by Michael J. Shapiro | January 01, 2018
Meetings tech is getting more attention than ever before - specifically from investors and C-suite executives. That has fueled rapid-fire innovation, and an influx of tools that promise to improve the meeting experience for planners, participants and stakeholders. M&C's fourth annual round-up of the industry's top innovations is a curated collection of the game-changers that should be on your radar in 2018.

1. Chatbots. Until recently, the buzz building around chatbots was mostly to point them out as concrete examples of artificial intelligence in action. But over the past several months, the industry focus on the bots themselves has risen to a fever pitch. Sciensio, a company that specializes in messaging platforms, took home three different awards for its EventBots: the IBTM World Tech Watch Award, as well as top honors in IMEX America's #IMEXPitch and the Society of Independent Show Organizer's Event Innovation Battlefield.

EventBots themselves aren't flashy; they are simply virtual assistants through which attendees can communicate using SMS messaging, a web-based interface or the Messenger app. Attendees text straightforward conversational questions to the bot - be they about session schedules, WiFi access, directions or anything else. Think of the bots as software versions of well-informed, conveniently located staff members. Sure, attendees can search an app for answers, but sometimes they just want to ask a simple question.

It's what's going on underneath the hood that makes the bots so innovative. While some early implementations of these devices have proven to be of limited use for attendees - it isn't difficult to make a basic bot - the most robust event chatbots can do much more. 

Sciensio, for example, uses a combination of scripted answers via menu buttons to provide commonly sought information, and artificial intelligence to decipher conversational questions and provide complete, on-point answers. Sciensio's latest EventBots answer questions based on a library of more than 100 topics. Attendees can ask about these topics in 2.3 million different ways and get an accurate answer; and that number could increase by a million, given the AI at work when deciphering the questions. 

Chatbots like Sciensio's needn't be integrated into an event app. They might even become the event interface of choice, supplanting the app altogether. But to take full advantage of chatbot potential, planners must consider them a primary communication channel from the outset, and ensure all information and updates are provided to the vendor. 

2. Performance-ready convention centers. Forget what you know about convention centers and the limitations of cavernous exhibit halls. While those halls have typically been more suited to showrooms than to high-end productions, the curtain has been lifted on new possibilities.

Early last fall, San Jose's McEnery Convention Center debuted a $22 million overhaul of its exhibit halls' tech and audiovisual infrastructure. Production manager Tim Foster, armed with decades of tour-production experience from his days with the likes of Neil Young and Jefferson Starship, set about redefining the possibilities of the venue. Foster ripped out the original ceilings to ease production rigging, and outfitted the space with a specially adapted Meyer Sound system, previously unavailable lighting from ETC Lighting and a technology platform that allows for mobile control of individual lights and speakers.

The innovations break new ground for exhibit halls and represent the next step in an ongoing trend toward performance-ready ballroom spaces that redefine convention centers and their uses - from California's Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center to Cincinnati's Duke Energy Center. 

3. Collaborative tech networks. Planners know all too well how difficult it can be to get the various tech tools in their arsenals to work together. While some meetings-tech companies grow via mergers and acquisitions so that they can offer more complete solutions - and theoretically solve tech-integration challenges - some smaller tech firms are eschewing consolidation in favor of independence and good old-fashioned cooperation.

That, in part, is the concept behind the Event Tech Tribe collaborative, a coalition that currently includes six event-tech suppliers: Swoogo, Hubb, Glisser, TRC, InsightXM and EventOPS. "Building everything, trying to be all things to all people - that's not really the future of software in general," says Event Tech Tribe founder Leonora Valvo, who co-founded both Swoogo and InsightXM, and is an adviser and early investor in Glisser."The future is to have really focused, really good products that are API-driven and well connected from a data point of view."

What's particularly unique about the Tribe's approach is its balance of independence and collaboration. While each company operates independently, providing a cohesive customer-service front line benefits every supplier in the group. Whether or not it upends the enterprise-software approach to event platforms remains to be seen, but its innovative approach offers customers a marketplace alternative.

4. Facial recognition. Having begun as a sci-fi concept, facial recognition has evolved into a practical solution that's nearly ready for prime time. The fact that it's the primary unlocking mechanism for Apple's flagship iPhone X promises to speed up the public's acceptance of the tech and get any kinks worked out in short order. 

For meetings and events, the technology from biometric software provider Zenus is driving practical uses. Registration vendor Expo Logic used the Zenus-powered facial-recognition engine to print name badges at IMEX America 2017. Attendees' profile photos were used to quickly and securely identify them on arrival. Similarly, the Eventinterface management platform uses facial recognition for check-in, speeding up lines and bolstering security. 

