“It’s an interesting time,” says Corbin Ball, CMP, longtime independent consultant and technology watcher for the meetings industry. “The capabilities of information technology double every year, while the cost of software development has plummeted. So you can look at it this way: The cost for the same technology is cut in half every year.”
Just think of mobile apps as an example: There are thousands of very useful apps in the meetings and travel space that are free or really cheap. “When you’re creating an app, you don’t have to make a ton of money with each purchase,” Ball says. “You can give it away with ads or charge $2.95 per user. It’s different pricing than traditional products.”
And that’s great news for meeting planners because there’s so much you can do now for low or no cost.
A major factor in reducing cost and time involved in software development, Ball adds, is open-source software. “Open-source software is publicly developed and usually free,” he explains. “Examples are the Android mobile operating system, and Wordpress and Joomla, which are open-source Web site content management and development tools. What used to take a team of programmers months and hundreds of thousands of dollars now can almost be accomplished by a gifted teenager over the weekend in his or her bedroom.”
Finally, cloud-based software and Web-based services are making tech tools easier and cheaper for planners because of the greater “interoperability” that exists today. “The ability to share data from one Web product or tool to another is much easier than it used to be,” Ball explains. “For example, you’re doing online registration and you want to add housing. It’s easy to bolt them together because Web services and application programming interfaces allow greatly simplified sharing of data between Web sites.”
Here are half a dozen Web sites to check out for free meeting planning tools.
Based in Munich, Amiando is a meeting registration product with some creative twists, Ball says, such as doing ticketing and through Facebook. When someone registers, that person can invite a friend via Facebook and if the friend registers, they both get a discount. But this is more than just the latest version of the “Evite” you’ve probably sent out for your kids’ birthday parties. “This is a heavy-duty registration company with the ability to manage complex, multi-track events.”
Amiando’s online registration product is free for free events. If you are charging a registration fee, Amiando charges 99 cents per registration, plus 2.95 percent of the registration fee.
2. Floorplan Genie by a2z
“This is one of the top two exhibition planning tools out there,” Ball says. “You can pay $20,000 per year for the whole Floorplan package—or you can use the Genie for free.” There are parameters: You can only use it free only three times per year, and your event must be 10,000 square feet in size or larger. “But otherwise it is not at all handicapped,” Ball says. “It is the full product.” What’s the catch? Here’s the answer from one of the FAQs at a2z’s Web site: “…a2z decided to offer this service free of charge as way to expedite technology adoption in the exposition industry. Our automated technology and streamlined processes allow us to offer FloorplanGenie at minimal cost to us and free to the user. In this way, we remove the cost-barrier to trying new technology.”
Babycad offers free booth design, using 3D exhibition design software. You can use the free product, or try the Pro version with a $14 seven-day pass, or subscribe to the Pro version for a monthly fee. The company is based in Scotland.
Created by people from seeuthere, Ball notes, OotoWeb (it stands for “out of the office”) is an attendee management and registration product that costs you only $49 per month to use as long as your events are for 200 attendees or fewer. For meetings with more than 200 attendees, OotoWeb charges $2 per registrant. To facilitate paid registrations, OotoWeb also charges a 1 percent transaction fee.
5. Google Hangout
Create free videoconferencing using Google Hangout, which handles up to 10 locations. EventCamp, an event that prides itself on trying out the latest in event technology and the newest ideas in event design, used Google Hangout during its EventCamp Europe http://eventcamp.eu/about/ program event last September, says Ball, who participated virtually, from his home office. In addition to the attendees at the live event outside London, there were four other “pods” of attendees conferenced in from Belgium, Sweden, Poland, and the U.K. They connected via Webcam and Google Hangout. The capstone of the event was a virtual wine-tasting, where the wine, the glasses, and precise instructions were sent in advance to the far-flung locations, then the wine expert in the central location described the look, bouquet, feel, and taste of the wine. As the remote attendees listened, they were together “engaging all five senses using free technology,” Ball marvels.
You can also use Skype for free videoconferencing of up to four locations.
6. Poll Everywhere
Poll audiences of up to 40 people via their smartphones for free. Poll bigger audiences and access additional features via monthly subscription.