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by Michael Shapiro | January 20, 2017

Editor's note: This series of articles about the future of event technology was underwritten by the Singapore Exhibition and Convention Bureau as part of Northstar Meetings Group’s Technology Innovation and the Future of Meetings resource. M&C retains editorial and creative control over the content.

Beacons were the next big thing for events a few years ago, when Apple began publicizing its iBeacon technology. In a sense, they're still the next big thing. The potential for location-based technology at events, such as that provided by beacons, still seems to eclipse the actual use cases. Without question, the use of beacons has grown, but many event organizers and venues continue to search for the killer-app functionality that will wow attendees.
 
Beacons themselves -- little transmitters -- have continued to drop in price over the past few years, so it isn't a major investment to buy them in bulk and place them in various booths and locations around an event. Modern smartphones typically are outfitted with the Bluetooth Low Energy functionality that's required to receive information from beacons. Still, there a number of challenges, including varying performance results among different phone brands and models.
 
Most significantly, though, attendees have to be convinced of beacons' value; what's in it for them? Because they must opt in to sharing their location and agree to the potential battery drain on their phones that may result. If show organizers do nothing more than push marketing messages based on what booth an attendee nears, that might not be enough to get attendee buy-in.
 
Successes and challenges
Some of the more creative solutions have been gaining traction. The placement of beacons at an airport before a big event, for instance, allows attendees using the event app to receive welcome messages upon arrival, complete with a link to maps and other useful information. Beacons also have been deployed in popular gathering places at meeting venues, making it easier to network face-to-face. An "Around Me" function, available in a number of event apps, lets you know who's standing within range of the beacons (and you), so that you can meet exactly the kinds of people you were hoping to. Event tech and production supplier FreemanXP has seen impressive results in both of those use cases, with more than half of attendees opting in to be included in networking features.
 
That said, the challenges of relying on attendee smartphones to communicate with beacons makes their implementation success vary widely, based largely on the attendee base, what kinds of phones they use and where they're coming from. "I'm not a huge fan of BLE [the protocol used by beacons] because of some of the constraints," says Dr. Felix Rimbach, director of research and development for Singapore-based event technology supplier Globibo. "BLE works very nicely on iPhones, but the Android implementation is weak. Most people come here with an Android phone."
 
A big part of the challenge, adds Rimbach, is that we're not talking about just two or three different kinds of Android phones. For a big event in Singapore last year, Globibo built in a solution that recognized what type of phone was being used to access the network. "I think we had 350 different models of phones that connected to our system," he recalls. "And with a BLE solution in that situation, you just can't guarantee a good service level."
 
Location technology alternatives
How can you guarantee better results? By knowing what to expect from a group. At a corporate event for 200 people, all of whom were using iPhones, recalls Rimbach, a BLE beacon solution worked beautifully for them.
 
Location-based event tech that isn't reliant on smartphones to pinpoint location also might continue to grow. An increasing number of conferences and trade shows are now asking attendees to carry beacons, generally in the form of small, lightweight plastic tokens attached to their name badges. The beacons then communicate with sensors stationed around the venue.  
 
At IAEE Expo! Expo! in Anaheim this past December, for instance, attendees received a wearable beacon when checking in, courtesy of supplier Hubvents. The beacon, which was affixed to the lanyard, communicated with proximity sensors around the convention center to offer an Around Me function for networking, as well as a record of show-floor locations and networking sessions attended. Attendees could access that information following the show to better recall their experiences. Of course, having a record of where attendees went and what they attended, in aggregate, is extremely valuable for show organizers (and of greater value, one might argue, than it is for the attendee).
 
Those location-based features still must be integrated into the event app, and attendees must opt in to use networking or tracking functionality; but organizers aren't reliant on the phones themselves to receive the transmitted signals. And in that sense, at least, some technical glitches are resolved.
 
Make the most of the infrastructure
Beyond beacons lies the plethora of possibilities offered by technologies that have been around for quite some time, like RFID sensors and NFC chips. The success of these tools also depends very much on geography and venue, and what kind of infrastructure and devices are already being used. Rimbach mentions a simple use case they recently implemented in Singapore with NFC chips, wherein attendees entering a venue were personally greeted with a welcome message on-screen, and were then able to pick up their badges, which automatically printed after the chip reader at the venue entrance acknowledged their arrival. "It may be difficult to monetize that feature on its own," says Rimbach, "but it's indicative of the kinds of services we can provide."
 
Event solutions like that, adds Rimbach, will be easier to implement in places like Singapore, in the sense that the nation already has used similar platforms and the population has grown accustomed to toll and payment systems — already deeply integrated into their daily lives — based on RFID and NFC technologies. While those systems have yet to be fully integrated into a location-aware token or card specifically for meeting attendees, he notes, the potential is there. "The infrastructure is fantastic," he says. "It's now up to us in the event industry to catch up to what's already here."
 
And that's true everywhere: Planners must find those features that provide the highest value to their attendees, making it worthwhile to get past any glitches and to take advantage of the technology infrastructure that's available. Without clear attendee benefits, the tech just won't be used.