20 Top Meeting Innovations

M&C's curated list of the latest industry game-changers

20 Top Meeting Innovations opener

Ours is an industry teeming with creative new developments, many serving to ease the travel experience, facilitate the planning process or maximize the value of meetings. Following is M&C's nod to 20 notable innovations that are shaping and improving the meeting experience. Not all are brand new, but we believe they will play increasingly significant roles for our business in the new year and beyond. (Did we miss something? Add your own favorites by commenting below.)

Beacons/location tools
Location-based functionality typically has been a tricky thing to accomplish with much accuracy inside a convention center. GPS is notoriously unreliable on a trade-show floor, and developers have had varying degrees of success using other methods. Enter Bluetooth low energy, or BLE, part of the wireless Bluetooth protocol available on most current smartphones. When used with inexpensive, signal-emitting beacons positioned around a venue, location-based marketing and mapping is now far more easily attained.

Apple made headlines by introducing what it calls iBeacon, but you don't need Apple products to make it work. While later-model iPhones and Android devices can act as beacons if desired, third-party beacons that are far less expensive than a smartphone can be programmed to send signals to iPhones and smartphones running other operating systems.

New event apps are emerging that take advantage of the technology, such as The Live Group's Locator function in its Greengage mobile app, which won the EIBTM 2014 Technology Watch. Locator can help attendees find their meetings, relevant booths, co-workers and prospects, as well as automatically check them in upon arrival to the venue. Several other event apps are experimenting with beacon functionality as well, such as DoubleDutch's session check-in feature and its Networking Nearby function, which alerts attendees when a "person of interest" is in the vicinity.

Purposeful drones
Drones -- unmanned aerial vehicles -- have landed in the meetings and events industry. Event production company Freeman, for example, is using them to conduct virtual site inspections (drones capture real-life, in-room images of meeting spaces) for Plantour, its web-based planning tool. On the event side, photographers and videographers are using drones, like DJI's Phantom Series with attached GoPro cameras, to capture unique overhead images of parties, receptions and ceremonies. Look for more drone functionality in the future.

Though in their infancy, wearables are likely here for good. Google Glass might not be the iteration with staying power, but as an innovation, the possibilities for meetings and networking are vast. "In the near term, one major reason to use them is to reduce the 'fumble factor,' saving us from having to dig out our smartphones to get the information we desire," says meetings tech consultant Corbin Ball.

"Think about the way technology has been intrusive," adds Jessica Levin, president of Seven Degrees Communications, a marketing, technology and events company. "People have their phones out, and it can be distracting. In the future, we will be able to see presentations on a wearable device, use gesture-based technology to take notes or wirelessly share contact information. Wearables will take the focus off the tech and put it back on connecting."

David Haas, director of digital solutions for FreemanXP, predicts wearables might be used for practical trade-show applications, like making in-booth purchases or using the navigation system in the Apple Watch coupled with iBeacon technology for indoor navigation.

Some detractors worry that the rise of wearables will pose privacy issues, but experts believe those concerns will fade. Says Ball, "With everyone carrying around a video and still camera in their pocket and with surveillance cameras on nearly every corner, we will likely need to get used to it." - Michael C. Lowe

Paperless binders

We've seen a variety of apps in the past several years that claim to be "binder replacements," giving planners access to enough information on their tablets that they can safely leave those heavy, paper-packed binders behind. Each wave of such apps is more innovative than the last -- and gets us one step closer to truly going paperless.

The Getplanning app, as well as Starwood's variation, eVent Portfolio, bring the paperless binder concept to the next level. These applications take security seriously, providing PCI Level 1 compliance, the standard required by the financial industry. They also serve as collaborative platforms that let approved parties on the planning or venue side make tweaks to event docs as they evolve. The fact that Hilton and Starwood are embracing the technology at their major meetings properties provides access to a wider array of planners -- and no doubt will lead to similar competing technology.

Shared-economy services
The jury is still out regarding the extent to which meeting organizers can or will effectively use services like Airbnb (see "Coming to Terms With Airbnb," M&C, bit.ly/1wYiP7E), but there's no doubt the sharing economy will have a growing effect on the industry. Consider how smaller companies are applying the concept to groups. Roomer offers planners an option to unload unused rooms in their blocks, potentially saving on attrition fees. LiquidSpace helps capture ad-hoc meetings that previously flew under the radar by streamlining the process for reserving smaller, more unique spaces and collecting the data. And U.K.-based newcomer Showslice creates a platform for meeting organizers to communicate in advance of their events about their infrastructure requirements, allowing concurrent events to contract with the same suppliers, thus saving costs and set-up time.

