The State of Conferences and Events 2017

by Jeremy Kressmann + Skift Team - Aug 2017

Skift Research Take

The meetings and events sector is evolving at a rapid pace. Pioneering events like South by Southwest and C2 are raising event attendees' expectations, putting pressure on organizers to design more engaging experiences at events of all shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, new types of event technology like artificial intelligence and personalization tools offer new opportunities (and challenges) for meeting planners. This report investigates the state of today's conference and event sector, and examines how organizers should look to evolve their own event strategies in response in the years ahead.

Report Overview

Corporate conferences, events and meetings are becoming increasingly important for organizations across a range of industries. Many C-level executives say such real-life gatherings are critical for them to gain mindshare with customers and stakeholders amidst a noisy and distracting marketing environment, and a significant majority (over 70 percent) say they plan to increase their marketing budgets for such events in 2017. But even as more companies confirm that meetings and events are more important than ever before, many event planners say that creating an event that’s both engaging for attendees and successful in achieving business goals can be complicated. One challenge is rising expectations created by other groundbreaking events like South by Southwest (SXSW), TED and C2, which were once considered to be outside the normal corporate meeting sector. These events’ “festival-style” programming, interdisciplinary speakers and multimedia approach, along with the changing tastes of the younger attendees that flock to such gatherings, is having a growing influence on the corporate events sector as well. Amidst the shifting expectations created by popular events like SXSW, meeting planners also must contend with a growing range of new event technology tools related to artificial intelligence, event automation and personalization. Deciding which event tools will help meet the organizers’ business goals, and measuring their return on investment can be a difficult process. In addition, growing demands from event sponsors, a critical audience who can often make or break an event budget, are adding to the complicated decisionmaking process facing many meeting planners. Skift’s State of Conferences and Events 2017 report examines the trends that are reshaping the meetings and events sector across all industries, evaluating how factors like new types of event technology, changes in sponsor activations and shifts in the broader culture are offering new opportunities for executives organizing meetings. It also investigates some of the challenges forcing meeting organizers to fundamentally rethink their approach to such gatherings, as new demands from audiences and sponsors, along with new types of conferences, and bigger questions about how to measure success, remain on many executives’ minds.

What You'll Learn From This Report

  • How have events like SXSW, TED and C2 transformed the event sector and raised the expectations of attendees?
  • Why are more corporate conferences and events taking their inspiration from creative-driven music and film festivals?
  • What types of technology are meeting organizers currently deploying for their events?
  • Which types of event technology tools offer the best return on investment for meeting planners, and create the best experience for guests?
  • Why is personalization critical to designing a successful meeting in 2017?
  • How do event organizers use tools like artificial intelligence and chatbots to improve the conference experience?
  • What struggles do event organizers face when creating compelling event sponsorship programs?

Introduction: Events Are a Focal Point for Today’s Business Culture

The instantly recognizable red letters of the TED organization, whose influential speaker talks have garnered billions of views, are just one sign of the growing importance of festivals and events to businesses and contemporary culture.

 

Conferences, meetings and events are at the center of cultural consciousness like never before. Whether you’ve watched one of the seemingly ubiquitous TED Talks on YouTube, which have been viewed more than a billion times, or heard about former President Obama headlining Austin’s popular SXSW festival in 2016, these real-life experiences have clearly penetrated the fabric of today’s pop culture, politics, and contemporary business philosophy.

Today, conferences and events are taking on an outsized degree of importance for businesses and marketing executives across a range of industries. “Our research says CMOs are putting more emphasis on events,” said Chris Cavanaugh, executive VP and CMO of event management company Freeman. “They see it as a way of building relationships with customers who are hard to reach. It allows them to break through the clutter. It allows them to connect their brands and build relationships and all those things we sort of instinctively knew that live experiences do that other media don’t do, but now the research bears that.”

In Freeman’s research, Global Brand Experience Report: A New Era in Marketing,more than one third of CMOs said they expected to allocate between 21 and 50 percent of their marketing budgets to in-person brand experiences in the next three to five years. Cavanaugh is not alone in noting a growing focus on more in-person events as a key component of executives’ marketing budgets. According to a spring 2017 survey of enterprise-level marketers from event automation company Certain, nearly 70 percent say they plan to increase spending on events in the coming year, while more than one quarter indicating that their spending will at a minimum remain unchanged.

A 2017 event marketing benchmark report from Certain forecasts that nearly 70 percent of marketers plan to increase their investment on conferences and events.

The same Freeman survey also noted that more than half of respondents believed branded event experiences helped them improve their efforts related to customer lead generation, brand advocacy with key stakeholders, making customers feel valued, and helping to increase sales.

What other factors are causing this increased interest in organizing events and real-life experiences among corporations big and small? The growing emphasis on events today is largely due to two underlying causes: the increasing fragmentation of today’s digital media landscape, and the shrinking attention spans of consumers. In this attention-starved environment, conferences and events are one of the few marketing tactics that can cut through the noise. “There’s so much information online today that you can’t blast your way through it anymore,” said Sanjay Dholakia, CMO of Marketo, in a 2016 interview with Skift. “In this crazy digital, mobile, social world, we now have infinite channels, so there’s much more noise. It’s hard to get the signal through.”

But even as more executives from the C-suite and beyond recognize the growing importance of events in their marketing strategy, meeting planners face a growing range of challenges and opportunities. Culture-defining organizations like TED, C2, and South by Southwest are redefining the very nature of corporate-produced events, raising expectations among attendees for get-togethers infused with creativity, opportunities for interactivity and interdisciplinary speakers.

