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Where have all the overhead projectors gone?

Out with the old, in with the new: How technologies are forever changing the shape of association meetings.

First, they cut the body into thousands of microscopic pieces.

Then, using cryogenics, they carefully preserve each piece of the body, all the while closely monitoring temperatures to ensure that no ice crystals form.

Next, they scan each body slice into a monster database and demonstrate the virtual cadaver for thousands to see - from the floor of an exhibit hall.

Sound like a science fiction thriller?

It's not. It's another exhibit at the Radiological Society of North America's annual meeting. And it's merely one example of the myriad ways that associations of all scopes and sizes are using technology to transform their meetings and trade shows.

Tapping into the Internet

Today, association executives are tapping into the Internet and using computer technology to promote their meetings, target speakers' remarks, register members, reach members in remote sites, extend the life of a meeting, track continuing education units, provide exhibitors with member profiles, and stimulate audience participation.

"If we had to do what we do right now without the benefit of technology we would probably have to triple the size of our staff," says Stephen R. Pitt, executive director of member services, conventions, and expositions, National Automobile Dealers Association, McLean, Virginia.

NADA is one of many associations using its Web site to market its meetings. Upon visiting the Web site, members can obtain program information, explore the list of exhibitors, and complete a registration form. And for those exhibiting companies that are hooked in technologically, Web browsers enable individuals to click on a preferred exhibitor to visit its Web site.

Pitt is a believer in the power of technology. "We use all the technology that's available," he says. Two meeting favorites include expo cards and product locators.

Expo card. Similar to a credit card, expo cards contain demographic information about individual meeting attendees. That information gets recorded via reader boxes as members visit with exhibitors while touring the NADA exhibit hall. It's quick. It's easy. And it allows NADA to provide each exhibitor with valuable information.

Product locator. With more than 550 companies and 550,000 gross square feet of exhibit space, the NADA exhibit hall could be a confusing maze without a little on-site help. That's why the association sets up eight or nine product locator terminals outside the hall. By touching the screen, visitors can conduct searches for specific products, view the floor plan, or preview the list of exhibitors.

Forums extend meetings

In addition to promoting meetings on its home page, the American Diabetes Association, Alexandria, Virginia, is encouraging members to participate in online discussions on meeting-related topics before, during, and after the actual meeting. Jacy Hanson, ADA director of meeting services, explains how the online forums work.

"We invite members to ask questions of experts or throw in their two cents on a topic. Presenters can then tailor their sessions based on the feedback they receive from around the world," says Hanson.

"These virtual discussions also serve to expand the reach and impact of your meeting," she continues. "Interaction and debate often continues on some of the hotter issues for months to come."

ADA first experimented with this concept for a professional education meeting in January that attracted about 400 people. The discussion forum drew from 70 to 80 hits - "which is more than we expected," Hanson admits. "It was actually a trial run for our annual meeting in June. That is where we will really test and measure results."

Hanson is looking forward to instituting audience-response systems in general sessions in 1998. Although these systems increase costs, they also increase audience participation, she says.

"The advantages of audience-response systems are twofold," explains Hugh Lee, president, AVN COD (A Virtual Network/Center for Organization Development), Webster, New York. "One, from the perspective of the attendee, it's good adult learning. If I'm passively listening to something, my retention rate and my level of involvement will be a lot lower than if I have to respond to something, to think about what the speaker is saying, and to respond by pushing a number. I also know where I stand [on a particular issue] compared to the rest of the attendees.

"From the speaker's point of view, an audience-response system helps me get to know the audience I am talking to," Lee continues. "I know the key issue I should spend the most time on, and I know whether the audience is with me or not."

Brain surgery, anyone?

One association that takes its technology seriously is the Radiological Society of North America, Oak Brook, Illinois. In fact, RSNA takes technology so seriously that it installed almost 40 miles of fiber-optic cable throughout McCormick Place in Chicago.

"As far as we know, we were the first and are still the only medical association that put a fiber-optic network up throughout an entire convention hall," says Steven T. Drew, RSNA assistant executive director. Using the fiber-optic network has enabled the association to accomplish numerous technological feats.

Live brain surgery. During a December 1996 annual meeting, one of the presenters focused on the future operating room. To demonstrate how functional imaging can minimize invasive procedures, the presenter showed a brain surgery in progress. The surgery was taking place at Harvard University and brought via satellite to McCormick Place where it was projected on screen.

