While it may once have been commonplace to ask delegates to turn their mobiles off before a session, the reverse is now the case. Be it a tweet or Android-based app to direct you to the event, something interactive to guide you through the meetings space itself or a variety of multi-platform smart apps providing speaker biographies and associated websites, smartphones and iPads are now as ubiquitous at events as plastic name badges.
“The mobile really is an additional limb for many people and it’s a massive wasted opportunity if conference organisers don’t capitalise on Twitter and LinkedIn to amplify the effects of their business event and increase the reach outside the meeting room itself,” says Dean Russell, digital marketing director, Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), for the global communications agency LEWIS PR.
Return on investment or return on opportunity remains as pertinent as ever though, and at a time when attendees and their employers demand more bangs for their day-out-of-the-office buck, the goal of tailored content – or what Mr Russell calls “a genuinely individual and unique experience” – is now in sight, thanks to digitalisation.
“My top tip is to create a hash tag for each and every event. Remember that mobile users want small snippets of information and brief slides to help them feel engaged, not reams of figures and commentary. Easy capture is vital for mobile devices and the people who use them,” he adds.
At the event itself, delegates increasingly use their mobiles to ask questions, vote and meet up, while tweeting and the posting of updates to LinkedIn and other sites helps spread the word about how the event is going, and attracts interest from outside the room.
If mobiles and iPads are a great way for delegates to self-navigate and customise their event experience, they are also an important weapon in helping organisers identify problems on the day and ensure the meeting runs smoothly, says Sue Potton, an independent events consultant.
“There is no doubt that constant connectivity and live responses from attendees can help organisers do their jobs more efficiently,” she says.
A lot has been written about the Millennial Generation – those aged 18 to 30 and the majority of event attendees – and their short attention span. In order to communicate and engage with 20-somethings effectively, must event organisers simply dumb everything down?
No, says James Samuel, event director for International Confex & Live Experience. “Speaking as a millennial myself, I’d say it’s true that our attention span is fairly compressed. If a presentation goes on too long, we get bored and switch off, or may even use live updates to desert one speaker and switch to another.
“While we dislike being too passive for too long, however, we are very much engaged with mobile technology and social media, and as long as there’s a decent ‘take-out’ from an event and an opportunity to ask questions and have an input, we can sit still for as long as we need to.”
He adds that the use of evermore sophisticated technology inevitably throws up a challenge.
“Having adopted the hybrid model and the mobile systems necessary to build a community that stays in contact 365 days a year, organisers need to ensure that delegates are still prepared to turn up, physically, to their events.”
Mr Samuel believes the best way is to take steps to “own” online communities and stay in contact with them throughout the year. “If your content is gripping enough, they will be prepared to hop on a plane or train and meet up physically. There can never be a substitute for direct human contact and face-to-face networking, and most people continue to enjoy it,” he argues.
As things stand, there are far more anecdotes about the impact that technology is having on the business events market than there are hard statistics. Ms Potton adds a note of warning to would-be events geeks. “It’s important not to let the technical wizardry turn heads for the wrong reasons. Many business clients are going through a technological transformation at the moment, but it’s a mixed picture when we look at the industry as a whole and there are still many late adopters,” she says.
“While it is clear that multi-level engagement using tablets, mobiles and social media are the future, those firms which haven’t already leapt headlong into the water aren’t so much dinosaurs as unwilling to fail or have yet to formulate their technological strategy,” she says.
Karim Halwagi, chief executive of the Association of Exhibition Organisers, who points out that the fear “virtual” events would one day supersede live occasions has proved unfounded, is confident that all the apps in the world will merely prove a sideshow to experiences rather than the main attraction.
“Delegates who turn up physically to events have given their permission to be marketed to and are far more likely to be in the frame of mind to buy or do a deal that day. Gadgets can only ever complement what’s going on in the face-to-face arena and that’s why live experiences will continue to remain so strong,” he says.
Britain for Events, a national marketing campaign, is in agreement. “Marketing budgets overall are now being ploughed into digital technology and there is no turning back for any of us,” says a spokesman.
“There are those in the events industry who fear that digital loses the touchy-feely aspect of brands, but the absolute necessity for experiential companies to continue to touch and talk to customers will only complement the onward march of digitalisation.”