Smart cards, the high-tech plastic cards with embedded microchips for data storage, are gaining acceptance for identity verification, cash-free payments, health-care data storage, and, oh yeah, meetings.

Not surprisingly, tech companies have been the first adopters. Maritz Travel Co., for example, which began offering swipe-card applications for conferences as long as five years ago, says tech company user conferences and large field and channel partner events make up 60 percent to 65 percent of its smart-card clients. Auto companies and other manufacturers with large people-centered distribution systems largely make up the balance.

Neal Thompson, Maritz's director, strategic business technology, says swipe cards take on three key roles at corporate meetings: express registration, session monitoring, and lead retrieval.

Registration

To facilitate check-in, attendees register ahead and are mailed their smart card. When they get to the meeting, they just swipe their cards, confirm the information, and pick up the bag, binder, or other materials specific to their attendee type. Average time: 22 seconds, says Thompson.

Session Monitoring

Tracking session attendance is simple enough — attendees swipe their cards as they enter a meeting room — and can help companies in terms of follow-up marketing. Knowing what sessions attendees registered for is not reliable data, says Thompson. “If you pre-register everyone for sessions, there's about a 35 percent disconnect between what they register for and what they attend. The big ROI is not in seeing what people register for, but in seeing what they actually choose to go to.”

Thompson says that user group organizers have found session monitoring useful in understanding how their audience is segmented. For example, a hardware vendor with sessions on its desktop computers, servers, laptops, and so on can group those sessions into topics and later look at the types of customers going to the sessions.

Typically, companies don't look at who specifically attends a session, but sometimes they will, Thompson says. One scenario is when a company has sessions on a new product and wants to capture the names of attendees as potential leads. Another case is when the company wants more accountability from its attendees. “A department head can look at all the attendees from his or her department and [see] what sessions they went to. Especially in environments like Las Vegas or New Orleans, you tend to lose people. Swipe cards help them know that their field people actually attended the sessions and did things at the event that they were supposed to be doing,” Thompson says.

Lead Retrieval

Using swipe cards for lead retrieval gives exhibitors a Web-based system from which to do their reporting. And because it's on the Web, says Thompson, “every day at the end of the show, those leads are available so the home office can start processing them. There's no FedExing a disk.” Also, he notes, the home office can see who the leads are, how many are being generated, and generally keep an eye on how the exhibitors are doing. A good lead retrieval system, says Thompson, “allows you to mark up the value of your event.”

Not Cheap

Convenience and accountability don't come cheap. “The larger the event, the more cost-effective. I think it would be very difficult to implement smart cards for less than 1,000 people and be cost-justified in today's economy,” says Thompson. “I think that the sweet spot for pricing this starts around 2,000 attendees, and we can do the whole thing for about $5 to $8 a person for a three-day event, including the on-site networking.” This price, however, assumes you're charging exhibitors a fee for the lead-retrieval service, thereby defraying costs.

Thompson's main advice to potential clients: Have a clear understanding of what you want to get out of it. “We've had some clients who have gone through the expense of doing this without really understanding what they wanted and who within the organization can use the data.”