“Sixty percent of the attendees in the A track meetings are doctors. Stack a group of the pre-registration kits for the March meeting by the exit door.”
“Aisle 18 looks like the Sahara right now. Let's pull a coffee cart over there and see if we can drum up some interest.”
“An unusual number of attendees left themeetings before the end. We need to reevaluate either the topic or our choice of speakers for next year.”
A planner can dream, right? Dream about the day when they can track what attendees are doing and respond immediately, both in real time and with appropriate planning for the next meeting. This is the potential of RFID technology for meetings, conventions, and trade shows — and the future is now.
“With RFID, planners can see what attendees are doing in meeting rooms and on thefloor in live time and analyze all the information after the show is over,” says 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.
So what exactly is this revolutionary new technology? First off, it's not all that new: Precursors to RFID — radio frequency identification — 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.
The possibilities that this 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?
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, one wouldn't notice the difference between a regular name badge and one embedded with an RFID chip, or tag, from a distance; 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, but 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 industry, geographic location, specialty within the field, 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. In the meetings industry, 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.
“The badges themselves do not contain any personal information,” says Tony Melis, vice president of business development for Laser Registration, 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 hoteland 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.
Hacker of IAEM 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.”
The information contained, and the kinds of data and reports supplied, are dependent on a given association's particular information needs. For example, Laser Registration has worked with the Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association to provide the badges and technology for its past two 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.
In addition to providing aggregated data to planners, the badges can be used to simplify or enhance the attendee experience. 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 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,” says Hacker, “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.”
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 implemented 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 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.”
One Badge, Many Uses
Today's name tags are taking advantage of technology in addition to RFID — radio frequency identification — to provide attendees with increasingly personalized experiences. The company nTag, for example, has been using a combination of RFID and infrared technologies to track attendance, to allow attendees complete on-the-spot surveys, and even as an icebreaker in social events.
PTC/USER, an international user group for PTC software, used nTag name badges in 2004 for a combination of fun and hard data. Larger than a typical name badge and weighing about six ounces, the tag hangs from a lanyard and has an LCD screen and buttons that attendees can control. “The most important element for us as an association was the data we gathered from the badges,” says Kevin Johnson, PTC/USER executive director. Johnson says they used the RFID technology to track attendees' physical whereabouts. Even more importantly, the tags allowed them to “survey across the landscape of every event and breakout. The response rate to our surveys jumped up to about 80 percent, as opposed to the single digits that we usually see [without the badges],” he says.
The surveys, completed by the time attendees left the room, allowed the association to track who was where and when, as well as garner comprehensive attendee responses to events as they were happening. On the trade show floor, attendees used the badges to give their contact information to vendors with the push of a button.
On the lighter side, the group used the badges as an icebreaker, playing games in a mixer-type situation that simultaneously taught attendees how to use the badge to communicate more serious information. “The badges speak to each other with information gathered from attendees,” says Johnson, “so one badge could communicate with another that two attendees are both interested in the same aspect of the software, and the conversation flows from there.”
Johnson says that about 60 percent of attendees had filled out their profiles before the start of the show and the rest did so within the first 24 hours of the show as the badges' usage became prevalent. “I can't think of one individual of our 1,300 attendees who chose not to use the badge,” he adds.
George Eberstadt, co-owner and executive vice president of business development and operations of nTag, says that the second generation of the tags will be introduced this year, featuring tags that are lighter and replacing the RFID technology with what he calls a more accurate room-beacon technology.
The Heart of the Program
In 2005, the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions convention in Dallas drew more than 26,000 attendees and featured 425 educational events. It was also the first medical show to use RFID (radio frequency identification) and SmartEvent technology, advances that were powered by a collaboration between BDMetrics, which provided the analytical engine, and ExpoExchange, a division of Conferon Global Services.
“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.”
“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. AHA did not connect the badges to CME credits. “We are strictly on a 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.
Beyond the name badges, 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 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.