Meanwhile, the event technology sector continues to evolve, presenting organizers with new tools like artificial intelligence and chatbots, along with new opportunities to use automation software that can streamline event logistics and lower costs. New event tools even offer event organizers ways to more easily personalize large events on a guest-by-guest basis. But each of these technology improvements must be weighed against company budgets and business goals, making return on investment calculations complicated. On top of all this, event organizers often struggle to meet the increasingly sophisticated demands of event sponsors, forcing a rethink of the very nature of branded event partnerships and how to gauge their effectiveness.

Skift’s State of Conferences and Events 2017 report examines the trends that are reshaping the meetings and events sector across all industries, evaluating how factors like new types of event technology, changes in sponsor activations and shifts in the broader culture are offering new opportunities for executives organizing meetings. It also investigates some of the challenges forcing meeting organizers to fundamentally rethink their approach to such gatherings, as the demands from audiences, sponsors, new types of conferences, and bigger questions about how to measure success remain on many executives’ minds.

How SXSW, C2 and TED Revolutionized the Meetings and Events Industry

Few organizations have revolutionized the conferences and events landscape like SXSW, C2 and TED. Their focus on interdisciplinary, multimedia-focused, media-savvy events has had significant impact on pop culture and the corporate sector.

Conferences and events are more popular, and more important, to organizations than ever before. While this is great news for meeting planners and any business involved with events, it also presents a challenge. That’s because the creative and interdisciplinary experiences popularized by conferences such as TED in Vancouver, C2 Montreal, and SXSW in Austin are raising expectations among event attendees from all industries, leading meeting organizers to rethink their own event approaches as a result. In addition, a growing focus on the “festivalization” of business events like C2, which mimic the look and feel of pop culture experiences with music, multimedia, art installations and entertainment, is setting a high bar for meeting planners.

Few organizations have left a bigger imprint on the meetings and events sector than SXSW, C2 and TED. Austin’s annual SXSW, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2017, started as a sleepy music festival and has evolved into an extravaganza of experiences incorporating music, interactive media, technology and film. The TED Organization (which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design) has grown from a conference focused on Silicon Valley into a sprawling media organization with worldwide influence over subjects including business, scientific debate, social change, and popular culture. Meanwhile in Montreal, the six-year-old C2 festival is earning rave reviews from meeting planners for its creative integration of experiential event design, programming and marketing.

What is it about these events that is so different than the typical event template of the past? There are three common themes that meeting organizers are now attempting to emulate. First and foremost, the events are interdisciplinary by nature. Rather than focusing exclusively on one industry or topic, events like SXSW, C2 and TED allow attendees from different professions and industries to intermingle, encouraging new methods of problem-solving and collaboration. “Expectations change from generation to generation but the past decade has seen a rise in idea-driven festivals and conferences,” noted Mike Shea, executive director of Austin’s SXSW in a 2017 interview with Skift. “We were probably first to feature the music, film and interactive ‘holy trinity’ in one event.”

Second, these organizations are becoming full-fledged media companies with year-round content creation efforts, business consulting practices and even publishing capabilities to boot. Consider the example of TED, which in addition to its annual event also runs a popular YouTube channel, helps organize a series of spin-off conferences called TEDx, offers corporate consulting services, and awards an annual “TED Prize.” These different capabilities allow the organizations to raise their profile, engage potential attendees and gain press coverage year-round, rather than having to concentrate their promotional efforts on a once-a-year promotional blitz.

“When you create a conference today, the takeaways from the experience are the anecdotes and the networking, but it’s also the online content that derives from that,” said Lori Corpuz, organizer for one of TED’s independent TEDx events, in a 2016 interview with Skift. “I think TEDx is about spreading awareness, so that’s why I think of it more as a media platform. I guess it’s kind of blurring the line about what conferences are nowadays.”

Third, events like SXSW, C2 and TED heavily emphasize participant interactivity and are focused on multimedia and the design of their presentations. As revealed in a 2012 New Yorker profile on TED, the organization makes sure to record events from every conceivable angle: “Talks are filmed in the spirit of a live rock concert with eight cameras: a centered lens for closeups; two medium-distance cameras on either side of the room; a remote-controlled tower camera, stage right; a handheld, roaming upstage; two fixed, unmanned cameras, one trained on the orchestra seats and the other giving a rear panorama; and a wide-angle lens mounted on a giant jib that flies above the audience.”

Taken collectively, the changes wrought by these creative-minded conferences have raised the stakes for anyone involved with organizing an event. Whether or not a meeting planner ever aspires to produce a conference rivaling TED and SXSW, attendees now judge events based on their ability to offer SXSW- and TED-style programming and amenities. “The popularity of TED Talks and online access to everything, has definitely increased the sophistication and expectations of attendees,” said Kelly MacDonald, executive vice president of the speakers bureau agency Speakers’ Spotlight.

The “Festivalization of Meetings” and Changing Audiences

Festival-style business events like Montreal’s C2, now in its fifth year, are injecting a new element of creativity, networking and fun into the corporate meetings space. 

As conferences and events become a more important part of businesses’ branding and promotional efforts, many are also trying to steal a page from traditional music and entertainment festivals to keep attendees engaged and excited. On top of this, the changing demographics of corporate event attendees are causing a shift in audience preferences related to event programming and use of social media. Both of these factors are contributing to a phenomenon where traditional corporate meetings are becoming “festivalized,” incorporating the same creative, visceral, multimedia-focused activities one might have found only at a music or film festival in the past.

