Transformative Trade Show Tech

The trade show of the future has arrived sooner than you expected. Some of the most wildly innovative event tech to hit the market over the past few years is ready for the show floor. New and improved versions of these cutting-edge technologies are now hitting the market, and they're gaining traction very quickly among show organizers looking to make life easier for attendees, exhibitors and, crucially, themselves. Read on for the latest developments.

Surprise and delight: Nearly two-thirds of the 9,000 attendees at Keller Williams Mega Camp 2018 checked in using facial recognition.
Surprise and delight: Nearly two-thirds of the 9,000 attendees at Keller Williams Mega Camp 2018 checked in using facial recognition.

Facial Recognition

Facial recognition has rapidly evolved from sci-fi cool to a fully viable solution to keep check-in lines moving quickly on-site -- and yet it's still new enough that the wow factor remains. A lot of progress in this space comes courtesy of Houston-based Zenus, which develops software that powers the process. 

Zenus partners with registration companies to add facial recognition to their existing solutions, and the interest has proven intense: More than 30 registration companies have discussed integration with the Zenus team, and a handful have enthusiastically embraced the tech as a core offering, according to Zenus co-founder/president Panos Moutafis. 

"We've already powered about 50 events in the last 12 months, and we aim to support more than 200 in 2019," Moutafis says. Most of these upcoming events are either trade shows or corporate conferences that have an exhibition element. 

What's more, the tech is highly scalable: Zenus recently collaborated with on-site event tech provider Fielddrive, based in Belgium, to deploy facial recognition at the Mega Camp gathering in Austin, Texas, for agents of Keller Williams Realty. Held in August, nearly two-thirds of the 9,000 people attending opted in to use the technology and provided their photos in advance. That adoption rate was a hefty increase over the 48 percent who opted in for the previous event, last spring. Fielddrive expects the percentage to grow yet again for another Keller Williams event, to be held in New Orleans next February, which is expected to draw some 17,000 attendees.

Those numbers aren't outliers, either. "For the following months, we've booked events with 18,000 to 65,000 attendees," notes Moutafis, "and hopefully a couple that will cross the 100,000-attendee mark." The 67 percent opt-in rate at this year's event is the highest the company has seen yet for a large show, Moutafis adds, but as the rate has been growing steadily for Zenus clients using facial recognition, that high mark is likely to be broken in the near future.

Using facial recognition to check in is amazingly fast: Once an attendee steps in front of the camera at the check-in kiosk, an on-screen prompt asks her to confirm whether she is the person in question. A simple yes checks in the attendee, and in the unlikely case the match isn't correct, another option is provided. 

A biometric identity scan also is more secure than more traditional check-in methods, in which someone could theoretically enter anyone's name as in attendance. Plus, the process is GDPR-compliant: The Zenus software does not store anyone's image. Rather, images are streamed with secure encryption and never stored anywhere. All attendee information remains only in the registration database.

As the technology takes off, Zenus continues to innovate. The company is on the verge of revealing its latest idea, a smart camera device that is still in prototype. Using embedded Zenos software, the camera can read faces and analyze facial expressions in a trade show environment -- obtaining data for exhibitors such as how many people visited a booth, when they did so and even how they were feeling when they were there. The hardware solution is small and easily mounted just about anywhere in a booth or throughout an exhibition hall. Moutafis is hoping for a soft launch by the end of the first quarter next year.

It's especially important to note that Zenos is committed to complying with all privacy regulations -- the camera software does not actually identify the attendees, it merely reads faces and expressions. "We don't work with customers who want us to take photos and identify people without their permission," say Moutafis. "Privacy is extremely important to us."

Pocket assistant: Sciensio’s Eventbots anticipate attendee needs to deliver critical event info.


Sciensio, the Draper, Utah-based developer of AI-driven conversation platforms, has continued to rack up accolades for its Eventbots. When M&C first profiled the product last January in "Top 10 Meetings Innovations of the Year," the company had earned awards in tech competitions from IBTM World, IMEX America and the Society of Independent Show Organizers. Since then, it has added honors from the National Sports Forum, Meeting Professionals International and the Events DC Tech Summit. 

"The recognition is a testament to what chatbots could be in the industry," says Scienso founding partner Robert Caldwell. "People really see the promise and recognize that here's a friction-free way to interact with attendees that doesn't require a download, it doesn't require training or a login. It simply requires someone to send a text and get an answer."

