Maybe, Finally, Big Data That Event Organizers Can Use

by Michael Hart

Hard to believe now, but three years ago the cutting-edge technology that vendors were pitching at IAEE’s Expo! Expo! was the mobile app.

This year it was an Internet of Things phenomenon that could potentially have a real-world impact on the events industry: wearables–more specifically, beacons.

I know, I know. Beacons on the showfloor are not exactly new. Show organizers have been experimenting with them for the last couple years. However, organizers have also complained that it was difficult for them to understand how to use the data they accumulated in any kind of efficient way.

That’s what may have changed. At this year’s Expo! Expo! in Anaheim, vendors–old standbys and start-ups alike–were pitching demonstrations of how the data gathered could be sliced, diced and actually used. The conference component of the show included one session in which a show organizer was able to demonstrate how she managed to find meaning in the data that has befuddled so many who have gone before her.

That mobile show app, the one-time star of the show, has become ubiquitous, even if it hasn’t exactly lived up to its promise. Organizers feel like they can’t do without one, but the number of attendees who download it varies wildly from show to show. Even then, most attendees still simply use it to find the exhibitors they want to visit and the conference sessions they want to go to.

As a data collection device, the mobile app has been a disappointment, given that attendee use is iffy and the Bluetooth function has to be turned on–all in all, too much for an attendee to do to rely on.

Meanwhile, a beacon can simply be attached to a badge (with the attendee’s permission, of course). It can then track that attendee’s activities throughout the event, both on and off the showfloor.

Jean Heiss, the director of meetings and events for the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), said in a session she led titled “Behavioral Data: The New Tradeshow Currency” (along with Terence Donnelly of Experient) that her association’s board knew it needed to make changes to its annual event, but it didn’t know exactly how. Mere assumptions weren’t good enough.

“We decided to pull back the rug and learn what the truth was about the show,” Heiss said.

Employing beacon technology at the IFT annual event in Chicago this year, among the things she learned was:

  • “Dwell time,” the amount of time attendees were spending in specific booths, information she could share with exhibitors, knowing that the longer the duration of a visit, the more likely a purchase is.
  • Behaviors, not just demographics. For instance, the data indicated that first-time attendees tended to wander about the event with what appeared to be little planning. “We could see they were kind of lost,” she said. That told Heiss she needed to do a better job in the future with first-timer orientation.
  • Solid information on how few people attended legacy components of the event, like an annual awards ceremony. “There was a lot of emotion on the board tied up with that,” Heiss said. So, hard numbers made it easier for them to make decisions about its future.
  • Information on how much time some attendees spent in lounge areas, indicating some of them–who may have, for instance, remained at the same table for three or four hours–were suitcasing.

Heiss plans to employ the technology again next year when the show rotates to Las Vegas, where its international attendance typically picks up, presumably because those attendees enjoy the city. The question she hopes beacon technology answers is: Do those international attendees really attend the show, or do they spend most of their time in the casino?

The technology can also identify the “power” attendees, those who attend the most conference sessions and spend the most time engaged with exhibitors, information that can be used in the future as marketers encourage them to “tell their friends.”

One caveat to beacon technology: Nearly unanimous attendee buy-in is required. Otherwise, a sufficient amount of actionable data is not possible. The upside there is that privacy is no longer quite the issue it was a few years ago. People–not only on the showfloor, but in the larger society–want to receive messages that are personalized and they’re beginning to understand they won’t get those messages unless they supply some information about themselves.

Most attendees at Expo! Expo! agreed to have a beacon attached to their badges. In exchange, they will receive a report on their own activities during the show.

Beacons and behavioral data were certainly this year’s “pet” technology. It remains to be seen how long it sticks around.

Michael Hart is a business consultant and writer who focuses on the event industry. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com.

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