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Event technology encompasses many different platforms and processes that meeting planners weave into the canvas of the attendee user experience in myriad ways.
Today, event tech is especially shifting how planners design conferences in terms of venue selection, attendee and brand engagement, and end-to-end event management.
As much as we hoped, 2016 will not go down as the year when the meetings industry shifted from its deeply embedded analog ways toward the light of a tech-enabled future. There’s still a lot of education needed in the industry to drive higher adoption rates among meeting attendees and prove the deliverables for meeting planners.
According to a Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) study released last week, conducted in partnership with Lanyon, only 57 percent of planners use some type of meeting management technology, even though 96 percent reported that they find value in the software. Furthermore, a mere 58 percent of people who plan meetings and don’t currently use event tech see the potential for technology to eventually improve their programs.
Meaning, 42 percent of those responsible for bringing people together to drive business forward, and who don’t use technology presently, are firmly ensconced in the past looking backward.
Skift spoke with a number of established event tech leaders at the IMEX America meetings-industry trade show last month for an update on how meeting planners are using digital platforms to marry online and offline connectivity in 2016.
Shift Toward Data-Driven Business Outcomes
One of the primary goals in event tech today revolves around leveraging data captured at conferences to align meeting design and business goals throughout the entire attendee journey. Event tech companies are providing CMOs with a wealth of data, but everyone is still trying to figure out how best to connect the dots.
“A couple years ago, event technology was all about engaging the attendees in a mobile and digital way because that’s what the attendees wanted, so the purpose really wasn’t to gather data necessarily,” said Emily He, CMO of DoubleDutch, a mobile app and event analytics company. “It was really to care for the attendees to give them a more memorable and satisfactory experience.”
Today, because event tech platforms capture so much more data on attendee behavior, he said, the focus has shifted toward “linking event activity and business outcomes” to inform overall event strategy.
“Now, people are now looking to the data, and they’re getting a better understanding of the business and the customers and the prospects,” she explained. “Because when you go to an event today, there’s almost like two events going on. One is the physical event, and the other one is the digital conversations. Event organizers are now moving to the next phase, which is integrating the two experiences, and really using the digital experience and data to orchestrate the physical experience.”
In other words, the goal is to track online conversation, digital downloads, webpage visits, appointment bookings, session bookmarks, social media hashtag mentions, and many other event engagement metrics to adjust event design and deliver the highest return on investment.
To do that effectively, meeting planners are attempting to track and measure the entire attendee journey from the first communication through the event experience to post-event follow up. The challenge is that many planners use multiple platforms for managing meetings so they’ll work with one company for event registration, another for the mobile app, another for cost management etc.
According to He, a few tech companies are attempting to build platforms to collect all of that data in one place, but anything workable is still a ways off.
“We’re all still in the process of cobbling that together, because I don’t think the technology or the mindset are 100 percent there yet, but it’s moving in the right direction,” she said. “We’ve always had the metrics in different places, like the number of appointments someone made and what sessions they attended, but it’s still unclear what planners can do to impact those metrics from start to finish to make attendees convert more on desired actions.”
Shift Toward Account-Based Marketing
We asked He for the larger context around the business drivers behind the evolution of data capture at events. She said CMOs are all saying there’s a lot of digital fatigue, because “marketing used to be all about broadcasting your message everywhere, but’s there’s too much noise out there, and people are overwhelmed.”
Now, she explained, marketers are focused on tailoring the message and using events to personalize their connection with consumers in a live forum. It’s basically a shift from quantity to quality relationship marketing.
“At least for enterprise software, there was all this talk about inbound campaigns, demand gen, and driving leads, but now we’ve switched to ‘ABM,’ or account-based marketing,” He explained. “It’s all about creating intimate relationships and 1-to-1 marketing, and really taking care of accounts, and going deep on accounts. Ultimately, that’s going to lead to some kind of in-person engagement at an event. CMOs are telling me they’re now using events for conversion, so that’s the ultimate goal to close deals.”
CMOs are also in a much better position to justify the cost of events, she added, based on event data and all of the “engagement signals” provided by that data, such as content downloads and session attendance.
“We’re still very early with trigger-based marketing, even though it’s prevalent in other channels, but it’s new for events,” He told us. “We’ve never really thought about events this way before.”
Automated Creative Venue Selection
The automated booking wars for creative small meeting venues is heating up with companies like Spacebase expanding at a rapid pace.
As reported early this year, Berlin-based Spacebase provides an online platform to directly book meeting space at almost 2,000 privately owned venues across Europe, including everything from photography studios to co-working spaces. The company launched in February 2015.
Last month, Spacebase expanded its portal to include U.S.-based events, beginning with 150 venues located in New York like this large penthouse workshop in Tribeca. Company founder Jan Hoffmann-Keining says he expects to have 300 bookable spaces in the city online by the end of the year.
“The reason why we’re expanding into the U.S. is because we feel like we’ve become the dominant player in Europe as we have the most spaces and the strongest demand now,” Hoffmann-Keining told Skift. “We want to show we can actually scale this business globally, and the reason we chose New York was because the real estate dynamics are very promising, with high density and high demand for space.”