That sums up precisely what chatbots can do for events. Using text messaging on their smartphones -- principally SMS but occasionally via a web messenger or Facebook, if a client prefers -- attendees can ask questions pertaining to the event, whether about the schedule, availability of WiFi, bathroom location and so on.

The key here is that the experience has to be a rewarding one for attendees, meaning they get correct answers and not the frustrating experience too many of us have encountered trying to get answers from an automated customer-service number. That's where innovators like Sciensio have changed the game, using artificial intelligence and natural language processing to establish millions of ways a question can be asked and correctly answered. And because AI is fueling the exchange, the platform becomes more helpful the more it's used.

Sciensio has deployed Eventbots at more than 200 events this year, and the rate of correct responses has improved steadily. "It's not just an accurate response," Caldwell notes. "It's a correct response. For example, if you ask a bot, 'Do you have WiFi?,' the accurate response is 'Yes.' It is, however, a useless response: People want to know what the network is called, what the password is and if it is free. We're focused on anticipatory design, meaning that we're going to answer not just what you've asked, but the next couple of logical questions that go with it."

Sciensio has improved from a very respectable 90 percent response rate at the beginning of this year to around 95 percent recently -- which might be higher than the average correct response rate from on-site staff.

To further enhance the content available via chatbot, Sciensio just added "conversation sweeteners." This means show organizers can add richer experiences to the SMS platform by linking to web content in chatbot answers. Attendees can view information as they're accustomed to seeing it on the web, while still remaining in the SMS messaging app for their conversation with the chatbot. 

In other words, Eventbots can now provide exhibitors or attendees with instant access to very rich data. It feels less like a texting experience and more like using an event app. "We currently have clients who are looking at building an exhibitor bot," says Caldwell. "You can download the exhibitor manual, order services online and do all of that through your SMS bot."

Other uses include functionality for badges, where you could type in "badge," have it delivered to you electronically and then swipe your phone to enter the exhibition. Or, an attendee and exhibitor could swap info simply by having the attendee type in the booth number, for example. It could even trigger surveys or polls related to specific sessions or booth experiences.

All of this is functionality that can be accomplished via the use of an app -- but in this case, it's tied to an AI chatbot and can be accessed via SMS, with no downloads required. At some point, organizers might ask themselves whether an event app is still necessary.

Next up: Sciensio is about to release a MeetingBot, a self-service, code-free, inexpensive version of the Eventbot that can be quickly deployed for smaller meetings and events -- and even used for such smaller gatherings that take place during a larger trade show.

Holograms make otherwise impossible interactive demos a reality, like this vivid display of the Hubble telescope.


Holograms have been surprising and delighting attendees for at least a half dozen years -- and demand for that kind of entertainment remains strong. Technological advances make it possible to witness "live" performances from the likes of Billie Holiday or speeches from Ronald Reagan. Beyond the celebrity gleam, however, hologram technology is proving to be incredibly practical and useful in a trade show environment.

Exhibitors that produce large industrial equipment, for instance, have used holograms to draw attendees to their booths and effectively demonstrate what they offer via lifelike three-dimensional representations. 

The Los Angeles-based VNTANA, which specializes in interactive hologram technology for events, assisted one such exhibitor recently by providing the hologram of a cow-milking machine. Another event called for a hologram of the Hubble telescope, which would have been difficult to demo on the show floor. For CES 2018, VNTANA created an interactive experience for storage company Seagate to showcase its new HAMR technology. 

Holograms, be they products or people, can create viral buzz on social media, something that VNTANA execs have been capitalizing on. To better ensure that surprise and delight extend beyond the exhibition-hall walls, VNTANA has combined its hologram tech with lead capture and social media-ready sharing capabilities. In what the company calls "mixed reality," it has created the Hollagram solution, through which attendees can interact with holographic images. Attendee information is collected on behalf of VNTANA's client, and shareable videos of the experience are immediately emailed to each participating attendee. 

Demand for such experiences is high. "Mixed reality is transforming every industry, from engineering to advertising to eduction," says VNTANA CEO Ashley Crowder, "but there is a huge cost and steep learning curve in creating these new experiences, and there isn't an easy way for companies to collect data on engagement and sync with existing tools." VNTANA is now piloting the release and licensing of software that allows clients to better handle the process in-house. 

"The platform allows companies to easily create interactive mixed-reality experiences without the need of a team of engineers," Crowder adds. Features include built-in data tracking and sync capabilities with CRM platforms as well.

The software program is still in beta, but VNTANA will soon have a timeline for a wider launch -- potentially making mixed-reality hologram technology an even more common site on the trade show floor.