Strap yourself in, because, when it comes to meetings technology, we’re in for “a really fun ride,” meetings technology expert Corbin Ball, founder of Corbin Ball Associates, told attendees at the Religious Conference Management Association Emerge conference in January. “In these next few years, we’re going to see some amazing changes” driven by three technology trends.

1. Wi-Fi Continues to be the Lifeblood of Event Communication.The demand for Wi-Fi will continue to grow exponentially and meeting facilities will need to adapt to retain business, said Ball. “[Wi-Fi] is a basic utility for running a meeting effectively.”

Among the facts he cited: A recent survey found that the most-desired amenity of hotel guests is free in-room Internet access. Also, 64 percent of meeting planners said the availability of free Wi-Fi does affect their choice of venue, and 31 percent said it might. Only 5 percent said free Wi-Fi access would not affect site-selection decisions.

The challenge for facilities is keeping up with the increasing bandwidth demands of customers. “Tablets are driving data usage up rapidly. iPads, on average, consume 400 percent more bandwidth than the average iPhone,” said Ball. Tablets are the fastest growing technology in history—faster than even phones and television. And people are traveling with multiple devices. All of this is driving bandwidth requirements to unsustainable levels for hotels and venues.  

The technology exists to build out the infrastructure to handle all the bandwidth, said Ball. It’s just a matter of hotels and convention centers stepping up to the plate to provide it. There is certainly a cost to do so, but the cost of not doing so is even greater, he said. One solution is to offer free “throttled” Internet throughout a hotel or meeting venue, which means that the venue would provide enough bandwidth for guests to check e-mail, surf the Web, and tweet. Guests who want more bandwidth—to stream video or download large files, for example—they would have to pay for premium Internet access.

Calling it a complex issue, Ball said that planners and suppliers need to educate themselves so they know what they need and how to get it. “We need to have some type of compromise that’s not going to cost huge amounts to the facilities, but is going to provide a base level of service for the group,” he added.

He believes that the view of Wi-Fi as a profit center will eventually end, much like it did for in-room phones.

2. Everything Goes Online. As businesses become Web-based, so does the business of planning meetings. New technologies have made it cheaper, faster, and easier to manage meetings using online applications. “What used to take a team of programmers weeks, months, and hundreds of thousands of dollars to do can now be accomplished by a gifted teenager over a weekend in his bedroom,” Ball said. The result is an explosion of apps (650,000 iPad apps, 500,000 Android apps)—many of which are free or very low-cost. And they are very easy to develop for your meetings.

Driving this trend is cloud computing, the movement of data and software to remote servers that users access via the Internet. People don’t have to install software and download tons of data on their devices anymore; instead, it’s all stored in “the cloud,” to be accessed when needed. There’s also more interoperability between Web sites, which refers to the ability for one Web site to work with another to share data. It makes it easy to add, for example, car rental or hotel information to a registration site. These trends have given rise to the use of tablet computers to manage meetings. “We are entering a post-PC era where a laptop computer will seem as quaint as a brick-sized mobile phone,” Ball said.

Every aspect of the meeting planning process can be assisted by Web-based technology, from registration to marketing, relationship-management, and travel, said Ball, whose Web site lists 59 categories of meeting planning technology products created by more than 1,500 different companies. Many of them are free, like Amiando, a registration site that enables attendees to register for a meeting though Facebook and promote the event to their Facebook friends. Another is Floor Plan Genie, a trade show floor-plan management tool.

3. Virtual and hybrid meetings: The future is now. Virtual meetings technology has come along way in a short period of time and will continue to transform the industry. “Remember the classic scene in the movie ‘Star Wars’ where R2D2 projects the shimmering image of Princess Leia? We are way beyond that technology right now.”

Hybrid meetings are hot right now, and we’ll see more of them as it becomes cheaper and easier to extend a face-to-face meeting to a greater audience, Ball said. Planners are finding that hybrid meetings are not cannibalizing face-to-face events as many had feared, but in fact are increasing their exposure. Ball cited a recent Meeting Professionals International survey where two-thirds of respondents said that the hybrid meeting did not hurt attendance while about one-quarter said it increased attendance.

There are a variety of free virtual meeting tools that can be used in conjunction with face-to-face events. Skype, which connects people face to face over the Internet, can also be used to broadcast speakers to live events. He mentioned a conference he attended recently in India where a speaker joined a live panel via Skype.

Another tool is Google Plus Hangouts. Those who have free Google Plus accounts can use Hangouts to convene small groups virtually and broadcast a video recording of their Hangout to YouTube or their own Web sites. It could be an effective tool for planners to hold webinars or small meetings and post them to the Web, YouTube, or other social media sites.

Ball experienced the ultimate hybrid meeting at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York recently, when he looked across his table at a high-definition virtual wall, a screen that projected images of people who were attending remotely. He said it looked like they were sitting right across the table from him. The “immersive theater” technology is provided by San Jose-based Polycom.

 

Virtual meetings technology won’t ever replace the networking, brainstorming, and relationship building that happens at face-to-face meetings, Ball said, but they are going to play an important role.