by Michael C. Lowe | August 01, 2013
David Haas gets calls every week from tech companies promising the latest and greatest gear for the meetings industry. As director of digital solutions at FreemanXP, an experiential marketing firm launched last year by Dallas-based parent company Freeman to provide strategic counsel to the meetings industry, it's the sort of thing he's into. As part of his role in helping clients improve their trade shows, Haas looks for new methods to track attendee behavior.  
"Back in the day, gathering data meant sending an online survey and hoping you got a 2 or 3 percent response rate," says Haas. "But new technology is allowing us to collect more data than ever before, and if you know how to harness it, you can really paint a picture of what people care about and what their intentions are when they come to your show." Major meetings paired with exhibit floors, he adds, are "a chance to gain real insight into what your members are actually doing once they get on-site. You can see where they go and what engages them, and technology can pick up on that."

Behavioral  data is of great value to conference organizers who aim to evaluate and improve their shows. Among them is Peter O'Neil, executive director of the Falls Church, Va.-based American Industrial Hygiene Association. Later this fall, O'Neil will begin the process of picking apart his annual meeting, the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exposition, piece by piece, discussing ways to make the experience more valuable to members. "We're going to ask ourselves, is this the best way to do things? What do our numbers show? What is our data telling us?" he says.

O'Neil calls this process, performed every three to five years, a "dismantling and reassembling" of his show. "Whether it's an exhibitor or an attendee, pressure is very high to please them," he notes. "We're just trying to keep up with what members are asking for."

 O'Neil will work with a consultant to analyze data gathered from registration, the expo floor, surveys and more. "We're constantly looking at new ways to find data to help us make well-grounded ecisions," he says. "Data is gold."

Following is a look at some of the newest strategies and technologies being employed to help planners evaluate the trade show experience.
Wi-Fi Monitors and Heat Mapping
Three years ago, Montreal-based Sherpa Solutions developed a Wi-Fi monitoring solution that can read and track individual smart devices (providing Wi-Fi on the devices is turned on). The sensors pick up data on attendee movement, using an algorithm to filter out exhibitors and other nonattendees.

With that information, Sherpa creates a heat map -- a graphical representation of data that uses a color-coding system to represent different values showing where attendees visited, how long they lingered in an area and even in which direction they moved once they were done in a previous area. The graph can be broken down hour-by-hour to analyze the traffic flow throughout the day.

"Associations that are returning to the same venue the following year are able to put attractions or features in areas that haven't been so popular, in an effort to improve traffic flow across the show floor and enhance the value to exhibitors in those zones," says Haas. "Alternatively, areas that have seen a lot of traffic could be monetized by selling sponsorship space with banners."

The technology also can help organizers assign value to different areas of the show floor, opening up the possibility of data-driven dynamic pricing structures, says Jacques Racine, CEO and founder of Sherpa Solutions. "Data like this is bringing more transparency to trade shows and equipping organizers with the knowledge they need to sell the space," Racine notes.

The Wi-Fi sensors, which are about 8.5 by 11 inches and 3 inches thick, are completely battery-powered, requiring minimal set up. And because the technology tracks smartphones carried by attendees, planners can avoid the tedious task of putting individual tracking devices on name badges that are then picked up by sensors around the show floor, as is the norm for RFID (radio frequency identification) systems.

However, there are some pitfalls with the technology. Because not all attendees have smartphones, and not all who do will have their Wi-Fi active, the data will not be as comprehensive as a method such as RFID, which is capable of identifying and tracking every attendee with a tracking device on their badge for a more robust data set. Racine says that Wi-Fi monitors historically have tracked about 30 to 35 percent of attendees, but the technology comes at a lower cost and requires less set up compared with other tracking systems, according to sources.