Capacity crowds. "For our larger plenary sessions, where we actually overflow a 4,500-seat auditorium, we do remote video teleconferences to other auditoriums in the facility," says Drew. What makes this unique, he says, is the quality of the picture.

"A radiologist cannot do diagnosis from imaging like your TV at home," he says. "There just aren't enough lines of resolution. In our remote auditoriums, we're actually able to put over the fiber-optic network high-resolution images."

InfoRAD. "Our infoRAD, which is actually a sort of exhibit within our annual session, consists of all the latest, greatest things that are happening with computers and radiology," Drew says. The 25,000-plus radiologists who visit infoRAD, which consumes about 70,000 square feet of floor space, can interact with more than 100 computer applications. They can conduct online literature searches. They can examine exhibits dealing with computer-aided diagnosis and artificial intelligence. They can take refresher courses on picture-archival communication systems. And they can take a tour of the human body via the virtual cadaver on display.

Tips for using technology

If you think you're ready to give technology a try at your next meeting, consider these tips from association meeting professionals.

Understand your audience. Are your members high-tech junkies who thrive on the newest electronic gizmos, or are they the type who still haven't figured out how to program a VCR? Your association's success with any kind of meeting technology will depend - virtually - on your members access to technology and their desire to use it.

For example, JoAnn Taie, institute manager, Minnesota Health and Housing Alliance, St. Paul, couldn't - and wouldn't - rely on online registration because less than half of her members have access to the technology to take advantage of it. "You have to be realistic," she says.

Use technology as a tool. Association executives often say to Lee: "We want to put our meeting online," or "We want to use more technology." His reply: "Why? What do you want to accomplish?"

Lee has repeated a key phrase so often that it has become a mantra for everyone at his company. "Objectives are the drivers. Content is king. Technology is just an enabling tool."

Get the right players. Make sure your technology team - whether composed of staff or consultants - understands how to integrate meeting design, production, and technology. "It must be a seamless, integrated process," says Don Dea, cofounder of AVN COD. "Otherwise, one ball will definitely drop."

Pay special attention to remote sites. Don't put all of your energy and budget into making your opening general sessions spectacular for attendees and then, as an afterthought, transmit it to some remote site, advises Dea. You don't want members off-site to "feel like they're looking at the party from the outside window," he says.

Think big, but take small steps. "First try things on a small and realistic scale," says ADA's Hanson. "As you build in complexity, so should you institute a series of measures to test effectiveness. Approach new technology with an open mind, and view your challenges as opportunities for growth and improvement - not as obstacles."

Evaluate the technological capabilities of your facility. Such capabilities vary greatly from site to site. John Hill, general manager, Calgary Convention Centre, Alberta, Canada, is currently teaming up with a telecommunication company to increase his center's capabilities. In the future, he predicts that associations will derive significant revenue from RADs, or remote attending delegates, who buy particular programs in conventions. "We could enable executives to market their conventions to their whole membership."

Budget time and money for Web site support. Don't pour all of your money into developing a fancy Web site to promote your meeting, says Doug Fox, president, Doug Fox Communications, Richmond, Virginia. Fox produces EventWeb Newsletter, an online publication that focuses on interactive marketing strategies for meetings, conferences, and trade shows in which conference Web sites are frequently reviewed based on their content, design, innovation, and user-friendliness. (Go to www.eventweb .com for access to reviews and related information.)

In addition to launching your site, be sure to set aside some of your funds for supporting it, cautions Fox. "One of the glaring - not to mention embarrassing - shortfalls of the Web is that many organizations do not properly support their sites," he says. "I can't tell you how many times I've visited a Web site, sent an e-mail, and never heard back."

RELATED ARTICLE: Travelers and Technology

A recent study conducted by the Travel Industry Association of America, Washington, D.C., indicates a high level of interest in using online services to access travel-related information. Data reported in TIA's Technology and Travel Profile are based on a random sample telephone survey of 1,200 adults in the United States. According to the report, of significance to the travel industry is that travelers, especially frequent travelers, use online services at a much greater rate than the general public.

A traveler is defined as a person who traveled 100 or more miles away from home, one way, during the past year. A frequent pleasure traveler made five or more pleasure or vacation trips during the past year. A frequent business traveler made five or more convention trips during the past year.

Source: Travel Industry Association of America

Margo Vanover Porter is a freelance writer based in Locust Grove, Virginia.
COPYRIGHT 1997 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:association meetings
Author:Porter, Margo Vanover
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1997
Words:1784
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