As Skift explained in its 2017 Megatrends report defining the “festivalization” of meetings, “The formula behind these events is generally the same: Pull together the most inspiring minds in business, tech, media, science, education, art, and culture inside a cross-section of colorful venues and collaborative spaces. Then hit ‘blend’ with integrated online and offline catalysts, virtual and augmented reality experiences, startup pitch competitions, live music performances and art exhibits, and local offsite experiences to create spontaneous collisions between participants in unprecedented ways.”

Many executives emphasize the spontaneous nature of interactions that occur at festivals, offering attendees opportunities for creativity, “play,” and meeting new people. “From a cultural perspective, festivals are adding value to the conference space because at their epicenter that’s what they are, epicenters for culture, community-building and networking,” said Rich Goodstone, co-founder of event marketing firm Superfly and the company behind the popular Bonnaroo music festival. “The meeting space has had to catch up because when you think about work, there’s more you’re supposed to do around knowledge and learning. It’s re-framing what a conference or a meeting should be.”

Perhaps the best example of an event that’s pioneering this idea of “festivalization” is Montreal’s C2. As the organizers of C2 explain, their interactive festival-style approach to the event experience is a business necessity in today’s fragmented media environment. “We travel all over the world going to different conferences… and it’s often like sitting in a movie theater for eight hours, it just gets exhausting,” said Will Travis, U.S. executive chairman of Sid Lee, the branding agency that helps organize the C2 festival, in a June 2014 interview with Skift. “If we were in a white box here for a week, we’d shoot ourselves. What we wanted to do is allow an escape, but not an escape where you’re suddenly departing the environment, so we created a lot of secondary pockets of stimulation among all of these different innovators.”

In an effort to help facilitate this feeling of serendipity, random interactions and impromptu creativity, Sid Lee designed multiple activity zones throughout C2’s meeting space in Montreal’s sprawling Arsenal contemporary art gallery. This included a main presenter area for speakers, an experimental “DIY Lab” where attendees could explore innovative festival concepts, a street photography art gallery, extensive retail space, a bar, and an interactive games area complete with diversions like a life-size “Lite Brite” installation. C2 supplemented this on-site experience with a post-event “Minutes” document, freely available to attendees and the general public to help encourage post-event engagement.

Others agree that the festival-style innovations developed by C2 are increasingly bleeding over into events in the corporate sector. “I think there needs to be a sense of fun and enjoyment woven into the learning at conferences,” said Superfly’s Goodstone. “You think about what allows kids and adults to learn, it’s a level of passion and engagement with the material. It’s why speakers who are monotone and low energy don’t perform as well. It’s also about taking things out of the convention center… thinking about the entire experience holistically.”

Research reveals that younger event attendees in particular crave these types of experiential events. A recent study by SplashThat, exploring the reasons why millennial event attendees chose various branded events, found that more than 70 percent based their decisions on the event’s topic, speakers, music, or entertainment options. Also, more than 50 percent of millennial event attendees said that networking opportunities are a key criteria. Younger attendees are also more easily distracted, and crave opportunities to share event content. “The biggest buzzword right now is FOMO [fear of missing out], and that’s a huge factor for millennials,” said Aubri Nowowiejski, 28, an executive producer at Coterie Spark, a global meeting and corporate event-planning firm.

Even though younger attendees’ urge to share is great for organizers when promoting events, it can make it difficult to keep younger attendees focused during on-site activities and presentations. That’s why more conference planners are trying to balance the need to integrate social media with the opportunity to meet millennials where they are. “You go to a conference and are told to live-tweet, but if I’m tweeting, am I really absorbing what the speaker is saying?” said Nowowiejski. “It’s a double-edged sword. What did you really experience if you didn’t put your phone down?”

In addition, event organizers need to consider how their conference will be perceived on social media. No less than 24 percent of respondents in the SplashThat survey said they attended an event purely for the “bragging rights” of sharing social media updates with friends. Many executives familiar with the events sector note that the live aspect of an event is critical for this younger cohort. Otherwise, why bother paying to attend when the same information can be found online or consumed as a livestream video during the event? “They can get a lot of this information you [normally] get at events online,” said Freeman’s Cavanaugh. “So there has to be a compelling reason for them to come together as a group to share the experience.”

Speakers’ Spotlight’s Kelly MacDonald agrees. “We are competing for people‘s time and attention so we have to provide them with a heightened ‘live’ experience,” she said. “It’s a real challenge for organizers as there are increased expectations from all stakeholders for their individual and collective return on investment.”

Behind the Evolution of Event Technology

The high expectations set by C2, SXSW and TED are just one big change shifting the conferences and events landscape for meeting planners. Rapidly evolving event technology is another area that’s reshaping every aspect of the event experience, transforming everything from event management to analytics, digital event content and engagement, on-site networking, and personalized attendee programming. Most importantly, the evolution of marketing automation and data capture tools are helping organizers to inform strategic meeting management (SMM) and assess return on investment (ROI) more effectively.

Many meeting planners find that today’s increasingly powerful event tech tools are particularly good at offering a real-time snapshot of event metrics, helping them make smarter on-site decisions. Emily Fullmer, global events manager at Greenbook, finds that the data she collects from Bizzabo, an event technology vendor she used for Greenbook’s IIeX North America conference, “…has been immensely impactful in how we make our decisions.” She explained that it gives her a more comprehensive overview of how her events are performing, benefiting her sales and marketing departments at the same time.