5. Voice-activated smart rooms. The hotel room of the future will rely heavily on voice recognition and the "Internet of Things," based on plans recently unveiled by the major hotel companies. The highly personalized room configurations that will result could have ripple effects across the meeting experience.

Hilton's "Connected Room," set to roll out over the course of this year, centralizes room control in the Hilton Honors app. Hotel guests will be able to manipulate room temperature, lighting, television and window coverings via the app. In the future, voice commands and other devices will be added, as will room preferences that can be saved to one's Hilton Honors profile. 

Although Hilton hasn't confirmed plans for meeting spaces, the expanding web-connected infrastructure makes it easy to imagine a unique login or associated meetings app giving the planner similar control of a meeting room, directly through a smartphone.

6. Personalized audio. Trade-show floors and venue ballrooms can be loud and distracting. This is especially noticeable when multiple educational sessions are being presented in the same room - a popular learning format that's rendered nearly worthless when attendees can't hear the presentations amidst the cacophony.

Creative solutions are popping up that deliver audio directly to attendees. Last May, at the American Society of Association Executives' inaugural Xperience Design Project in Washington, D.C., the organization implemented an innovative solution from Live Sports Radio. That company, which has nine years of experience in the sports world, provided proprietary headsets to broadcast five simultaneous presentations, each on a different radio channel. The presenters were positioned in different sections of a round stage in the middle of the room, with each addressing a live audience seated in a designated "spoke" area off the wheel of the stage. To tune in to the presentation and tune out other noise, audience members dialed into the broadcast coming from the presenter in their spoke. 

Clear audio is integral to audience engagement and, depending on the setup, can simultaneously aid in expanding the reach of the presentation. Live Sports Radio has one setup that allows attendees to tune in to one of three simultaneous presentations without changing their seats, thanks to simultaneous video projections and dedicated audio channels for each. 

7. Versatile, actionable data management. Data is gold. Planners are beginning to understand just how much of that precious commodity can be gleaned from their events, but few know how to mine and refine it. "This is not an industry that's been using data to make business decisions," observes Nick Fugaro, founder and CEO of data-analytics platform Vivastream. Fugaro, who comes from the digital and data-tech worlds, created Vivastream to change the status quo. "I want to help corporations understand more about their customers based on their behavior and activity at events."

Vivastream is a versatile, robust example of new tech that promises to aid planners in the latest gold rush. Nearly every kind of meetings management tech tool now includes some kind of data dashboard - leaving planners with a whole lot of dashboards. Vivastream normalizes the data from a limitless number of disparate sources - registration systems, mobile apps, geolocation tech, Twitter, lead retrieval, etc. - and aggregates and analyzes it. Engagement levels are displayed by business topic, account, attendee and more, and exported directly to Salesforce and marketing automation platforms. Vivastream even generates Trip Reports down to the individual attendee, so organizers can provide activity reports to each and recommend additional resources.

Others similarly are trying to help. Data-analytics provider InsightXM recently launched Essentials, a fixed-price tool that provides quick access to analytics and helps planners better understand their attendees. And for planners who want additional insight into data gleaned from an event app, Attendify recently introduced Audiences, providing sophisticated insight into attendee behavior.

8. Facilitated crowdsourcing. Getting feedback from attendees - and their buy-in when developing program content - is absolutely essential, particularly in the association world. But it's often the attendees who don't submit session feedback who complain they aren't consulted on program content. A more structured way to crowdsource information and preferences could be the missing link.

Shared XP provides a straightforward way of doing just that: Planners can set up an event-collaboration page quickly and easily, and then distribute it via email lists and social media networks. Attendees can assert preferences in terms of anything from event dates, session subjects and keynote topics in advance, or even guide discussion during an event.

9. Influencer marketing automation. Influencer marketing is still more an art than a science. It can be a challenge to tap the most appropriate influencers for inclusion at your event, and it's even harder to ensure that their presence and ability to spread the word will be successful. 

A tool like Snöball facilitates the process. It creates personalized landing pages for speakers, sponsors, exhibitors and other influencers, and in the process launches a new marketing channel for each. Snöball pages help those influencers to promote their brands while simultaneously extending the event's marketing audience. The word-of-mouth marketing platform includes automated email campaigns and social media posts, in addition to monitoring and analytics.

10. Automated small-meetings booking. Small meetings make up as much as 80 percent of an organization's meeting volume, but many of those meetings have escaped automated management and booking. By foregoing the time and effort associated with an RFP process, much of the data associated with small meetings just isn't captured.

Efforts to corral such bookings have surfaced before, but this year has brought innovation and improvements. Platforms such as Bizly, Groupize, Ivvy and Expedia's MICE booking engine are among those poised to effect real change in how smaller meetings are booked. 

Stay tuned to mcmag.com for the latest on these and other developments throughout the year.