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by Ben West | June 2, 2015

Ben WestShows like CES and SXSW are known for introducing the latest products to the world, but the technology behind such events is rapidly evolving as well. Anyone who attended SXSW in 2015 saw how new technology like iBeacons — Apple’s location-based technology — can improve the event experience by connecting people, sending attendees real-time updates and creating more interactive experiences.

Hyper-location technology accelerates serendipity
Connecting with the right people is often the key to making a memorable event. However, when there are thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of attendees, it’s difficult to make these connections, let alone know who’s there to meet in the first place.

Some conferences and events are taking the lead to enhance networking opportunities. For example, at this year’s SXSW, attendees could opt in to use an “Around Me” feature on their phone apps to see who was in their vicinity, read their LinkedIn profiles and even reach out through the app to make a connection.

Features like “Around Me” leverage hyper-local Bluetooth beacons ("iBeacons" is Apple's term, but they work cross-platform) to let attendees discover who is near them. This opt-in system allows people to quickly browse profiles and pushes targeted messages to anyone nearby with a Bluetooth-enabled device.

Update attendees in real time
Beacon technology isn’t just limited to networking applications. Large events are inherently dynamic; strategically-placed beacons, coupled with attendees’ smartphones and smartwatches, are proving to be one of the best ways to keep attendees up to speed on when and where they need to be in order to maximize their experience.

For example, if there are still last-minute seats available for a panel discussion or film screening, event organizers can push an alert to nearby attendees. And as often happens at events, should the location of a session change, attendees can be notified right away with a map to the new location. With the launch of Apple Watch, event organizers are expected to provide an enhanced level of place and time alerts to always-on smartwatch screens.

Fast-tracked registration
When long lines form at registration or other ticketed areas, it frustrates everyone. Mobile tickets have made a huge improvement in streamlining the ticketing process, but you still need to scroll through your phone’s email to find the right mobile bar code to be scanned.

Beacon technology is the next evolution in ticketing. With iBeacons, the registration desk communicates directly with your phone as you approach, telling your phone to bring up the appropriate QR code. When you pull out your phone, the screen will smartly display the ticket without any work on your part.  

Of course, if you have a smartwatch, you may not have to use your phone at all. At the 2014 LeWeb Conference in Paris, attendees could have their watch scanned to access a building.

A more interactive experience
One of the biggest transformations will take place within the conference sessions themselves, as technology is turning attendees into active participants.

With a conference app, you can create a personalized schedule of talks and exhibitors ahead of time, making it easier to stay on track while at the show. Inside a talk or panel discussion, an app gives you options to send questions to the moderator or respond to a speaker’s poll.

There has always been a conversation happening beyond what the presenter is saying, but now attendees can comment on the presentation, provide perspective or counterpoints on the topic, and explore ideas with fellow attendees — all within an event app.

Some things never change
No matter how much technology an event organizer adds to the mix, they still need a strong roster of content, fantastic speakers, good food and a great venue. The reason we attend events is to engage in content with like-minded individuals and share unique experiences with friends, old and new.

The best conferences will focus on all the little details, including how to use technology to enhance why you come to an event in the first place: to learn, discover and make valuable connections.

Ben West is the co-founder of Eventbase, a mobile event-technology platform used by show-industry giants such as SXSW, LeWeb, Comic-Con, Sundance Film Festival, Lollapalooza, ESPN and the Olympic Games. Follow Ben on Twitter, @benjwest.