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Meetings that march to the techno beat: get up to speed on the latest technology tools that keep members connected to your meetings.

THE 21ST-CENTURY MEETING ATTENDEE possesses two things that require association meeting planers to re-examine their event strategies: new technologies and the skills to manipulate those tools to access information faster and with greater convenience. Technology provides tools that allow attendees to transform meetings and associations to address rising member expectations. Electronic gadgets eliminate extra work for association staff, often saying time and money, and give meeting participants greater freedom to customize their itineraries. It's no wonder that capabilities such as online registration and schedule builders or webcasting and on-demand playback of educational sessions are becoming standard offerings. Association executives are realizing that their members' desire for convenience means that making meetings more accessible is a must.

"Technology makes an event more user friendly and creates efficiencies," notes Lawrence Edge, executive director of the International Development Research Council, Norcross, Georgia. IDRC is managed by Conway Data, of which Edge is vice president of the association management division. In the past five or six years, IDRC has made all information about its annual conferences available online prior to and following the events. That includes registration forms, exhibitor information floor layout, and briefings of speakers along with outlines of their presentations. "It became expedient for us to publish that information on the Web so handouts are available for people to print and they can select the ones they need," Edge says. Last year the organization help us first completely paperless trade show as part of its World Congress, allowing exhibitors, members and staff to access the event through a link on IDRC's Web site. (See the March 2002 "News & Know How" column for more about IDRC's transition.)

As more members tore laptops, cell phones, and Palm Pilots to meetings, it's clear that they expect the same high-tech tools in enhance their meeting experiences. "We've been phasing this technology in gradually," Edge says. "Our members expect it; if we didn't do these things, we'd hear about it."

Connecting with a click

The benefit of serving members by using advanced technology, Edge contends, is "in giving them service while allowing us to do more with what we've got rather than having to expand our staff." Offering real-time registration means that rather than staff having to do the time-consuming task of re-entering information from paper forms, members enter an identification number on an online form and the remaining information gets pulled from the database. "We still offer registration by mail, but we're up to 85 percent registering online. That's a good measure of the members' acceptance of this technology." Once someone registers, he or she can enter a secure area on IDRC's Web site to view a list of other registrants.

Members have access on site to the Internet at one or more locations that allows them to check e-mail as well as find out if someone outside the facility has left them a message via an electronic messaging center. "As the association grows and we have anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 participants at an event, people networking becomes more difficult," he notes. "We're exploring ways to use technology to facilitate that. For example, we're using message boards to help people set up meetings, and we're trying to disperse these among the two or three hotels we use. Technology helps to allow us to spread out." Edge hopes to institute interactive kiosks on location with touch screens that link to information about event programming. "Eventually we would like to be to the point where someone has a wireless connection and can use his or her own laptop to access program information."

It's in the cards

The Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO), Reston, Virginia, is using on-site technology to expedite a normally timeconsuming process. For several years, the association has used bCard, Inc., Bethesda, Maryland, a provider of smart card information management systems, at its annual meeting for lead retrieval for exhibitors. The six-day event usually attracts 1,600-1,700 attendees, during which time ASBO holds its annual officers election. "We had been using a scanning device to do ballots," says Betty Smith, director of conferences. "It worked fine, but it was always an iffy proposition. We finally decided that we had to automate, so we went to bCard because they had just developed election software."

SmartElection terminals were installed by bCard that automatically tabulated the votes and processed 1,200 voters in three hours. Members' cards were encoded with personal information that indicated whether they were eligible to vote and prevented them from voting more than once. Voters scanned their cards at one of nine laptop stations as they entered the election area, which was monitored by voting officials, and the list of officers appeared on the computer screen. Then it was simply a matter of pointing and clicking to vote. "It was fantastic," Smith says. "We just downloaded the member information that we always download, and then we added the fields for being eligible to vote. It was so fast."

And the feedback from attendees? "It was simple for the members and it got rave reviews," she continues. "We really hope to use this for other information, like having people insert a card for ticketed events."

ASBO is expanding its use of technology in other capacities as well. An online schedule builder allows members to plan their itineraries prior to the event. E-mail kiosks and a sponsored technology showcase have also been available on site at past meetings. Smith acknowledges that it's necessary to have sponsors to offset costs. "We do not have distance learning workshops, but we're investigating that," she adds. "We haven't found a cost-effective way of offering them yet."

Watching on the Web

On-site technology obviously adds convenience for meeting goers, but what about members who can't attend, didn't make it to all of the educational sessions, or want more information after the event? One method of reaching a widespread audience is webcasting, the transmission of live or prerecorded audio or video to Internet-connected personal computers (also referred to as streaming media, which is how the digital signal is transmitted).

Open access. The American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, Arlington, Virginia, first tested the webcasting waters in 1998. "We have a small past and a very big future in terms of webcasting," explains Andrew Cohn, senior manager for distance learning at the 46-staff-member AAPS. "Several years ago we had a live workshop that was audiotaped and we presented it on the Web as a streaming event with various presenters' narration accompanied by synchronized PowerPoint slides. That was our first attempt, and we provided it free of charge for our members." Cohn says that at the time, the technology was fairly new, so some members had to download software to view the video, and they also ran into some bandwidth problems--issues that he says would not be a hindrance with today's more advanced computers and increased broadband access to the Internet.