While Spacebase has been successful in Europe, Hoffmann-Keining said North Americans “are actually much more advanced in the sense of how they book and how they handle transactions online. Presently, more than 50 percent of Spacebase bookings in Europe are still made via phone, email, and chat.
“We’re trying to push them more toward online booking,” said Hoffmann-Keining. “Although, we can see that after they start booking once or twice initially, they generally move to online booking.”
The majority of Spacebase’s clients are not certified meeting planners. They tend to be office managers, project managers and administrative staff, for example, so the company has rolled out a series of monthly client education and networking events across Germany. The goal is to show non-professional event organizers how to develop more effective and engaging meetings, “because we see unprofessional planners are often a little bit left on their own,” according to Hoffmann-Keining.
Thorben Grosser, general manager of EventMobi Europe, collaborates with Spacebase on some of these events.
“When you’re trying to find meeting space, you’re pretty much stuck with hotels and maybe special event spaces, but at the same time there is so much creative space standing around empty,” said Grosser. “So Spacebase is filling that gap, and a lot of times the private spaces are more affordable than hotels, too.”
He added that meeting and event planning “hasn’t been professionalized in Europe the same way it has in the U.S.,” so the educational events are important, but not just for the buyers. The venues are also learning about what they can do to drive additional bookings, such as providing better equipment, catering, and services.
Planners Want More Speed, Choice And Value
MeetingsBooker was one of the first companies to offer direct online bookings for meeting space back in 2009. The platform includes more than 70,000 spaces in 20,000 hotels and creative venues in 134 countries. Transactions are split basically evenly between hotel and non-hotel spaces.
Founder Ciaran Delaney remembers working at Tourism Ireland years ago, where it was always a hassle to book meeting space for small groups up to 100 people.
“Hotels treat small meetings the same way they treat large conferences, because you still have to go back and forth with requests-for-proposals (RFPs), room charts, and contracts, and there’s no real channel for small group bookings for many of them,” Delaney said. “But hotel meeting sales staffs are getting more electronic RFPs than ever, and their time is getting stretched. So the main driver for both the hotels and the meeting planners is speed. Everyone just wants to get this done.”
Delaney’s focus these days is helping venues manage yield by providing the ability to post fluid rates depending on demand and length of advance booking, which in turn helps planners seek out better deals. He said the revenue management ability is “new for most hotels,” which generally have set pricing for small groups based on occupancy. Hotels can also embed a white-label MeetingsBooker platform in their own websites to make the process seamless, transparent, and available around the clock.
“Having immediate access to rates 24/7 is the big thing,” said Delaney. “Today it’s all about speed, choice, and value.”
Like-Minded Attendee Engagement
One of the biggest challenges for event planners is helping attendees connect with other like-minded people in addition to the exhibitors and thought leaders attending any given event. The ability for attendees to tap into the collective knowledge of the audience is proving to be a tough nut to crack for even the most advanced events. As any conference delegate knows, the average cocktail reception filled with random, anonymous people is typically a waste of time for many people seeking real connections with real business potential.
Described by some as a cross between LinkedIn and Match.com, Zenvoy launched this year to specifically focus on delivering those types of connections before, during, and after an event. Think of it as a LinkedIn-Lite that you might actually use, because the platform is streamlined, intuitive, and dedicated to developing business relationships.
Event participants first sign in to add their profile information, including things like industry, specialty, age, and location. Then they select any number of identity and interest tags that can be given different weights to inform the algorithm how best to source other attendees with similar interests.
Users choose how often they would like to receive automatic introductions to other Zenvoy members via email. Bill Webster, COO of Zenvoy, emphasized that the platform is both web and app-based, but the connections are all made via email because most people don’t want to have to return repeatedly to sign into a closed system. So, people could just spend five minutes uploading their info, and then never return to Zenvoy if they didn’t feel the need to, but they could keep receiving introductions.
“About 80 percent of people just show up to a conference and don’t really engage in any meaningful way online, and often it’s because they just don’t have time,” said Webster. “So we’re laser-focused on helping them build mutually beneficial, one-on-one connections. We don’t do event networking as one of 13 spokes in our company.”
This is interesting also in terms of the data it provides event managers. IMEX America contracted Zenvoy this year to build an online network for hosted buyers and association members. So far, more than 3,000 IMEX attendees have opted into the site. Webster said the IMEX female population aged 35-45 is much more active than any other demographic, and the average age of all participants is 44.29 years old with 15.09 years of experience.
“What is fascinating is that they are looking to meet colleagues who do what they do,” he explained. “We can assume that, based on the data in general, they are hungry to meet and exchange best practices with peers rather than traditional business development-centric networking.”
This is not a sure thing, however. Whether Zenvoy’s “extended business card” platform scales significantly depends somewhat on how aggressively event organizers promote the platform. Everyone today is already over-invested in online social experiences, but this is arguably one of the first such tools that shows real potential for industry peers to connect. Events can also white-label and embed Zenvoy in their sites.
“There’s all of this engagement between the buyers and exhibitors at IMEX, which is the reason why people are there, of course” Webster said. “But buyers also want to ask each other, ‘Hey, tell me how you solved this problem.'”