Second-screen technology
Every presenter, from classroom to keynote, is competing for attention with those "second screens" warming the hands of nearly every attendee. Why not employ that smartphone or tablet as a tool for engagement, rather than distraction? Suppliers such as Lintelus (nee NiceMeeting) are using the mobile devices of attendees to display session presentations and allow polling. This way, the attendee who likely already is looking at a mobile device can also use it to view presentations, take notes and ask questions. More companies are developing similar tools, particularly polling to gauge audience response to the speaker. A giant example is Microsoft, with its newly released Bing Pulse 2.0.

5 Awesome Apps
Mobile apps play a starring role in a number of the year's top industry innovations. Below are five more impressive entries that should be on planners' radars.

Crowd Mics is an audience-response app with text-based commenting and polling, along with the unique benefit of turning attendees' Android or Apple devices into wireless microphones. Once connected to the appropriate Wi-Fi network, attendees can talk into their smartphones and be heard over the room's sound system. It's free for events of 20 participants or fewer and can be paid for by the week for larger events, at about $1 per person, for up to 200 attendees. Custom pricing is available for larger groups.

RoomScan creates instant floor plans of a space. Simply tap your iPhone against each wall, and it calculates dimensions and square footage. The free version works for single rooms, while RoomScan Pro ($4.99, Apple App Store) can add doorways and connected rooms.

Eversnap formalizes the process of attendee photo-sharing by creating a private online photo album and allowing attendees to take photos from within the Eversnap app. The shots are automatically uploaded and shared. Pricing begins at $99, which includes unlimited photo and video storage and display, as well as 200 customized instruction cards for attendees.

The premium package ($199) includes all of the above plus a live, moderated slide show of incoming photos and videos, up to six hours in duration. The $399 luxury package adds a number of features for corporate events, such as aggregation of hashtagged images from Instagram and Twitter images, and the ability to embed the album on a website. Photos taken offline or with digital cameras can simply be uploaded and shared later, via the Eversnap website.

 What's innovative about Pocket Planner, an event and meeting calculator, is that it relies on Convention Industry Council standards to make recommendations for F&B, service and safety. Better still: It's free. Social Tables, a developer of online diagramming software, teamed with the CIC to produce and provide the app (for Apple or Android devices). It covers recommended guidelines for gallons of coffee and pounds of ice, number of waiters and check-in staff, required bandwidth and more. Planners studying for the CMP exam can purchase a copy of the CIC Manual directly through the app; soon, says the CIC, a mobile version of that manual will be accessible as well.

Word Lens has been around for a while, but it's augmented-reality approach to translation remains impressive: Point your Android or Apple camera (or Google Glass) at some text in a foreign language, and the English translation is revealed. Google found the app's developers, Quest Visual, to be so innovative that it bought the company last year. Google just announced plans to integrate Word Lens functionality into the next version of its Google Translate app, which might be available by the time you're reading this. Packages are available to and from English and Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, Italian and Russian, and all are free. - Michael J. Shapiro

Near-field communication
Near-field communication is another location-based protocol, but it hasn't taken off in the United States to the extent that it has in Europe and Asia, where it's more commonly used at supermarket checkouts or to pay public-transit fares. An NFC-equipped phone can simply be waved near a turnstile or checkout counter to make a payment, at a museum display to capture information, or even at another phone to exchange contact info. We've already seen examples in Europe of what can be done using NFC-equipped badges for citywides -- granting attendees access onto public transit, for instance.

The fact that iPhones previously didn't have NFC capabilities was a big obstacle for stateside adoption, but the newest iPhones are NFC-equipped for use with ApplePay. That opens the door not only to meetings-specific mobile payment options but for other uses in event apps, such as check-in and information exchange. As more of the attendee population carries NFC devices, expect to see a steadily growing role in payments and lead retrieval.

Mobile check-in/keyless entry
Most attendees get their fill of waiting-in-line time during the typical air-travel experience. Another line at hotel check-in makes an annoying day even more so. Hotels are doing something about it. Marriott, for one, offers mobile check-in via its app across most of its brands globally. Guests are notified when the room is ready; they can check in via the app, then simply pick up the room key from a dedicated spot at the front desk. Starwood and Hilton are taking the idea one step further, letting guests forgo keycards and use their Bluetooth-enabled smartphones to get into their rooms. It's still in its early stages, but SPG Keyless is available at a select number of W, Aloft and Element properties. Hilton expects to roll out keyless entry at Conrad properties in the first half of this year.

Service robots
Star War's C-3PO robot butler is no longer a fantasy. One hotel, the Aloft Cupertino (Calif.), introduced what is believed to be the first robotic butler at a major hotel chain last August. A.L.O. the Botlr, as the automated service bot is known, delivers amenities to guest rooms to free up his human counterparts' time.

Cruise lines are also getting into the robotics act: Quantam of the Seas, Royal Caribbean's newest ship (with a capacity for 4,905 passengers), features a Bionic Bar, where two gleaming robotic "bartenders" shake, stir and pour the libations.

They make for a crowd-pleasing novelty on the exhibit floor, too: At one recent industry trade show, a robot from Barcelona, Spain-based PAL Robotics drew a curious crowd of passers-by to a partner's booth.