AAPS tried again at its annual meeting in Denver last October, which attracted 6,000 participants, creating an on-demand webcast of selected events with four hours of streaming video that members could access on the association's Web site for three months after the meeting. Cohn is quick to point out that the webcast was archived, and that a live presentation "would have added substantial cost to the production. This was our first annual meeting webcast event, so we thought we would start small. There are a lot of technical glitches that can occur with a live event and we didn't want to try that for our first time." Cohn was pleased with the turnout of more than 600 unique visitors as well as the quality of the video and audio, and adds that he received positive feedback from members.

A clear resolution. David Martin, CAE, found himself in a position that any executive would envy in the post-September 11 meetings environment. Martin, executive vice president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine, Des Plaines, Illinois, says he saw a 25 percent increase in attendance at the organization's annual meeting in January, resulting from a higher-than-usual number of on-site registrants at about 775. At the same time, however, members of SCCM's Italian chapter were reluctant to travel to the event. "We made the decision to use webcasting at the last minute," he explains, which helped solve logistical problems of accommodating extra participants on site and allowed the Italian chapter to be involved. "We had tried satellite systems before without much success, so we looked to the Web because everyone has access and it's an easy way to do this kind of thing."

The 39-staff-member SCCM offered live broadcasts of eight sessions, which were immediately archived and made available on the organization's Web site. The Italian chapter set up its own meeting site and provided translators to accommodate 500 people who watched the sessions. "The Italians didn't want to watch it live [because of the time difference] and they didn't want to just click on a link because the Internet connection isn't too stable," Martin notes. "So we sent them files that they could run on their server." The organization covered the cost of the webcast through a grant from the Italian chapter.

SCCM selected Real Broadcast Network, the content delivery network division of RealNetworks, Inc., Seattle, which specializes in Internet media delivery, as its service provider based on the company's reputation and experience. RealNetworks provides a variety of extensive reports with data indicating how many people are viewing the broadcast. Martin says that of the 3,500 people who watched the sessions online, only about 500 viewed the live broadcast. "When you think about it," he muses, "why bother making sure that you watch it live when you can click on it whenever you want? I'm not so sure the live component--which was the most nerve-racking for us--added much benefit."

However, he adds, the unexpected increase in attendance did create overflow problems. "After the first morning when people couldn't get into the most popular sessions, we needed a solution," he admits. "We put up a big screen in the lunch area and broadcast the session on screen, which we did for all seven remaining sessions. That really saved us--the live piece did help with that."

Calculating the cost

Convenient access, of course, doesn't always come cheap. SCCM paid for Real Broadcast Network's Conference Webcasting Service, which was formally launched at SCCM's January conference, through sponsorships, but Martin cautions, "While we were able to secure more funding than was required, it was very expensive." Real Broadcast Network offers software and services that allow organizations to extend the reach of their conferences online by broadcasting audio, video, or multimedia. "In the current economic conditions, a lot of people don't want to or can't afford to travel," says Michael Leo, group product manager for Real Broadcast Network. "This is a way to reach those people. [Members] can watch in real time or the presentation can be archived and viewed as an on demand clip. With SCCM, more than half of the live webcast viewers went back to watch the presentation."

The cost for such services varies based on the capabilities an association is interested in--for example, whether it opts for the pay-per-view service, and how much on-site coordination is necessary. "In defraying some of these costs, it helps to have the ability to sell sponsorships," Leo says. "Especially in the medical area, we are seeing sponsors stepping up--it's a viable way to reach out with marketing dollars."

Leo believes that the advantage of using these types of services, in addition to improving the quality of the event, is that it makes an association's Web site more valuable as a year-round resource. He recommends finding a partner that can act as a single point of content. "The key thing is to find a reliable, financially stable provider that can offer a complete solution," he advises.

ExpoExchange, a service provider based in Frederick, Maryland, offers registration and lead management services to associations and exhibitors. "I think it's cost-effective for associations to farm registration out," says Mark Kennedy, senior vice president of exhibitor sales and services, "especially for associations that don't have unlimited staff. To get registrations in, get them keyed, put Web pages up, get confirmations and mail badges out... it's almost impossible for associations to put all of those functions under one roof for only one show a year. If an association designates one person to be our contact, they can be managers rather than doers."

Keeping pace with change

AAPS's Cohn says that the organization has budgeted to vastly expand its webcasting services in the upcoming year. "We plan to do on-demand webcasting of four to six workshops," he says. "In addition, our meetings and expositions department will be coming out with two hot-topic workshops and it is our intent to have a live webcast of these in addition to on-demand availability. Some pretty exciting things are going to happen for our members."

Cohn, like others, hopes to defray costs through sponsorships. AAPS has recently created a multimedia showcase on its portal that will include video clips from exhibitors and promotions for upcoming events. "The clips would all be available in video and audio stream," he explains. "It would be an additional venue for our exhibitors to talk about new developments, products, and services."

