by Michael J. Shapiro | September 01, 2010

Bill Kilburg was wowed by an event app he used as an attendee last winter. He could quickly consult the schedule, confirm seminar locations, read speaker bios and send messages to other attendees -- all by running one application on his smartphone. It was so cool, he thought, he should make it available to all of his company's clients. "Apps like that are just a much better solution than the way most meetings are logistically being handled on-site today," he says.

Kilburg is chairman and CEO of HPN Global, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based site-selection and meetings procurement company. The app he used was developed for MeetDifferent, a Meeting Professionals International conference held in Cancún in February.

After researching a number of suppliers following that show, Kilburg and HPN reached an agreement to partner with QuickMobile, the Vancouver, British Columbia-based developer of the MeetDifferent app. As of mid-July, HPN now offers clients a private-label version of QuickMobile's MobileEvent app. Customer response has been great, notes Kilburg, who adds that one large client already has signed on to develop an app for a show next year.  

While many of HPN's clients haven't thought to ask for such technology yet, HPN is trying to stay one step ahead of the trend. "It's such an innovative solution," Kilburg says, "we like to bring that as a value-add to our customers." On the corporate side, Kilburg anticipates seeing the most interest from high-tech companies, whose conference attendees tend to be early adopters. Meeting apps hold many possibilities for associations too, notes Kilburg, particularly those with trade shows, which can use them as revenue generators.

App basics For the still uninitiated, apps are small programs that can be downloaded to run on smartphones. The "big three" devices for which most apps are developed are Apple's iPhone (or the iPod touch or iPad, both of which use the same operating system as the iPhone), BlackBerry devices and phones that run on the Google Android operating system. In addition to these formats -- or, in some cases, instead of them -- many developers create web apps, sites that are optimized for use with mobile devices. While such sites require a constant Internet connection, they will function with any Internet-enabled gadget and don't require any software downloads. Many of the downloadable apps, on the other hand, can be used while offline and may download updated data when an Internet connection is detected.

With more than 200,000 apps available for the iPhone alone, finding those of use has presented a challenge to some smartphone owners. Last month, the Vancouver-based event-planning network Invenia Incentives collaborated with exhibition producer The IMEX Group to launch MeetingApps.com, a portal at which they attempt to collect all the apps that can be of use to meeting planners. At launch time that equated to about 500 titles, all for the iPhone. (Compilations of BlackBerry and Android apps are in the works.) The site divides apps into more than two dozen categories, such as meeting management, travel, social media and conferences.

The conference-specific apps are the ones developed and customized for each show. They typically dispense the same information found in a conference program, as well as a variety of networking and communication tools designed to improve the experience of attendees, exhibitors, sponsors and arrangers (some examples can be found under "conferences" at MeetingApps.com).

While the precise features vary by developer and show, common functionality might include a searchable show program; access to show-specific social media feeds such as Twitter, Facebook and Pathable; a searchable attendee list; the ability to directly contact other attendees through the app; scheduling, time and location-based updates; sponsor details, and city guides. For trade shows, apps can provide an interactive map of the exhibit hall, with links to exhibitor information. Additional innovative technology, such as the Bump app -- through which people can exchange contact details by "fist-bumping" with iPhones in hand -- also is being used by some conference apps.