“As an event planner, I can see, in real time, revenue numbers from a certain promotion on-site, and how many people have checked in,” Fullmer said. “When you need something at your fingertips immediately, the data is always there at the time we need it. For example, we can see what parts of the mobile app are being utilized and what facets of the event are most interesting to attendees, without asking them specifically.”

Greenbook is not alone in its growing embrace of event tech tools. According to a recent study of the most important categories of event technology by event marketing firm Cvent, tools like reporting and analytics, event check-in, and event management software are seeing growing adoption among meeting planners.

A survey on how meeting planners used event technology suggests reporting, analytics and event check-in remain the core focus.

The same Cvent survey also offers hints about how meeting planners anticipate event technology will evolve moving forward. When asked about the most-desired future event technology tool features, “ease of use” was a key area of focus (mentioned by 66 percent of respondents), suggesting the importance of a holistic approach to event tech. Enhanced event reporting and analytics (65 percent) was also tied for first place. Meanwhile, meeting planners also hoped for better visibility into the on-site attendee experience (43 percent), and more self-service on-site technology (39 percent) as key future areas for improvement.

Although many meeting planners remain conservative in their implementation of meeting tech, an examination of their hopes for future event tech tools suggest they are open to more innovation.

Although interest in, and use of, event tech is growing, many meeting planners are still cautious about deploying these tools at events. Another recent survey of event marketers by event management company etouches suggested that event tech is often a key pain point for organizers, with many choosing to skip the use of such tech tools altogether or minimize its role. Among the pain points identified by etouches for the pre-event phase, nearly 60 percent of respondents across all geographic locations cited targeting the right people with the right event content as a common struggle.

Attendee registration was another challenge for more than half of respondents, and managing logistics, such as orders, room setup, AV needs, and the like was another obstacle for 43 percent. On-site challenges are varied and impact event planners across the board. A big challenge for 44 percent of respondents was communication with event attendees. Additionally, 42 percent of event planners cited the registration and check-in process as well as technology overall as pain points.

Interestingly, etouches’ survey revealed that while event planners are using technology in some aspects of the event lifecycle, they haven’t embraced these tools across the board. For example, only 20 percent of respondents said they used a venue sourcing tool and just seven percent use a Strategic Meeting Management (SMM) program. And despite declaring on-site communication as a major pain point, just 47 percent of respondents used a mobile app to communicate with attendees during events.

The biggest post-event pain point cited by respondents of the etouches survey is event measurement. The good news is the majority of respondents (65 percent) indicated they are already measuring event ROI.

Meanwhile for conference and event suppliers like hotels, event technology is helping to more easily sort through the growing volume of Requests for Proposals (RFPs) received from event organizers. For example, Cvent’s new Group Business Intelligence tool is designed to provide real-time data and analytics of hotels’ group business leads (and those of their competitors) in a single platform, helping hotel sales staff prioritize incoming queries and score leads. The tool also makes it easier for hoteliers to examine leads by specific time periods, customer segments, competitor rates, response times, and peak night volume, helping calculate the potential value of each piece of group business with much more context and business insight than before.

“It’s really about bubbling up that data in a way that can be used and leveraged by organizations more intelligently,” said Cvent’s chief technology officer David Quattrone. “It’s really taking it up a level where you get some insights into how you’re competing and where you’re effective versus not, and how you can adjust things.”

Brian Ludwig, SVP of sales at Cvent, added, “one of the things that proves to be most effective in getting awarded business is how quick and responsive you are to the planners that are submitting that proposal. So you’ll compare what your turnaround time is versus your competitors, whether you’re adding in the right information around alternative dates, whether you’re able to shift business. For example, you could have a piece of business that might from a lead-scoring perspective not look that attractive, but if you expand out to an alternative data, all of a sudden it becomes a very lucrative piece of business.”

End-to-End Personalization: The Future of Event Tech

Montreal-based event tech company E-180 launched its Group Braindates platform at C2 Montreal 2017 to help attendees organize meetings on the fly with up to four other like-minded people to discuss shared interests.

Another area where event technology is transforming the conferences and meetings space is in the form of event personalization. Personalizing meetings and events for the individual end user is one of the primary goals for event organizers today. Yet among those companies and organizations that are doing a better job of collecting data on their event audiences, there’s still a lot of confusion about how to make their data actionable from a participant-facing perspective.

“More and more it’s not just about automating registration and facilitation for the event,” said Karen Steele, group vice president of corporate marketing for marketing technology firm Marketo. “It’s really about creating an engaging experience, from the moment someone signs up for your conference to the moment they step on your show floor. Event organizers don’t realize that they have a goldmine of data at their fingertips.”

Steele explained that the data collected during event registration allows planners to do targeted marketing throughout the entire event. “In the case of our Marketing Nation Summit, that includes the entire experience of the website and the mobile app,” she said. “We look at the data to figure out how we can reach people, give them specific offers, and opportunities for attendees to connect with others in real-time.”

For example, Marketo uses attendee data from pre-registration for event sessions to help gauge the popularity of different subjects among attendees, and then adjusts programming accordingly. Event organizers can develop additional breakout sessions or meetups for a topic when it proves to be popular during registration, and/or they can crowdsource attendees for further direction to help drill down on specific subjects. “You can look at people who have pre-registered for certain sessions, and have an understanding for the type of traction you’re going to have on different topics,” said Steele. “You can build conversations and side-sessions related to that topic pre-, during- and post-event; and also use the mobile app to send unique messages and create meetups.”

