Are the new topics featured at your meeting drawing crowds? Which sessions are attracting the clinicians versus the researchers? Are most delegates walking out in the middle of the keynote address? How's the traffic on the trade show floor? Imagine tracking — in real-time — attendee behavior so you can respond to situations on site and better prepare for future events. That is the potential of RFID technology for meetings and trade shows — and the future is now.

The 2005 American Heart Association Scientific Sessions convention in Dallas was the first medical show to use RFID (radio-frequency identification) to track attendee behavior. “We're using the information from the RFID name badges to see if our attendees are really going to the courses we think they're going to,” says Debbie Draper, AHA director of national hotel contracts and meeting management. “In turn, that will help determine what kinds of programs to offer in the future.”

The RFID and SmartEvent technology used at the convention were powered by a collaboration between BDMetrics, Baltimore, which provided the analytical engine, and ExpoExchange, a division of Conferon Global Services, Frederick, Md. “RFID portals at the entrance to the 425 education events allowed the association to capture some 170,000 tag reads and provided a host of information on exactly who is attending which events,” adds Bob Lucke, executive vice president, business development, for Conferon Global Services. The convention drew more than 26,000 delegates.

AHA did not connect the badges to CME credits. “We are strictly on an honor system with that and don't intend to change that process,” says Draper, noting that AHA also currently uses another ExpoExchange system for lead retrieval on the trade show floor and isn't currently planning to change that either.

Old Technology, New Uses

So what exactly is this revolutionary new technology? First off, it's not all that new: Precursors to RFID were used to identify airplanes in World War II. In the past decade, RFID technology has been adapted for use in a range of everyday applications-from swipe cards for entry to office buildings to electronic tags on a car's windshield that allow drivers to roll through the toll lane without stopping. More recently, it's made headlines with Wal-Mart's controversial decision to use RFID to track inventory and the U.S. government's plan to embed passports with the chips.

All this fuss is about a chip that's typically so small you wouldn't even see it if you weren't looking for it. In a convention name badge, for example, from a distance one wouldn't notice the difference between a regular name badge and one embedded with an RFID chip, or tag; up close the small bump is the only visible sign of the chip. The tag is encoded with a unique identification number that corresponds to information about the attendee, gathered through the registration process and/or from association databases.

The information, encrypted for privacy, is transmitted via radio waves to strategically placed antennas, or readers, which provide the power for the tag to send its information. Once it's transferred, software is used to decode the ID number to translate the attached information. Depending on the application, readers can be set to capture information from as close as a few inches to as far away as 15 feet.

The information connected to the ID number in the chip can be customized and might be set to contain such fields as name, title, address and other contact information, along with some demographics information, such as years in the profession, geographic location, specialty, and so on.

If the badges are being used on the trade show floor, the data contained would be relevant to buyers and sellers at that particular trade show. At a convention for meeting planners, for example, it might include the number and size of meetings organized annually, whether or not a trade show is involved, and if so, statistics on its size, plus information on whether the attendee is the final decision-maker.

Aggregating Data

The information contained, and the kinds of data and reports supplied, depend on a given association's particular information needs. For example, Laser Registration, Washington, D.C., a leading provider of RFID-enabled name badges, has worked with the Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association to provide the badges and technology for its past two annual conventions.

“We're using RFID as one of our experiments to showcase new and evolving technology that members might find useful,” says Deborah Sexton, PCMA president and CEO. PCMA used the badges first in 2005. “We only used the badge to monitor a couple of sessions and the general session on one day,” adds Robert Cowan, PCMA CFO, who, along with the meetings department, spearheaded the use of the badges. “But for this year's annual meeting in Philadelphia, we used RFID for a lot more. In terms of tracking attendees, we monitored people entering and leaving the general sessions on all three days and specific breakout rooms throughout the convention.”

Cowan notes that even within one convention, the association can choose to receive different types of information, depending on its purpose. “In a general session, we didn't have any reason to know the specific names of people who attended, just the numbers. We will use the information to see what kinds of members attended the general session and if that mix changed during the course of the session, as well as demographic information we can use for future planning — the ratio of suppliers to planners, geographic concentrations, what chapters they're affiliated with, and so on. In the future, we'd like to track things like the average tenure of members in the room.”

On the other hand, to award credits for its CEU courses, a name had to be attached to the information. For that, PCMA chose a setup that required members to hold their badge in front of the reader and a printed receipt was generated on the spot.

Personalized Plans

In addition to providing aggregated data to planners, the badges can be used to simplify or enhance the attendee experience. At the American Heart Association convention, Smart Event technology “mined information from 10 separate databases to personalize a unique portal for each attendee's needs,” says Rick Geritz, CEO of BDMetrics. Upon registration, each attendee was offered a Web-based personalized portal with recommendations for course offerings, exhibitors, and other people that they might want to meet based on each attendee's individual needs.

