Voices off: a hologram at last month’s Meet the Future conference

You are at a conference and the speaker on stage is walking up and down and gesticulating to emphasise his points as he talks to a female presenter. All quite impressive, considering he is not on stage at all, but is a hologram.

The technology was demonstrated at a recent London conference and the man was in a booth off-stage but organisers say he could just as easily have been in San Francisco.

Technology is revolutionising the conference experience and not just to create razzle dazzle entertainment for delegates. It is also transforming the economics.

Organising 140 conferences a year used to be a labour-intensive task says Marty Hoski, global manager for travel and meetings operations at ETS, a US-based education assessment organisation. His 14-member team had filing cabinets full of folders containing manually-prepared paper documents relating to contracts for exhibitors, speakers, catering staff and other participants.

Now the process is automated, using Cvent, a cloud-based software service that provides apps to help with everything from venue selection and online registration to travel booking, payment, email marketing and web surveys.

Using the apps enables each event to be managed as an individual project and it takes a fraction of the time, Mr Hoski says.

By subscribing to a service, rather than trying to build the software itself, ETS gets access to the latest technology and can sign up for whatever components it wants: “All we need is a browser and internet access.”

In addition to helping with administration, apps from companies such as Cvent and Eventbrite allow conference organisers to monitor who attends which sessions in real time and to use this information for follow-up marketing.

Up to 25 per cent of marketing budgets is spent on events, says David Chalmers, marketing director of Cvent. “Software that lets you run campaigns and integrate them with your sales and marketing workflow sounds dull and dry, but it is transformational in proving return on investment for an event.”

Organisers can also use the apps to analyse chatter on social media. They can assess the level of interest from people not attending the event, for example by seeing how many messages are “liked” on Facebook or retweeted. This helps plan a better event next time, says Renaud Visage, chief technology officer and co-founder of Eventbrite.

“Delegates can be offered the chance to book seats at networking sessions, panel discussions or lunch tables where they can meet delegates who want to discuss the same topics,” Mr Visage says.

This has turned out to be one of the most popular aspects of the Eventbrite app. Another useful app, sli.do, allows delegates to submit questions during a presentation and to vote for their favourites so that those have more chance of being asked.

For Jackie Chi, manager of strategic initiatives at The Culinary Institute of America, based in Hyde Park, New York, being able to include maps and guides, and change them at the last minute, has been a big advantage of the app approach.

“There are often late changes, such as a presenter dropping out or a new sponsor coming in,” Ms Chi says. “You couldn’t reprint the guide but you can update the app in a few minutes.”

Moreover, daily maps can be provided for areas where the location of exhibitor booths is changed each morning depending on the theme for the day. This is useful for event staff as well as delegates, Ms Chi says.

Apps are much more convenient to use than printed guides, she adds. “They are not just available online, but from a smartphone in the palm of your hand. That’s much easier than rummaging in your handbag or briefcase to find details of the next speaker.”

Not all conference apps have proved popular. Apps that let people exchange electronic business cards by “bumping” smartphones were introduced a few years ago but did not take off. They were too cumbersome and worked only for people with the same system.

Much progress has been made since then, says Daniel Curtis, a director of emc3, a London-based event organiser. “Nobody was interested in 2010 when we tried to introduce an app that let conference organisers register delegates as they arrived on iPads and print badges,” he says. “But we had to build the software ourselves and it had glitches. Now you can buy or subscribe online to packages, although they can still be expensive for small organisations.”

Futuristic technologies such as 3D holograms are beyond the financial resources of most conference organisers at present, says Eventbrite’s Mr Visage. “And lots of technologies require high levels of bandwidth, which might not be available or require installation of special equipment.”

Nor does technology solve all conference problems. There is no way at present to prevent leakages and restrict participants from sharing information from the event. “You just have to depend on people’s honesty,” says Mr Visage. In the end, anything that makes conferences more exciting, engaging and fun is likely to get adopted, he believes. But in reality, many people still prefer to exchange traditional business cards.

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