“It’s no longer about the equipment – it’s about the content.” – Andrew De La Cour, National Director of Technical Inventory, AVW-TELAV.

In April I attended an overview of the state of the art of meetings technology put on by AVW-TELAV as part of National Meetings Industry Day here in Toronto, and got properly dazzled. The technical capabilities to create all sorts of experiences and environments for your event are in place right now. If you have the budget, you can do all sorts of amazing things. And even with much more limited funds, you can do some very nifty stuff. To bring it more directly to the audience, you can even project onto fog, which they can just walk right through.

In short, there are so many cool things happening, which translated to a whole bunch of new ways to spend money. At the same time, there is a great deal of pressure to “break through the clutter” and create a memorable experience at in-person events.

But I see a problem with this. Innovation can certainly inform planning, but fundamentally you need to be clear on what’s important to you. You don’t know what to invest in, if you don’t know your objectives. And you certainly can’t write a good brief for your creative and technical team if you don’t know what you want to achieve.

Technological innovation and novelty increases the stakes – without necessarily improving the effectiveness. This can turn out to be a way to waste money in a way that seems impressive – and distracts from key questions of conference strategy – if you don’t know why you are adopting it.

Having said that, the good news is that there are unprecedented ways to use technology to engage your audience and to facilitate connections between people – still a challenge for most events.  It’s getting almost as easy to connect iPads scattered throughout the room and have their screens projected on the main screen as it is to pass microphones around the crowd. You can aggregate what people are saying on social media about the event (and moderate that feed), to get feedback and create virtual community in real time. You can have people listening in to events from their home offices, asking questions relayed to the room, and chatting with other virtual delegates. Instead of a show of hands, you can do real-time polling by asking delegates to pull out their smartphones (or just stop checking email on them for a few minutes).

Many of these solutions are relatively low-cost and their potential is still largely unexplored – lots of meetings have never tried any of them. Increasingly, though, they will become expected.

So I’d challenge anyone who gets shown an event budget that includes a super-cool technology solution, or a whiz-bang delegate experience element, to ask a few key questions:

  • What are we doing this for? How does this tie back to our overall objectives?
  • If we couldn’t do this – if the technology didn’t exist – how else would we meet that objective? How would the outcome compare?
  • How will we measure its effectiveness? (Note: please don’t limit this to “We’ll ask delegates on the event evaluation.” There are lots of ways to measure something, and chances are excellent that the evaluation is one of the less effective methods.)
  • If I were to say no to this particular thing, but say you had to spend the money on something different, what would you spend it on? Why? So, why don’t we do that instead?

And if you get shown a plan that is the same as you saw last year, with just the dates and location changed, and maybe a new slogan, then the questions are a bit different:

  • Are there innovations out there that could help us meet our objectives?
  • What are our delegates, attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors getting accustomed to elsewhere that we aren’t delivering? (If you’re not going to be an early adopter, that’s fine, but you have to know when to follow.)
  • If I gave you 5% of this budget to play with, what would you do? What about 10%? If I told you to cut the budget by 10%, how might you do that?

If you’d like to discuss how you think more strategically about your conference, please get in touch.