For other event organizers, personalization takes the form of soliciting attendee input about the conference programming well in advance of a conference, input which is then used to further customize presentations and on-site amenities. Perhaps the best example of this approach is SXSW’s crowdsourced “PanelPicker,” which allows anyone to submit a panel idea in advance of the event and let friends and colleagues vote on which ones are most interesting. “The PanelPicker represents a way to get more input from the community, and build community,” said SXSW’s Shea. “That’s the secret sauce. It’s really about how the process gives a voice to our community, and it also gives us extremely valuable feedback about the continually evolving direction of South by Southwest.”

SXSW’s crowdsourced speaker selection model, called the “PanelPicker,” gives attendees a voice in personalizing the event’s programming while making it easier for organizers to gauge grassroots audience interest in various discussion topics.

Another important evolution in personalization relates to the growing embrace of digital tracking technologies that help meeting planners gain real-time insight into attendees’ on-site behaviors. Cvent’s “On Arrival” ecosystem, for instance, tracks attendees from registration through to the end of an event using RFID technology that’s synchronized with an event mobile app. “Getting a digital footprint of the person’s experience at a conference means you no longer have what we call the ghost attendee,” said Cvent’s Quattrone. “A person shows up, gets their badge, and where they go for the next three days is anyone’s guess. If you can track those experiences and engagement, we can use that same data to deliver recommendations to attendees, like: ‘Hey, this a session you might want to go to, or here’s a person you might want to meet.’”

Back at C2 Montreal, the show organizers worked with Montreal-based E-180 to provide a digital matchmaking and personalization platform called Braindate for attendees to find other people with like-minded interests. In recent years, dozens of emerging event technology companies have attempted to develop cloud-based personal connectivity platforms to help conference participants co-design their event experience. Few, however, have scaled to provide an effective solution for crowdsourced learning and networking at events.

Braindate is the exception. It’s designed to be integrated into an event app where attendees can post a one-sentence question or goal explaining their particular interest. Those posts can be tagged with any number of phrases, such as “event UX” or “smart city” or “experiential marketing” to help users streamline their search. When someone sees a Braindate suggestion that looks appealing, he or she clicks on it to show a calendar with concurrent open slots in both people’s schedules. Then that person sends a request with a specific time to meet to discuss their shared interests. Other conferences have incorporated the Braindate platform into their event design and programming, including TED Women, Airbnb Open, Salesforce’s Dreamforce, and re:publica.

At this year’s C2 Montreal event, E-180 also launched a “Group Braindate” scenario, allowing a participant to schedule and host a meeting focusing on a specific topic with up to four other people. Interested parties would reserve one of the four open spaces, and then everyone participating could chat online within the specific Braindate page to curate the conversation ahead of time. These Group Braindates are actually preferable in some ways because they allow attendees to pull insight from more people in the allotted 45 minutes than they might with 30-minute individual Braindates. It also provides a safer, comfortable experience for more introverted attendees, although this works best when everyone contributes to the dialog. Over the course of the three-day C2 event in 2017, E-180 hosted more than 3,000 one-on-one Braindates and 120 Group Braindates on the second-level scaffolding perched above C2’s Arsenal entrance.

“The feedback on the Group Braindates was phenomenal because we positioned them almost like a mini-workshop,” said Christine Renaud, founder and CEO of E-180. “They’re not so much about one person talking to four other people, but rather where a group of people can explore a common challenge together. That’s the foundation for collaborative learning.”

Along similar lines, the event management firm etouches purchased the Loopd platform in 2017, which is a bluetooth-enabled smart badge that allows attendees to instantly exchange contact information and collect any other type of digital content. Over time, Loopd starts to build a profile for participants based on the people they meet and information they’ve gathered. “If the device understands that you’re talking to me and we’re sharing information, and it looks at what is important to me and what’s important to you, it can begin to build a profile of who you might be interested in talking to again,” said Mike Mason, VP, sourcing and hospitality solutions with etouches.

Even more important is the technology’s ability to help meeting planners customize the event experience for guests. “Tie that into the mobile app now where event managers can now feed you information that might be important to you based on where you are,” continued Mason. “You might be walking by a session that you didn’t think about, and [the app] will say, ‘Hey listen, you mentioned this before. You might want to step inside here; this is what they’re talking about right now.’ So it’s real time, and we’re just on the front end of that.”

The Rise of Automation and Artificial Intelligence

New technology tools like artificial intelligence have big potential in the conferences and events sector. The IMEX organization recently tested “Frank,” an AI-powered chatbot used to provide answers to common attendee questions.

Personalization isn’t the only area of event technology gaining more prominence with meeting planners. A range of automated event tech tools designed to facilitate simpler event planning and provide on-site customer service are offering new opportunities for meeting planners. In some cases, these tools even incorporate new types of chatbot and artificial intelligence functionality, helping event organizers to streamline many of the more complicated aspects of the event management process.

One area where automation technology has delivered big benefits is event reservations. Booking a private dining room or hotel meeting space for a small corporate group can often require numerous back-and-forth emails and lengthy negotiations between the venue and customer. The need to simplify this process was the motivation behind Bizly, an automated platform with on-demand hotel and event venue inventory for small groups under 100 people. The site resembles the Airbnb user interface and experience, where customers search through meeting and event venue listings geographically, using price and various amenity filters to narrow the field of options.