“It's a little like the system Amazon uses to make book recommendations,” says Conferon's Lucke. As attendees review and choose their itineraries, the system can continue to fine-tune its recommendations based on the additional information. The system also allows attendees to make appointments, review their itineraries, see personalized maps of their plans, and more. “The system is becoming ever smarter about recognizing patterns of behavior,” says Lucke.

At PCMA, attendees were greeted by a personalized welcome with their name on a screen as they entered the convention, they could view an electronic seating chart that showed their table for a luncheon, and they were allowed easier access to e-mail stations.

The Cost Factor

The badges can also be used on the trade show floor, though this usage has been limited so far. “There's valuable data for an exhibitor to capture and process, “but right now, RFID on the trade show floor is not really a departure from what we've all been doing for decades in cruder forms,” Steven Hacker, CAE, president of the International Association for Exposition Management, which has used name badges embedded with RFID technology for the past two years at its annual convention,

That's one reason why David Weil, senior director of the convention and trade service unit of the association management company SmithBucklin Inc., based in Chicago, hasn't yet used the technology for any events. “I'm a big believer in implementing the right technology to solve the right problem,” says Weil. “Right now we can do what we need to through bar-coding or scan technology. But if RFID can help us accomplish our goals better, we'll definitely consider it.”

One current factor for many associations is the trade-off between the value of the information received and the cost of the badges. The badges are currently running between 50 cents and 3 dollars more than a standard badge, a cost that can be prohibitive for many associations. “If the price starts becoming similar to using a scanner, RFID badges will become much more viable,” Weil says. He adds, however, that he would use RFID if it could fulfill a unique need, regardless of the cost of the technology.

On the Horizon: More Uses

When it comes to trade show use, Hacker sees potential far beyond what RFID is currently being used for. “One of the things that RFID can do extremely well is the supply-chain tracking that has moved Wal-Mart to abandon bar codes and require RFID as a form of inventory control,” he says.

Hacker envisions a day when an exhibitor's freight will be tagged with RFID, allowing the exhibitor to track the shipment from pickup dock to delivery dock. Once delivered, show management will immediately know who it belongs to, where it's going, and where and how to stage it for proper delivery to the booth.

“That's a potentially enormous cost savings,” he says, “and it also attacks issues of security since it prevents the possibility of theft and tampering once everything is sealed.”

While the technology is still being refined — and privacy and price issues still need to be addressed — RFID technology is becoming increasingly viable for associations ever on the hunt for the best methods of attendee tracking, lead retrieval, enhancing security, tracking CEU and CME credits, and more.

“When you consider the complete robust use of RFID, which is still several years off,” says Hacker, “the cost and benefit lines will cross so dramatically that it won't be an issue. We could have — and did have — the same conversations about computers, which are now an everyday part of our lives.”

Invasion of Privacy?

The possibilities that RFID technology presents for data acquisition, lead retrieval, and inventory control are awesome. But the issues of privacy related to RFID on the whole are complex and, frankly, scary, conjuring images of an Orwellian society where the government knows everything about you and there's nowhere to hide. How do those privacy concerns relate to the meetings industry and its uses of RFID?

“The badges themselves do not contain any personal information,” says Tony Melis, vice president of business development for Laser Registration, Washington, D.C., a leading provider of RFID-enabled name badges. “The only thing it has is the ID number, which can only be transmitted through the antennas and then decoded with the proper software.”

It's highly unlikely that such information could be picked up by anyone other than those authorized to do so. But what if someone unauthorized is able to capture the information? “All they would be able to read is the ID number,” says Melis. “It's comparable to a license plate — even if someone sees the number, they don't know that it belongs to Jane Doe.”

“Initially we thought some people might be violently opposed to RFID because of privacy issues,” says Debbie Draper, director of national hotel contracts and meeting management for the American Heart Association, which used the badges at its Scientific Sessions 2005 convention in Dallas. “But we included explanations in all our pre-convention information, saying that we were essentially tracking a number, which correlates to information attendees had provided during registration, and that there was no personal information in the badge itself. Some people did ask additional questions, and we were happy to address their concerns.”

Draper says the association received no complaints and is planning to expand its use of RFID for this show and move it into other shows as well.

Steven Hacker, CAE, president of the International Association for Exposition Management, which has used name badges embedded with RFID technology for the past two years at its annual convention, had a similar experience with attendee reactions. “It was a big ho-hum in terms of negative response,” he says. “The sum total of negative response from our members was zero, nada, nothing.”