Next-Level Trade Show Technology

While show organizers and exhibitors might be impressed by the latest and greatest, it's important to focus more on the "why" than the "wow." These latest developments will add value to your next exhibition.

Bluetooth-enabled wearables from Klik allow attendees to share contact info and more.
Bluetooth-enabled wearables from Klik allow attendees to share contact info and more.

Selecting new technology for your event can be tricky, particularly as a constant wave of new solutions enters the market. But as show organizers and exhibitors alike might be impressed by the latest and greatest, it's important to focus more on the "why" than the "wow," ensuring that tech investments are driven by real business needs. Ideally, the wow factor will present itself in bottom-line results. Here's a look at some of the latest developments, and how they might add value to your event.

Physical vs. Virtual Realities

While virtual reality has a place at trade shows, too often organizers don’t consider how it’s best put to use. “There was a period recently when, on a weekly basis, I had clients call to say they wanted to do VR at an upcoming event,” recalls John Kaplan, group creative director for Centerline, which works with clients on marketing and branding for trade shows. “The first question out of my mouth was always, ‘why?’ And for the most part, the only answer I could ever get was that ‘it’s fun, it’s cool, it’s engaging.’ I’m not a hater of VR by any measure, but I don’t see that most people are using it in the correct application. VR at its best takes you out of the world you’re in and transports you elsewhere.”

That’s the exact opposite of what most trade-show participants are seeking, Kaplan points out, which is face-to-face time with colleagues, thought leaders and potential business partners. Rather than using VR just for the fun of it, consider applications that make sense: allowing attendees to interact virtually with difficult-to-transport, massive pieces of machinery, for instance; or to experience the benefits of a product they can only use in very specific situations. In most other cases, Kaplan asserts, a trade-show tech budget is more wisely invested in experiences that enhance social interaction. Focusing on physical objects that attendees can hold in their hands, he suggests, brings their attention directly back to where it should be.

"When you can introduce a level of physicality to digital experiences, it creates interesting outcomes," says Kaplan. "It loosens up attendees and takes us back to childhood in a way." This trend towards tangible, interactive experiences is akin to exhibits in a hands-on children’s museum that incorporate high- and low-tech to be both social and educational.

“We had 2,200 attendees at last year’s event, and based on Klik’s benchmarks we expected about 8,000 to 10,000 connections over the course of the event."
— Shana Thomas, director of global events technology and marketing, Connex

Kaplan dubs such solutions "phygital" -- the combination of real-world physical objects with digital experiences. His company has been creating interactive tables for exhibits, where attendees activate different videos or presentations based on where they place a three-dimensional object on the table. The goal is to demonstrate complex themes for clients, such as the value of artificial intelligence in a supply chain.

"An attendee might pick up a cargo-ship model that represents shipping concerns," Kaplan explains, "and then place it down on a game-board-type square with storm icons, which would activate a demo about the value of AI in weather-related supply-chain challenges." Or clients might pick up objects from a moving platform, similar to selecting plates from a moving track at an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant. Each object activates a different video when placed on the table.

As augmented reality becomes more easily integrated into event apps, says Kaplan, that too will become a greater part of this experience. A tablet might be handed to a participant, for instance, so they can witness a transformation of the physical object in front of them on a screen when they point the tablet toward it. The key is to keep the interactions among meeting-goers grounded in the physical world.

"When people touch an object instead of a screen, there’s this weird thing that happens," says Kaplan. "It's like a little bit of magic."

Connecting with Wearables

Tracking trade-show business outcomes has traditionally been an imprecise process, but that needs to change. "Live events are going to get bigger and better," asserts Shana Thomas, a self-described super geek and director of global events technology and marketing for facilities-management association Connex. "It’s going to be up to those events to serve as more of an epicenter for connecting business partnerships year-round." It should not require a lot of manual labor to record new connections, or to demonstrate the return on investment from a show, she says. The best events will incorporate technology that automates those processes.

Centerline combines real-world objects with digital experiences.
Centerline combines real-world objects with digital experiences.

"My goal is for our attendees to be able to walk away after the show and think, 'I know exactly what I got out of this, and I know exactly what I need to do,'" says Thomas. "And everything is set up for them to start doing business -- not to begin by recapping everything that occurred during the live event."

To facilitate this approach, Thomas turned to wearable-tech provider Klik for the Connex National Conference last spring, an event that drew more than 2,000 attendees. Klik makes Bluetooth-enabled wearables in different configurations -- vinyl badge sleeves, light-up smart badges and a light-up button that clips onto lanyards -- all designed to be unobtrusive extensions of the typical badge that attendees already are wearing. 

The devices serve multiple purposes, as a check-in device; a networking matchmaker that illuminates when suggested connections are nearby; a tap-to-exchange way to share contact info; an alarm that lights up when you need to head to a meeting or session; a geo-targeted marketing device that pushes info via the accompanying mobile app; and a gamification tool that tracks attendance or participation in specific sessions or activities. For trade shows, the wearable and its app can be used as a lead-retrieval solution for exhibitors, as well.

Like similar wearables or smart badges, Klik's solution has the advantage of functioning even for attendees who elect not to download an event app -- it still facilitates connections and tracks the attendee experience for anyone who opts in upon receiving the badge. 