“There are some huge pain points for large companies when it comes to booking small meetings, which no one has solved,” said Bizly founder Ron Shah. “There’s billions of dollars happening around small meetings and events, and it’s totally fragmented. For example, small events are being charged on corporate cards, and it’s often going into general T&E (travel and entertainment) expenses, when in reality it’s a small meetings expense.”

Shah explained that the Bizly site is “consumerized” with more contextual content on the front end, so buyers can use the search engine more effectively, and dummy-proofed on the back end, so suppliers in any department can easily navigate the corporate dashboard to better leverage the suite of data analytics and reporting processes. And because pricing is established for any given date, there’s no RFP required. “No one wants to use RFPs for small meetings today; they are universally hated by both suppliers and buyers,” Shah said. “Suppliers generally have less than one percent conversion, and buyers always have to wait endlessly to hear back from them. And then there’s all of this negotiation that has to be processed manually, either via email or phone or whatever. It just sucks for everyone.”

An upgraded Bizly 2.0 site launched in early 2017 with an integrated compliance mechanism and real-time chat messaging built directly into the booking process. There’s also expanded listing content produced by local meeting professionals to provide more context around the overall design vibe, neighborhood environment, and guest experience at each meeting and event venue. Shah said that about 80 percent of corporate use cases require advance planning to iron out custom meeting requests, even for small events. So one of the big changes on the newly expanded website is the addition of the “Request to Book” option, which supplements the instant booking capability. It’s designed for customers who want to further customize a booking to cater to special requests. After choosing a venue and selecting Request to Book, the customer is then placed into a message center where they can chat in real time directly with an event services staff member at the venue. The employee’s working hours and average response time are both visible to the end user.

Bizly’s on-demand meetings and events platform is making it easier for meeting planners to arrange smaller corporate gatherings without the need for cumbersome RFPs and contracts.

The venue has the opportunity to upload floor plans, brochures, menus, and anything else to provide as much detail as possible about its listing. For those customers who want additional information before booking, or to negotiate rates and add-ons, they can chat with the venue host in the message center, just like an Airbnb guest can chat with a prospective host. Therefore, the venue now has a tool to create a custom shopping cart, and the customer can tag their purchase by department, employee, venue, and/or city before forwarding an invoice to procurement. And corporate executives with administrative access can track all of the conversation between the buyer and supplier, which is important for compliance and transparency reasons.

“We’ve built this with a very consumer-centric and content-first approach, because we said, ‘Let’s empower the customer with as much information as possible, and seamless access to talk directly to the venue,’” explained Shah. “Other platforms like Cvent give you a little bit of information, but not much, because they want you to do an RFP. That’s where their business is. Our model is different. We don’t want you to do an RFP. We want to kill the RFP.”

Streamlined meeting bookings are just one area where automation is showing benefits. Another is the realm of event-specific chatbots. Consider the popular IMEX Frankfurt meetings industry trade show, which launched its first chatbot in 2017, called “Frank,” in collaboration with the artificial intelligence-powered Sciens.io messaging platform. When attendees needed to know the start time for a session, or where a particular exhibitor’s booth was located, they simply reached for their phones and asked Frank. A new feature in the IMEX event app, Frank is an experimental chatbot capable of answering basic event questions via the event website and Facebook page.

Frank passed his debut with flying colors, according to Miguel Neves, digital content and community manager at IMEX Group. He said Frank was “largely successful in answering the many questions fired at him. We saw a significant improvement of the responses from the chatbot technology throughout the period it was in use. This was due to the Sciens.io team re-programming Frank during this period, and Frank’s ability to constantly improve its answers.”

Over the past five years, artificial intelligence and machine learning have made substantial inroads into the mainstream and into our daily lives. Products such as Siri, Amazon Echo, and Google Home are fulfilling our desires for immediate answers, resolutions, and general information, and that has led to the surging popularity of chatbots. Messaging apps, including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Slack, all incorporate some text-based AI to help us connect.

With the AI market expected to grow to $4.05 billion by 2020, according to research firm Markets and Markets, it’s clear these new self-learning and ever-improving technologies have significant potential for the events and conferences space. “AI and cognitive computing are impacting areas customer service in a big way,” said IMEX’s Neves. “Chatbots are still somewhat experimental, but many of the basic questions around events can be answered in a polite, personalized and accurate way 24/7. This is not too far from creating a well thought-out responsive website for the event, but goes much further in terms of usability.”

With text-based services like meeting agendas, scheduling, floorplans, feedback polls and surveys, chatbots like Sciens.io’s Concierge EventBot, Event2Mobile’s Eva, ConfBot, and

Morph.ai can help event planners customize and personalize information to fit attendees’ needs in an easy-to-use manner, allowing attendees and organizers make the most of their time and resources.

Other organizations are using voice-powered assistants like Amazon’s Alexa to enable new ways for conference attendees to find relevant networking events and more easily navigate the event schedule. “We used voice technology [based on] Amazon’s Alexa platform at our [most recent] conference, said Marketo’s Steele. “We had the devices stationed in ‘hang spaces’ on the show floor. People at the event could ask questions like ‘I’m a CMO from the southeast, are there meetups happening with other CMOs from my region?’”

Another example of AI shifting the meetings and events industry, UK-based Grip is a smart event matchmaking app that is transforming some high-profile events, including the Cannes Lions Awards. Grip uses AI to process attendee profiles and behavior data to make matchmaking suggestions for professional networking. “Overall, we believe that artificial intelligence allows us to enable people to network smarter with the goal being to spend less time looking at their phones at events and spend more time face-to-face,” Grip co-founder and CEO Tim Groot said. “Just as Google enabled people to spend less time searching for information online, our mission is to do the same thing for networking at events: more networking for your work.”

