 67% of planners think event apps are important or very important, while 55% attendees feel the same way. Expect those numbers to rise sharply in coming years.

The report reads: “Meeting apps have become a critical part of large events and conferences. We expect that meeting apps will also become an essential part of medium and large meetings. Instant mobile access to the event schedule is the ‘killer-app’ feature that ensures that everyone will download the meeting app, and activity feeds are seeing substantial use by attendees according to data from app developers.”

One of the most underutilized features of event apps today is the ability to monitor attendee engagement and measure the success of any meeting based on a variety of metrics. Planners can see which sessions are the most popular, collect feedback, track social media, and adjust schedules and update news items on the fly.

Surprisingly, according to the survey results, only 29% of planners indicate that they always or often monitor attendee engagement.

The AMEX survey responds to that low interest from planners, stating: “These results suggest that very few are measuring the success of their meeting, which means that even fewer are setting goals upfront and measuring return on investment.”

Case Study: Sheraton Hotels GM Conference

In May, Sheraton Hotels held its first-ever global GM Conference at the Sheraton Seattle to ascertain where GMs needed help with their continuing education, especially relating to event tech.

Hoyt Harper, SVP, global brand leader at Sheraton Hotels, told us that hospitality executives need to keep up with tech trends just as much as planners “to leverage technology to enable more integration and participation seamlessly.”

The Holy Grail for meeting planners is the ability to extend the time window of any face-to-face meeting before and after the event, either online, within the app or preferably both. Delivering educational content and establishing conversation earlier builds engagement leading up to an event, so attendees arrive with more well-formed questions, more developed relationships with other attendees, and a better grasp of the meeting’s overall context. Extending the discussion post-event allows planners to collect feedback and gauge the success of a meeting.

For the Sheraton GM Conference, Harper took on some of the responsibilities of a meeting planner to gain deeper insight into the process.

“The preparation for that was eye-opening for me, because we’ve always talked about helping our customers have more successful meetings, but being the meeting planner and content developer put things in a new perspective,” he said.

Six months before the conference, Sheraton created an online training program with 11 modules that all of the GMs had to complete prior to the event. Everyone’s score was tracked, and based on those results, the GMs were sent to various breakout sessions during the event to strengthen their knowledge in specific areas. The attendees were also asked to share their areas of interest and expertise online beforehand, which Sheraton then used to create sessions based on certain topics of discussion.

“So we personalized the breakout sessions based on strengths and weaknesses… and we adapted our meeting content based on feedback,” explained Harper. “So the long and short of it was, the whole meeting could be personalized using technology.”

All of the GMs were presented with new tablets with a dedicated event app to help them navigate the paperless program, and on the first day Sheraton offered one-hour classes for anyone requiring assistance. The device was the sole communication tool, along with the attendee’s name tags, for the entire conference.

“Everything they wanted to know was on the tablet and the app,” Harper said. “It was our way of communicating with them and receiving feedback from them…. And the beauty of that was, we let our hotel GMs learn what we wanted them to deliver to all future meeting attendees.”

Lastly, we asked Harper how Millennials are driving Sheraton’s increasing development in event tech.

“Millennials have caused us to change everything we do, so we’re mobile first in everything.” he answered. “But when we talk about Millennials, we don’t just talk about young people. Digital crosses all generations and it allows our customers to be more spontaneous, because we’re personalizing and customizing their experience. That’s what people want, whether they’re traveling alone or with 500 other people.”

Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development. Email: go@skift.com

Photo Credit: Dahlia El Gazzar (right), CEO of The Meeting Pool, operates the TechBar at the IBTM America meeting industry trade show / IBTM America