by Michael J. Shapiro | September 01, 2010

Building the framework Having an app produced for an event should be a fairly straightforward process. Show organizers can take advantage of the fact that others have pushed the envelope for app development in this still young field, improving the overall performance of what is available. "Depending on what you want, and your budget, of course, the development should be pretty simple," says Jessica Levin, a corporate planner as well as president and "chief connector" of Edison, N.J.-based Seven Degrees Communications. Levin has seen app development range from $1,000 to an unusual high of $30,000. "Lots of apps can be built inexpensively," she says, "especially if you take advantage of a standard platform."

Standard app frameworks still are evolving, but they're becoming easier to find. Partnerships such as the one between QuickMobile and HPN Global are springing up, providing developers with another sales channel for their technology -- and event organizers with another way to get the apps. Core-Apps, a developer based in Glen Burnie, Md., announced a similar partnership in August with the Twinsburg, Ohio-based meetings management company Experient. Planners working with third parties will be able to take advantage of  "standard" templates offered via such relationships.

Core-Apps has two basic app products in use: Follow Me, which has a trade show component, typically in the form of an interactive exhibit hall map that includes materials from all of the exhibitors; and EventLink, designed for meetings of any size that don't include a trade show. (The EventLink app runs between $2,000 and $4,000 per event, depending on the features required. The Follow Me product typically requires more customization for the trade show component and thus varies more in price.) The company is planning to further streamline the development process with a new product late this summer, available directly via its website or those of potential partners. Because EventLink typically involves little customization, the new product will be a "self-service" version of that.

"People will be able come in via our website or various other sites that we're going to be connected to," explains Core-Apps CEO Jay Tokosch, "and upload their information, upload their logo, click through a couple of questions that deal with event turnaround and then get links to their app."

The self-service version, for those who require no additional customization beyond the uploading of event details, will be called EventLink Basic. EventLink Pro, says Tokosch, will be for the other 30 percent of the potential client pool -- "people who want a little more than what most others want and need." Those customers will be able to contact Core-Apps through the interface to discuss additional features -- such as static floor maps for small exhibit rooms. (A more robust, fully interactive trade show floor map is one of the features inherent to Follow Me.) Tokosch says it's likely the majority of those requests will be for features they've developed at some point in the past and therefore won't require a lot of extra development time -- or prohibitive additional costs.

Maximizing engagement The benefits of mobile apps as electronic versions of show programs are pretty straightforward: They're portable (ideally residing on a device that attendees already will be carrying) and interactive, and they can display multimedia. But planners also are hoping to exploit the networking aspect of mobile apps, to use them to increase engagement and provide attendees with another channel through which they can communicate.

A few developers are banking on the popularity of geo-social apps and applying them to events. The idea behind apps such as Foursquare and Gowalla is to use someone's geographic location, via the smartphones' GPS functionality, to try and help them network with others nearby -- in restaurants, cafés, etc. As an incentive to participate, those apps award badges and titles to active participants; venues may provide incentives as well, such as a free cup of coffee to a frequent visitor who "checks in" via the app more than anyone else. San Francisco-based Double Dutch offers a private-label version of such apps, a platform customized for a specific show and accessible only by registered participants.

"We like to call the dynamic a ‘temporary social network,' " says Double Dutch CEO Lawrence Coburn. "Our app takes all of the events, panels, sessions and booths and creates a specific location, with a specific latitude and longitude, that goes into our database. So when a conference attendee fires up the app, they see a list of the places around them -- a panel, a booth, an event -- and they can check in to those places, much as you would in Foursquare or Gowalla. That sends out an indication to the other attendees or exhibitors that you're there, and you're ready to network."

Some of Double Dutch's clients use an incentive system, similar to Foursquare's, to drive traffic to different sponsors' booths or events. The attendee who checks in via the app to the most such events might win a prize.

Taking the plunge The success of an event's app depends on attendees carrying Internet-ready mobile devices, which will vary by industry. Marco Saio, global event director of London-based travel media company EyeforTravel and a Double Dutch customer, estimates that 80 to 90 percent of EyeforTravel's Travel Distribution Summit North America attendees travel with at least one smartphone. Similarly, Mark Bell, vice president of industry affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based National Cable and Telecommunications Association -- and a Core-Apps customer -- says anecdotal evidence points to nearly 90 percent of attendees having smartphones at NCTA's annual show.

As more people carry mobile devices, points out Jay Tokosch from Core-Apps, more are becoming accustomed to finding and using event apps. When his company released its first trade show app, for an event in July 2009, the number of app downloads for that show was about 30 percent; today, Tokosch notes, the number exceeds 50 percent of the overall attendance.

The investment required for the apps may be offset in terms of costs or resources, depending on the event. QuickMobile client PhoCusWright cut 80 pages out of its show program as a result of having the app, points out Trevor Roald, QuickMobile's manager of business development. "Multiplied by 1,000 attendees," he notes, "that's a lot of trees."

In terms of making the business case for an app, reduced printing costs and environmental sustainability are two points in its favor, points out Jessica Levin. "Or it may be offsetting administrative costs or allowing for fewer people on-site, because you're empowering your attendees with information. In other cases, it's just simply an add-on, and it's doing something completely new, and you're looking at it as an investment."

NCTA's Mark Bell says that while his group made no changes to their show program for their first use of Follow Me, the app could very well reduce their printing costs in the future. For this first year he looked at the app primarily as an investment. But he's optimistic about future possibilities.

"There is enough exposure and opportunity for advertising and exhibitor up-sell to pay for this," notes Bell, "so it's a winning proposition -- you pay some dough on the cost up front, and you make it up on the back end. It's a great business model. Going forward," he adds, "this is a revenue generator."

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