The Klik devices, however, do have a particularly wide range of uses, especially when used in conjunction with an event app (and Klik can either create a branded app for clients or integrate functionality with an existing one). A dashboard is updated in real time, and the app documents and saves all connections made at the event by day, time and location. Not only can attendees consult their new connections during the event, they also can share the connections with teams back at the office and even export data to a CSM platform as the show progresses. Attendees can offer feedback via the app as well, giving show organizers a real-time picture of which sessions and activities are faring well -- and which aren’t.

Such wearables are an excellent example of unobtrusive technology that packs a lot of power at a large event. The Klik buttons that Thomas rolled out at Connex2019 were a huge hit because they represented simple, easy-to-use tech that touched just about everyone in attendance; the tap-to-connect functionality was so popular, the keynote speakers incorporated the buttons into their presentations and asked people to connect with one another.

"We had 2,200 attendees at last year's event, and based on Klik's benchmarks we expected about 8,000 to 10,000 connections over the course of the event," Thomas explains. "For last year's event -- our first with Klik -- we had 60,000 connections in total. On average, an attendee walked away with 35 to 40 connections."

Most importantly, the attendees didn’t return home with stacks of business cards stashed into pockets over the course of the meeting. "They didn’t have to pull out business cards, they didn't need to pull out the app, they didn't lose any face time -- they just pulled on the button and clicked it," says Thomas. The devices even tracked connections made during off-site tours and synced with the app when participants went back inside the geo-fenced area at the meeting.

Despite the technology itself looking pretty simple, the wow factor was definitely there. "It just blew our attendees out of the water," says Thomas. 

The New Chatbots

The Fluent chatbot answers questions across all channels.
The Fluent chatbot answers questions across all channels.

The more you use them, the smarter they get. This principal behind the artificial-intelligence and natural-language processing technologies that are driving chatbot development applies just as well to the event virtual-assistant market as a whole. M&C profiled Eventbots by Sciensio (now called 42Chat) last year as an emerging trade-show tech, and the popularity and usefulness of the tech continues to evolve. 

Show organizers are finding chatbots to be an excellent accompaniment to event apps. The virtual assistants respond to natural-language questions from meeting participants -- usually via text, and with impressive accuracy.

The newest chatbot to hit the market, called Fluent, comes from Freeman, the brand-experience company known for its work on large events. The technology was developed on the Amazon Web Services platform with trade shows in mind and multichannel capabilities at the forefront. With Fluent, show organizers gain access to a chatbot that runs not only on the web, but also via SMS chat, voice-activated smart speakers, within an event app and on social media channels. 

"It allows us to take that same technology that you’ve invested in for your website — which has answered countless questions and helped people navigate to your show — and transfer it to be used on site,” says David Haas, director of digital marketing services at Freeman.

The other chatbot game-changer, says Haas, is the increased presence of AI in the way a chatbot can help attendees. "There's always going to be an element of serendipity at an event, which you want -- it's part of what makes it fun and engaging," he says. "But you also don't want to miss out on a session you should have attended. This is the next giant leap with this technology; rather than scrolling through and picking a session, let's have AI help us; let's have it find things for us that we care about and can recommend."

"We can use the identity of the person asking the question so that two people asking the same question can get two different answers.”
—Chuck Elias, CEO and co-founder of 42Chat

The more attendee information that is shared with a chatbot platform, the more personalized the recommendations the bot can make -- and a more personalized experience is really the ultimate goal at 42Chat, as well.

"We can use the identity of the person asking the question so that two people asking the same question can get two different answers," explains Chuck Elias, CEO and co-founder of 42Chat. "A regular attendee might say, 'Where's dinner?' to which we could respond 'Dinner is in the main hall. It's a buffet. Bring your badge.' A VIP might ask the same question, and the chatbot can respond 'The President's Circle dinner is being held at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. The car will pick you up at 6.' The artificial intelligence we're using is allowing us to extract that query and combine it with identity to give the individualized response that person needs."

That heightened level of personalization is what attendees are quickly coming to expect. 

For show organizers, chatbots also provide a treasure trove of audience insights. "Every single text that's sent to the chatbot is customer feedback," says Elias. "Someone was looking for something at a specific time. You're capturing this data so that you really understand how to support those individuals and event participants in general. It's incredibly powerful."

The Telltale Heart

In their ongoing effort to measure attendee engagement and meetings success, the execs at global event-planning company Bishop-McCann have taken the wearable one step further, adding a neurosensor, courtesy of a wristband developed by Immersion Neuroscience. 

Bishop-McCann's Return on Experience program integrates a neurosensor, courtesy of a wristband developed by Immersion Neuroscience.

The Return on Experience program consists of the wearable and a software platform that uses heart rate to measure a hormone released when people experience emotional resonance.

The sci-fi-sounding scenario was born from the increased pressure meetings organizers are under to demonstrate event value, says Rob Adams, Bishop McCann's president and CEO. "According to recent research, fewer than 20 percent of traditional surveys accurately capture attendee experiences at meetings and events," he says. "We're providing our clients a measurable, scientific way to prove the value of meeting and event experiences, which directly correlate to company performance."

Using this platform, says Adams, show organizers can get a real-time picture of just how immersed attendees are in the program -- down to specific moments in a presentation. 

Theoretically, the data would provide incredibly specific feedback for organizers and speakers. But will attendees push back against having their vital signs monitored this way? Bishop-McCann has yet to see any attendee resistance, according to a spokesperson, as participants can remain anonymous if they wish, and a sample size of just 30 attendees can provide quality results.