Mastering meeting tech

Cynthia Bullock, a member of MPI’s Eastern Great Lakes Chapter, didn’t panic last winter when a snowstorm kept several attendees of a 60-person government meeting she had planned from reaching the scheduled hotel location in Maryland. Bullock, Director of Meeting and Event Services at Oakridge, Tennessee-based Integrated Solutions and Services, simply asked the attendees to join virtually, from wherever they were.

“They went home or back to their hotel rooms and used their laptop or iPad to work with us through Adobe Connect,” she says. “It saved the day.”

Pulling together a hybrid meeting, that is one with both live and virtual components, is a useful trick to have in a planner’s repertoire. More than half of respondents (51 per cent) surveyed for the spring MPI Outlook report said their organisations now use virtual and hybrid technologies to enhance meetings or to integrate onsite and remote meeting elements.

In using such technologies defensively, as Bullock did to keep participation in her meeting up, some planners realise how they can also help stay within budget.

“You save all of the additional costs of having to delay a meeting to another day,” Bullock adds. She has also found that such technologies can be used strategically to attract presenters who may not be available to fly to a gathering.

“It’s a great way to bring in some high-end speakers who are only going to appear for 15-20 minutes,” Bullock says.

The widespread adoption of virtual and hybrid technologies is occurring at a time when technological innovation has become an integral part of the lives of meeting professionals, many of whom are on a constant hunt to find better ways to integrate tech-based tools into everything from proposal requests to onsite attendee experiences?whether to save time, make a gathering more memorable or add to the value of an event.

Economic conditions seem to have influenced the willingness to innovate. European meeting and event market conditions lag behind the US and Canadian markets in terms of economic stability and recovery, with significant government austerity measures taken by EU member countries having a deep, long-lasting effect. 

In this climate, EU meeting and event professionals have embraced technology and innovation at a faster pace and are more willing to explore and adopt new technology. This may be due to the financial pressure to do more with less, or cultural differences between regions.

In contrast, Canadian meeting and event professionals have been least affected by domestic economic uncertainty and are seeing the least volatility in business levels. While they clearly express intentions to keep improving the attendee experience and achieve better overall outcomes, they feel less pressure to rapidly innovate technologically and to experiment with new tools.

DSM, a 23,000-employee firm in Heerlen, Netherlands, has actively embraced virtual and hybrid meeting technologies since the recession. Alise Long from MPI’s Netherlands Chapter and a manager of corporate meetings and events, first used the company’s Tandberg Videoconferencing System, with help from the internal ICT team, to connect employees to the firm’s top management conference in 2009. The virtual meeting brought together 500 people from five hubs around the world.

“It was an amazing production,” she says, “and it led to a huge increase in use of the videoconferencing system internally.”

Long was so excited by how well the meeting went that when it was again held in 2012, she opted for a face-to-face meeting with a hybrid approach, even though she had the budget to bring together 400 people at a face-to-face gathering at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Washington, D.C. In addition to the in-person attendees, she included 3,000 participants who viewed the live-streamed proceedings and could submit comments, chat-style, to the moderator via a jet communication tool. If, for instance, a question came from a remote attendee in Brazil, the moderator might say: ‘Good morning, Brazil. I see so-and-so has a question,’ Long says. Then an executive at the live meeting would stand up and answer it.

For the company’s 2014 event, Long is planning a full hybrid meeting.

“It is so much easier now,” says Long, who is investigating ways to give remote participants an even more active role.

Virtual and hybrid technologies are far from the only way that planners are integrating new technologies in meetings. Brenda Carter from MPI’s Toronto Chapter is an event manager at KPMG Management Services and was impressed with how attendees responded to the use of MingleStick at a 1,400-delegate event for the firm’s alumni at Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts.

KPMG rented the digital devices, which attendees could point at people they met to download their contact info and access it later, in lieu of trading traditional business cards. (Each person’s data had been previously entered into the system upon check-in.) Besides being convenient, the MingleSticks were a nice icebreaker.

“Everyone thought it was fun,” Carter says. “We had people in their 20s, up to some in their 70s. All were thrilled with the concept.”

Shannon Guggenheim, a member of MPI Texas Hill Country Chapter, joined EventLink International in Dallas as a Senior Account Manager after working at the tech firm Ixia where there was considerable demand for podcasts from clients (either because they offered a savings over live meetings or were more convenient). Network engineers there found it difficult to step away from the job for five days and go to an event, she notes.

Apps have become another important part of the meeting planner’s tool kit. At a 400-person government event, Bullock used a mobile scanning system to check in attendees and found it worked well for the organiser.

“We were able to save them a lot of money by not having as many people on staff just to do registration,” she says.

Bullock also recently tested Personify Live, a videoconferencing tool that lets users present virtually against a backdrop of their own presentation materials, rather than showing the room they are in.

“Just to be aware of what’s out there puts you in the forefront in this competitive market,” she says.

The increasing use of technology has in some cases required planners to renegotiate contracts to reflect lower costs for high-speed wireless internet access, though this isn’t always a top concern.

“I don’t believe we’ve had to re-negotiate any contracts,” says Carter, though she notes she has seen growing attention in Canada to getting the best prices for Internet services at conferences.

In addition to mastering a more tech-enabled world, meeting professionals have had to tackle the continuing challenge of short lead times. Fifty-three per cent of respondents said lead times were getting shorter, up from 46 per cent in the December 2013 Outlook.

As organisers’ budgets have increased in stabilising markets, planners have had to arrange larger meetings and events in tighter time frames. Declines in room availability in the US have posed challenges for organisations accustomed to using short lead times to protect themselves from attrition. In some cases, planners and suppliers have revisited attrition clauses to ensure longer lead times. Shorter lead times have been the norm for many meeting professionals in recent years and tech tools to help clients handle registration and manage their meeting space are on the increase.

Meetings Outlook is developed in partnership with Dallas CVB and supported in partnership with IMEX. Research is conducted by Association Insights.

This was first published in the July/August issue of CN. Any comments? Email Paul Colston

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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