Little meeting, little problems. Big meeting, big problems.

When your event is a beast, with thousands of attendees spread over numerous hotels, the potential for confusion is monstrous. A misprint in the conference program, a cancelled session, or a change in the bus rotation, and hundreds of people can be left wandering or waiting. And while event planners get frustrated trying to communicate with attendees, attendees have a tough time, too. Finding peers is never easy with participants housed all over town.

But just as the Web is transforming registration and housing for citywide meetings, communication technologies are delivering a blow to disorganization and disconnectedness. Meeting planners are using Web-based applications and wireless networks to connect with attendees and to link attendees with one another.

Take Islandia, N.Y.-based Computer Associates International, for example. When 20,000 software users and developers descend on Orlando this year for the annual CA World conference and exhibition, they'll be housed in 20 to 30 hotel properties and gather at the Orange County Convention Center. Bob Millin, divisional assistant vice president and CA World planning director, sums up the challenge. “The size of the facility and the size of the crowd make it difficult to provide logistical information to attendees.”

Difficult? Let some engineers at the problem. Using Computer Associates' technology, CA World developed a Web site that is unique to this year's event, with applications modeled after CA's own Advanced Help Desk Suite of customer relationship management tools. “Because our entire focus is on e-business, all information vehicles [for CA World] are pushed to the Web. Our users are computer savvy and use Web portals.”

At the core of CA World's Web site is an application that allows the conference management team to anticipate attendees' questions. Millin explains that the site uses a “natural language string” search tool instead of a keyword search or FAQ-type question-and-answer format. This means that users can type in a question such as “What time will the keynote address start?” and “Where can I find a local hospital emergency room?” and receive responses with the strongest likelihood of being the answer the user is looking for. This system was previously only available to CA World internal staff. This year, attendees will be able to access the system via the Web before, during, and after the conference.

“Communication technologies are delivering a blow to disorganization and disconnectedness.”



Interaction in a Box

CA World doesn't give attendees free access to one another because of privacy policies meant to prevent exhibitors from blasting attendees with unsolicited e-mail. However, building links among meeting participants is definitely the trend. That was exactly what Event411.com was asked to do as the official online event-planning provider of the 2000 Democratic National Convention in August in Los Angeles. The Marina del Rey, Calif.-based company provided participants with the online tools to plan their participation at the convention. Delegates, media, elected officials, staff, volunteers, and foreign dignitaries could coordinate personal and group meeting schedules, communicate with one another via e-mail, and accomplish other convention-related tasks online.

Event411.com's planning tools were integrated into the Democratic Party's Web site, www.Dems2000.com. From the home page, attendees accessed a password-protected virtual community called DNC411, where the communication tools resided. According to Jennifer Stevenson, Event411's director of marketing, each of the 85 Los Angeles-area hotels that housed delegates, as well as the Staples Center, at which the convention was held, were set up with Internet-enabled kiosks.

Web kiosks, it seems, are quickly becoming a required convention amenity. They can serve as on-site help desks, information gatherers, and people finders. Off-site, they become the attendee's link to conference programming, registration, and information. Among the most complex events to which Branford, Conn.-based NetKey, a software provider for Web-enabled kiosks and ATMs, has applied its systems was the Special Olympics in New Haven, Conn., a few years back. Months before the event, NetKey kiosks were placed in shopping centers, movie theatres, and airports to help recruit volunteers. During the event, kiosks provided programming information and competition results to more than 54,000 volunteers, 7,000 athletes, and more than 600,000 visitors.

Among NetKey's products is NetKey Manager, which allows event organizers to manage kiosk content using a centralized database. They can modify and schedule the content of the kiosks, change the look and feel of the system, or present “localized” content for each kiosk based on particular preferences or local services. If, for example, a bus schedule changes on a route that only affects certain hotels, the kiosks in those hotels could be immediately updated via the Web. The system allows planners to monitor and analyze the information collected from each kiosk, such as the number of attendees accessing each kiosk, the length of time a user spends on specific pages, the type of information obtained by the user, and so on.

NetKey's Creator application has templates, wizards, and graphics to help users design interactive, touch-screen content. An add-on enables devices such as printers and card readers to interact with the kiosk software. This feature could allow attendees to register for the conference from their hotel lobbies and to receive printed badges or imprinted cards on the spot.

