Digital technology pulls down the conference hall

A conference is no longer limited to the four walls of its venue. James Silver finds out how to engage delegates and spread the message outside


Sprawled across 11 halls of Amsterdam’s RAI convention complex, last month’s Integrated Systems Europe (ISE) recorded the highest attendance (40,869) and exhibitors’ (825) figures in the event’s history. But it was the innovative use of technology such as QR codes (quick response barcodes) that made the audio-visual and technology mega-exhibition notable.

“Brands at ISE were exhibiting their latest technology, using videowall displays, but withholding information, so visitors would have to use their smartphones to click on a QR code to find out more,” explains Stuart Holmes, chief executive of PSCo Group, which provided plasma screens and videowalls for the event. “That’s a great way to collate data because companies know exactly how many people find their product of interest at a particular moment,” he says. Thanks largely to ever-expanding smartphone ownership, an array of digital tools – including QR codes, tracking tags (radio-frequency indentification or RFID tags), social media and interactive “high-impact” visual displays – are being used to re-energise business events.

Mr Holmes concedes that the events industry has been slow to embrace cutting-edge technology, particularly when compared with retail. The reason, he argues, has been the prohibitive cost of creating content that may only be used for a few days. But that’s changing as brands are now demanding real-time metrics. Interactivity is no longer a gimmicky add-on, but at an event’s strategic core. “We can now make every single one of our displays interactive through infrared, optical sensing or other technologies,” he says. “And there’s no point in renting out a 152-inch plasma if you haven’t sorted out the content.”

Interactivity is no longer a gimmicky add-on, but at an event’s strategic core

At SIGGRAPH Asia 2011, an exhibition showcasing computer graphics and interactive technology held last December, interactive displays, including An Interactive Augmented Reality Colouring Book, were among the event’s biggest draws. “Even if the conference exhibition drew you in because of the business opportunities, you would not want to have missed the interactive elements of the show,” says Daniel Schmidt, SIGGRAPH Asia’s chief executive. “The post-conference survey showed that 49.6 per cent of all visitors attended to experience the conference content – and interact with it.”

But digital technology’s true value is not simply in brand engagement, nor even in the data stream it provides. Instead it lies in digital’s ability to push events beyond the conference hall. In a world-first experiment at a conference for SAP (software) users held in Birmingham last November, for instance, delegates registered to LinkedIn, the business-related social networking site, could share content with their connections via an RFID tag.

Using an app, 160 LinkedIn members at the conference shared 598 “unique pieces of content” with a potential network of 32,131 LinkedIn users. “Social media is the logical extension of a person’s real experience,” says Richard Smith, director of Excelerated Apps, the company that created the app. “What we do is put share buttons in real-world events.”

The boom in these sorts of hybrid events, which mix in-person components with virtual elements, suggests that longevity is now of primary concern to exhibitors and event planners. That idea was reinforced by a Unisfair Marketing survey published last month which revealed that 86 per cent of the US business marketers interviewed thought that half of all corporate events will be hybrids within five years.

As Business 2 Community blogger Bob James observed: “Producing a virtual complement to a physical event automatically creates an archive of the content and conversations, many of which might otherwise have been lost.”