Just how good is Grip’s AI? At the Cannes Lions Awards, the event’s Grip-enabled app had more than 750,000 swipes and made more than 10,000 digital “handshakes.” Cannes Lions digital project manager Richard Boswell said, “We’re delighted with the response to the new app, which transformed the way people met. With over 15,000 attendees this year, it was vital the right connections were made with the right people.”

Event Sponsorship: Struggles to Define and Measure Event Success

Sponsored banners and exhibitor tables are a ubiquitous presence in today’s corporate meeting environment. But are they truly effective for sponsors? Some industry executives have doubts.

As the nature of event programming, technology and experiences evolves, it’s also forcing event organizers to re-examine their relationships with the sponsors that underwrite event costs. In today’s environment, sponsors have growing expectations. However, many event organizers continue to rely on an out-of-date mentality toward event sponsorships.

As entrepreneur William Litvack, CEO of event marketing startup SquadUp noted in a 2015 opinion piece on sponsor activations, “The present model of brand activation at events amounts to little more than the clumsiest sort of product placement: it’s awkward, forced, and in the best cases it possesses all the subtlety of an A-list actor slurping down Coke with a wink and a smile in the middle of a big-budget summer movie.” This disconnect may be one reason why 53 percent of event organizers said in a 2017 report by Event Manager Blog and Virtual Event Bags found that they were struggling to secure sponsors for their events.

What’s causing these troubles? One factor is poor communication. A survey of event planners’ attitudes toward sponsorship found that less than 30 percent were able to clearly articulate the value proposition of sponsoring such an event.

A 2017 study by Active Network, which investigated common sponsor expectations versus event organizers’ ability to deliver, suggests the two sides are often not on the same page.

In addition, many event planners don’t do a good job of explaining how they would measure sponsorship impact. The same study on event sponsorship by Active Network found that nearly 70 percent of organizers said they didn’t have a consistent, standardized method to measure the impact of sponsorships. This comes at a moment when the digital advertising world’s relentless focus on real-time analytics is increasingly influencing how sponsors perceive their return on investment for events as well.

“Data, and the ability to access and analyze it, already is having a profound, across-the-board impact on sponsorship,” noted Sam Yardley, associate director of client services for Two Circles, a sponsorship marketing agency, in a blog post for Sponsorship.com. “From the evaluation, selection, activation and measurement of partnerships by brand marketers to the selling, negotiating and fulfillment of those partnerships.”

The growing experiential focus of many events is yet another obstacle for conference organizers seeking to attract potential sponsors. As event programming gets more engaging, driven by interactive technology, multimedia, music and entertainment, sponsors are increasingly expecting their own “footprint” at these events will be designed in the same way. “As technology and experiences evolve, [sponsors] continually want to do something that’s ‘never been done before,’” noted Superfly’s Goodstone.

On top of this is the challenge of determining how to measure the success of sponsored events. One of the biggest challenges for metrics-driven business organizations organizing conferences is finding the right method to measure their return on investment, both for themselves and for sponsors. But according event marketing executives, ROI is far from the only benchmark.

While events have long served as an opportunity for businesses to build awareness and engage key customers and stakeholders, increasingly a much broader range of performance metrics have been incorporated by event marketers. According to Cvent, two-thirds of meeting planners say they use event attendance as the principal metric to gauge ROI. Meanwhile, meeting planners also said benchmarks like revenue generated (55.6 percent), the admittedly vague metric of “attendee engagement” (54.3 percent), registrations (52.3 percent), brand awareness (51 percent) and retention (50.3 percent) were also key measures of success.

Many meeting organizers have trouble deciding how to measure the success of their events. A study by Cvent noted that attendance was the most popular metric, followed by metrics like revenue generated and attendee engagement. The lack of a standardized, industry-wide, metric for measuring success can often make it more difficult to win over potential sponsors.

Still, others caution that getting too caught up on one specific measurement for event success can be counterproductive. Instead, many executives believe that event goals need to be designed to match an organization’s business goals. “It’s a lot more comprehensive than just tracking an event,” said Horacio Gavilan, executive director of AHAA: The Voice of Hispanic Marketing, an industry marketing group for Hispanic-Americans, in a 2017 interview with Skift. “I also track payment history, how long they have been members, when they came to the conference in the past, if they attended a webinar and anything else they bought from me.”

Whatever ROI measurement a company organizing an event happens to use, those familiar with the conferences and events sector suggest that defining the meeting’s business goals in advance is a key step in the process. “We encourage [organizers] to build a measurement protocol into their event strategy at the beginning,” said Freeman’s Cavanaugh. This typically involves “creating a dashboard, understanding what you’re measuring, what the benchmarks are and what ‘good’ looks like. Otherwise you’re creating a bunch of data points that may be unrelated.”

However, in the face of these sponsorship obstacles, a promising collection of new tools and strategies are helping event executives raise the bar for the event experience of the future. More data about attendees and better technology are helping event organizers better personalize the event experience, helping create more engaging experiences for attendees. At the same time, more event marketers are getting smarter about sponsorship activations, while other trends like creating more sustainable event partnerships in cities are all helping to build the event experience of the future.

Superfly: The Future of Sponsorship Activations

The RFID-enabled wristbands used by the Bonnaroo festival offer numerous opportunities for event organizers and sponsors to engage attendees with personalized event and marketing content.