What's Next: Wireless

Lisa Busby, director of account services for Burlingame, Calif.-based Conference Planners, has used just about every communication solution: from paper newsletters to kiosks with informational Web sites and online messaging systems to broadcasts via hotel convention television channels. They're all still viable, she says, but the next big thing in development is “wireless Internet devices to provide access to event and local information. … We will continue to enhance existing tools and find ways to expand the coverage using wireless [solutions] to allow for access at airports, hotels, taxis, etc.”

Microsoft Corp. is thinking in the same direction. It's working on a wireless communications system for its annual Fusion event that will bring 5,700 attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors together in Anaheim, Calif., for four days in July. Communications that have historically been managed using a stationary cluster of PCs on the show floor are now being reevaluated for wireless applications. Microsoft event planners, who are not yet prepared to talk in detail about the system, said that attendees will find it easier to schedule meetings, download presentations, and have their computing power available to them anywhere they go. The value of these new tools, they say, will be in improved collaboration among their partners, easier follow-up and feedback procedures for attendees, and the opportunity to showcase their technologies. Microsoft's wireless strategy will involve a mixture of the company's own products and the Internet connectivity that is in place at the Anaheim Convention Center, courtesy of Las Vegas-based Smart City Networks.

Event411.com is also taking the wireless tack. The company expects to release its new Wireless Attendee Management service this spring. Being created in partnership with Aelix Inc., WAM will allow planners to send staff, vendors, and attendees schedule changes, task assignments, personalized agendas, or other messages via Palm OS handheld computers and eventually other PDAs, cellphones, and two-way pagers, as well as fax and land-line phones. Attendees will be able to respond to the planner in real time.

Users of the wireless service need only the browser software provided with their handheld devices to access the Web-based Event411 platform. At present, the WAP service only supports the Palm interface, but plans are in the works to develop support for Internet Explorer on the Pocket PC units (Windows CE) and the Phone.com (WAP) browser on WAP-enabled cellular phones.

Cutting Edge? All the Better

Today's communication tools are limited only by the capabilities of the delivery systems. As bandwidth gets broader and wireless solutions find their place, expect new systems and solutions to keep your giant audiences linked up and tuned in to your meeting message and objectives.

Conference Planners' Busby believes it's the attendees who drive deployment of new technology tools. “Each of the applications [we have used] has been evaluated by our attendee bases and has always scored in the top echelon of the scorecard,” she says. “For IT events, the more cutting edge, the more they like it.”

Personal Web Pages

Fast Company, one of today's most watched business publications, has expanded into the meetings business with two RealTime conferences and about nine Future Forums each year. Boston-based Fast Company Live may not put on mega events, but the innovative Web-based tools used to bring audiences together have fascinating possibilities for larger meetings.

At check-in, attendees receive e-mail accounts unique to the event, and can go online at a cyber café to e-mail one another, access bulletin boards, and create buddy lists. But the real innovation is the interaction made possible by personal Web pages. Attendees are invited to create personal Web pages, or “profiles,” before and during the event. A template-driven system makes it possible, even for the technically illiterate, to quickly create a page. Attendees can search profiles to find conference-goers with similar interests and invite them to join impromptu gab sessions.

To assure that as many people as possible take advantage of the system, attendees must register for their conference sessions online after they arrive on-site. While registering, they are asked to create profiles, set up their e-mail accounts, and answer a series of questions. This way, participants access the online system at least once and get an understanding of what it can do.

Elizabeth Busch, director of Fast Company Live, explains that the conferences' interactive elements “help to bring the magazine to life and create a community feel.”

Nightly Webcasts

Cleveland, Ohio-based webcasting solutions provider PRWebcast.com has developed an innovative application for delivering daily conference programming updates to attendees. Born out of its weekly business breakfast series of “talk shows” delivered to corporate viewers in the Cleveland area via the Internet, PRWebcast.com has come up with a similar format to deliver conference updates, daily wrap-ups, or status reports on the conference via live or archived webcasts. Attendees can view the daily programming from their laptops each night.

The software contains a live chat feature that allows viewers to communicate during the broadcast and a polling application that lets session moderators ask questions. These tools could be a way for conference managers to solicit feedback on a daily basis. Another feature of PRWebcast.com's software is the ability to push documents, pdf files, PowerPoint presentations, URLs, and other collaboration tools through to the viewer during the webcast.