Wellness-Focused Venues
Many hotel companies have launched efforts to improve the wellness of guests and meeting-goers.

InterContinental Hotels Group introduced its wellness-themed brand, Even, in 2014, with properties in Connecticut and Maryland. The hotels feature flexible public workspaces, dining and social areas; guest rooms have a designated and equipped workout zone.

 Westin created a Well-Being Council that includes journalist Arianna Huffington; the brand is adding Westin Workout guest rooms to properties, where guests can request in-room fitness equipment in advance of their arrival.

 The MGM Grand in Las Vegas collaborated with wellness real-estate firm Delos two years ago to launch the concept of Stay Well hotel rooms, equipped with air purifiers, vitamin C-infused showers and circadian-lighting systems.

Last year, the property expanded the concept to groups. Stay Well Meetings, created with the help of Dr. Deepak Chopra and the Cleveland Clinic, offers meeting spaces and boardrooms designed to enhance the health and productivity of attendees. Features include a curated menu of health-food options; IQ enhancement via mental exercises; 20-minute yoga sessions designed to stimulate brain function; time for attendees to go outdoors to replenish vitamin D levels; designated areas and opportunities for relaxation, silence and guided meditation, and more. - Sarah J.F. Braley

Big data/heat mapping
Gathering and analyzing data from a trade-show floor can help organizers determine how traffic is flowing, what areas of the exhibit hall are seeing the most interest and, in turn, reorganize a show floor layout or even adjust booth sales based on those high-traffic areas. Various companies have emerged that can help track trade show movements, such as Scanalytics, which makes pressure-sensitive floor mats; Ethnometrics, which offers a video technology solution; and Sherpa Solutions, which monitors anonymous Wi-Fi signatures from cell phones and creates visual representations of attendee foot traffic, called "heat mapping," for easy analysis.

RFID bands for events

Event planners like Cara Kleinhaut of Los Angeles-based Caravents and Clara De Soto of New York City-based Clearhart Tech are using RFID-enabled wristbands to help attendees engage with event installations, send photos to the cloud and more.

As attendees taste-tested drinks at the recent Manhattan Cocktail Classic, held in New York City and independently run by founder Lesley Townsend Duval, they could tap their bands against a special NFC reader and send the recipe for the drink to their online account. Users could link their Facebook and Twitter profiles to their bracelets and upload updates an images to various social media outlets.

Clearhart Tech provided not only the RFID bands, but also the strategy and on-site application solutions. Other RFID providers include Intellitix, which has worked with the popular music festival Coachella as well as brands like Adidas and Red Bull, and U.K.-based ID&C.

Friend/Colleague Finders
In addition to the location-based technology protocols (beacons, NFC) that fuels many of the innovations noted, event and hotel apps have been using creative methods of helping people find others at an event or venue. Using established social media platforms to do so makes perfect sense.

The MIT Mobile Experience Laboratory, for example, is working with Marriott to develop Six Degrees, a social platform designed to facilitate in-person connections in hotel lobbies. The matchmaking is fueled by the information in guests' LinkedIn profiles (guests must opt in to allow this). Six Degrees lets you know when your connections are nearby, and suggests others whose profiles have much in common with yours.

The MIT team also is working on an accompanying interactive lobby table, which communicates with a mobile device or keycard set on it. If two attendees with a Six Degrees connection are seated near each other, the table lights up to alert them of the connection.

Apps such as Topi and Bizzabo, to name just two of many, offer similar functionality to the Six Degrees app, pulling in information from attendees' linked social media profiles to let you know which of your contacts are in attendance, and/or to suggest others with similar interests. - Michael J. Shapiro

Real-time audience response
The American Society of Association Executives is beta testing a real-time audience response system that gauges attendee sentiment throughout the conference via text message, making it possible to improve the meeting experience as it's occurring. During ASAE's 2014 annual meeting in Nashville, staff members were able to respond in real time to complaints or concerns about the conference, while tracking positive feedback as well.

The tool, created with Chicago-based Conferences i/o, is still in development but got rave reviews from those using it during the event. ASAE intends to let member associations to access the platform for their own shows in the future.

Charging stations everywhere
Many attendees are arriving at meetings with at least three devices -- smartphones, tablets and laptops -- all of which need precious juice to keep working. Planners who don't want their participants running back to their hotel rooms to recharge can provide charging stations in a number of forms.

For example, Totally Mod Event Furnishings' catalog features break-area seating with charging towers or swing tables equipped with plugs. Also for rent: charging lockers, where attendees can leave a device behind while they're in a session or perusing the show floor (see how it works at mcmag.com/power-station). The Naples and Roma soft-seating collections from Cort Event Furnishings have outlets subtly built into the comfy armchairs and sofas. This also is an excellent sponsor opportunity, as almost all attendees at the event will notice who put up the money to provide the power.