IDRC's Edge acknowledges that technology makes the meeting experience more enjoyable and allows processes to operate more smoothly. "It provides a faster response, and members' impressions of the service they're getting is improved," he says. But he advises other executives not to do away with the old product once you introduce a new one. "There is a lot of duplication when you introduce a new technology," he points out. "It doesn't replace; it just adds on.

"We're trying to use technology as much as we can to enhance member networking, but there is a limit to that," he continues. "There is always talk of meetings going away because of technology. But since networking is such an important facet of our culture, technology can't replace face-to-face communication in a casual atmosphere and the relationships that develop out of that. There are limitations."

Martin says that SCCM held off announcing the webcast until a week before the meeting because of concerns about hurting attendance. "In hindsight, I'm not very worried about that," he reflects. "You come to a meeting for more than the educational sessions--you come to be with your colleagues and talk to people. This [technology] is another way to take information and double the number of people who see it."

The organization's January meeting featured additional new uses of technology, including an online evaluation survey rather than the traditional paper form. Martin says the organization uses an e-survey maker that tabulates results, which has been a good investment. Internet kiosks also allow SCCM to solicit feedback from members immediately after they attend sessions, and supporting materials from sessions are available online as well.

"It's all about sharing knowledge," Martin notes. "And there will be other new technologies down the road. Whatever comes along is going to supplement meetings, not replace them."

Resources

Looking for additional information on technologies that can enhance your meetings? Check out the following resources, available on www.asaenet.org or from ASAE's Member Service Center by calling 202-371-0940 or 888-950-ASAE; or sending e-mail to service@asaenet.org.

* "Cybercafes: Service With a Click," by Jeffrey W. Rasco, association management, September 2000.

* "Engaging the New Meeting-Goer," by Christy Kessler, association management, June 2000.

* "Webcasting: A Guide for Association Meeting Executives," Parts I & II, by Amy Ledoux, Meetings and Expositions, July 2001 and August 2001.

* "Considering Virtual Trade Shows for Your Association?" by Barbara Lane, Meetings and Expositions, October 2000.

* "The Value of Online Trade Shows," by Rajlv Jam, Techno Scope, July 2000.

RELATED ARTICLE: A Handy Alternative.

BY DEBRA ROSENCRANCE

The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), San Francisco, hosts an annual meeting that attracts more than 24,000 attendees. The meeting requires 245,000 net square feet of exhibit space and features more than 475 companies. Our meeting has a complex scientific program with 40 simultaneous rooms of programming plus 300 scientific posters and a video theater.

AAO is constantly looking for ways to make the meeting easier to navigate because of its size. A few years ago, we created a pocket guide for attendees that they could carry around the meeting instead of the 340-page final program. This was a great improvement and the members responded favorably. However, while it was easier to carry, it didn't offer that much more in the way of content for attendees.

In 2000, it became apparent that a growing number of members had Palm OS personal digital assistants (PDAs) and were using them on a regular basis. We also learned that many residency programs were providing PDAs to their first-year residents. So we decided to try an E-Meeting Guide for our 2000 annual meeting.

Our E-Meeting Guide includes the program listing, the exhibitor list, shuttle and hotel information, and general meeting information such as the on-site directory. The program listing can be sorted by day and program type (course, paper, poster) or topic and program type. Once the attendees find something that they would like to attend, they can tap a button to have it added to their date books.

From the exhibitor list, attendees can add the contact information to their address books with a tap of the stylus as well. Now the program and scheduler are all in one.

HOW WE GOT THERE. For AAO, making the switch to PDAs was an easy decision, as we already had a technology vendor for our meeting, DigitalAcumen, which was providing a PDA meeting guide for other medical meetings. To make sure that our plans were feasible and well thought out, we actually mapped out the screens that we wanted to include and the functionality we wanted members to derive from the technology. There is also a standard package that can be customized depending on the scope of the meeting.

From AAO's side, we determined what fields were required for the E-Meeting Guide. We did two transfers of data--one for testing and a final one right before we launched the guide on our Web site. Since we were the ones most familiar with the data, we also did a round of testing to ensure that the data were in the right place.

In 2000, we made the E-Meeting Guide available in two locations on site at the meeting. In 2001, we had a preliminary version on our Web site that members could download prior to the meeting. This allowed attendees to review their agendas en route to the event. Then we had a final version on site for those who hadn't had a chance to download or for those who wanted to make updates. DigitalAcumen also provides staff to assist if there are any problems with the beaming and to answer any general PDA questions.

The response has been very positive. Within three days, we had 1,650 downloads from our Web site and another 1,000 on site. Both AAO and the sponsor were pleased with the usage. We plan to offer it again this year, and the same sponsor has expressed interest as well. PDAs offer an easy, cost-effective method to improve meeting navigation for your attendees.

Debra Rosencrance is vice president, meetings and exhibits, American Academy of Ophthalmology, San Francisco, and a certified meeting professional. E-mail: drosencrance@aao.org.

Jane Eisinger is associate editor of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT. E-mail: jeisinger@asaenet.org.
COPYRIGHT 2002 American Society of Association Executives
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Author:Eisinger, Jane
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
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