There’s no doubt that growing sponsor demands are making it more difficult for meeting organizers to secure partnerships for their events. But thanks to new types of technology and a more creative approach to event activation, more event marketers are finding success connecting with sponsors. The organizers who are succeeding in today’s more competitive sponsorship space are able to offer activations that balance the data-driven needs of today’s marketers with a more creative, experiential element that gets guests excited.

One example of an event organizer pioneering a new model of creative integration for event sponsors is marketing agency Superfly. As the company behind the popular Bonnaroo and Outside Lands music festivals, the company has developed more than decade of experience coming up with partnership ideas that are simultaneously strategic, creative and engaging for attendees. Superfly executives note that their sponsorship approach starts with a few basic questions. “We usually provide value by bucketing them in three ways: utility, entertainment, and surprise and delight,” said Richard Goodstone, co-founder of Superfly. “It definitely isn’t any kind of a ‘straight line.’ It’s always based on what a brand is looking to achieve, and that’s how we start.”

How Superfly’s sponsors answer these questions will impact the ultimate sponsor activation that shows up at the festival. One way Superfly works with brand partners is by giving them significant back-end access to concertgoer data. As Skift explained in a 2016 article about the agency, “Bonnaroo attracts the interest of brands by collecting deep data on audience behavior, some of which the festival posts on its website. Companies including Miller Lite, Red Bull, GNC, Teva, New Balance, Ford, MTV and many others sponsor individual event activations targeting their specific audiences.”

Bonnaroo then pairs this data with information about festival attendees gathered using on-site technologies like beacons, RFID wristbands, social media analytics, and advanced event registration. “We’ve done a bunch of activations with RFID technology,” said Goodstone. “One cool program we did with Ford and Spotify was where you basically went around the site and ‘checked in’ via your wristband with RFID at each stage to understand where you were at a given moment. What that allowed us to do was see what artist someone was seeing by time-stamping, and then post-event, we sent them a ‘journal’ of their Bonnaroo experience, complete with each artist they saw and setlists they were able to listen to on Spotify.”

Another example of a more experiential event sponsorship program is Spotify’s event activation space in Austin for SXSW. The streaming music company has sponsored an event space in the Texas capital since 2012. But in recent years, the company has tried to design its event presence in such a way that their marketing activations leave behind permanent improvements in the city that can be used by local community organizations, residents and businesses. In 2016, for example, Spotify built their sponsorship activation with reusable materials that were then repurposed for the construction of three recording studios used by a local middle school.

“I have noticed people are being more thoughtful about how they get involved, especially with local businesses,” said Cindy Spackman from nonprofit community development group Rebuilding Together in a December 2016 interview with Curbed. “Instead of a one-day build, they want to know how they can have a long and lasting impact. I would love to see more corporations coming in and having the same consideration: What do we leave behind as we walk away?”

However, other event organizers suggest that personalization can also go too far in the wrong direction if it makes an event too genre-focused. Part of what makes events great is the ability to cross-pollinate different industries, career functions and topics. “We have a deep pipeline of knowledge and data to help us understand our audience better, and I think the most important thing we realized early on is that passions don’t live in silos,” said Goodstone. “At Bonnaroo, we’re drawing people who are coming on a pilgrimage to meet old friends and make new ones, who are curious and have an open frame of mind about many different things.” (source)

Endnotes and Further Reading

  1. Smart CMOs Are Seeing the Value of In-Person Brand Experiences and Events, Skift, May 2017
  2. Global Brand Experience Report: A New Era in Marketing, Freeman XP, 2017
  3. The Event Marketing Benchmark Report: Spring 2017, Certain.com, 2017
  4. TEDx Illustrates How Conferences Are Shifting From Event to Media Platforms, Skift, April 2016
  5. The Megatrends Defining Travel in 2017, Skift, January 2017
  6. Montreal’s Brainy C2MTL Event is Defining the Creative Conference, Skift, June 2014
  7. What Do Millennials Really Want from Brand Events?, Splashthat.com, 2017
  8. Millennials Are Attending Events in Droves Because of Fear of Missing Out, Skift, July 2017
  9. The Event Technology Engagement Study, Cvent, 2016
  10. Technology Is a Pain Point for Many Event Planners, per New etouches Survey, Meetings and Conventions
  11. Global Event Planners Struggling to Leverage Technology to Enhance Attendee Satisfaction, Event Industry News, July 2017
  12. Braindates to Meet Like-Minded Conference Attendees Are Becoming a Thing, Skift, June 2017
  13. Why Brand Activation at Events is Terrible, Entrepreneur, May 2015
  14. The Future of Event Sponsorship Active Network, Virtual Event Bags and Event Manager Blog, 2017
  15. Whitepaper: What Sponsors Want and How Conference Event Directors Can Provide It, Meetingsnet.com, April 2017
  16. Game Changer: The Growing Role of Data in Sponsorship, Sponsorship.com, March 2016
  17. How Smart Event Organizers Are Using Big Data to Create Better Events, Skift, May 2017
  18. Bonnaroo Does Away With Plastic Wristbands For RFID Tech, PSFK, June 2012
  19. Skift Global Forum Preview: How Bonnaroo and SXSW Have Reinvented Live Events, Skift, September 2016
  20. How SXSW Transformed Austin, Curbed, December 2016
  21. CMOs Are Investing More in Live Events to Engage Distracted Audiences, Skift, June 2016