“Please turn on your cell phones.” It might sound strange now, but it's an announcement that more and more planners will likely be making at the start of their meetings, as technology advancements continue to change the way that we engage with each other at events.

We all use our mobile phones or PDAs during meetings, even if it's just to check messages back at the office. We rely on these devices in our personal lives and in business. And with advancements in mobile phones, Web technology, wireless networking, and global-positioning technology, we are starting to use them to stay connected and engaged during meetings as well.

Whether it's a proprietary handheld device that promises to enhance everything from networking to polling, or an application that helps attendees to locate and connect with each other using the phones in their pockets, mobile solutions are finding their way into the meetings industry in a big way. We profiled four buzz-worthy mobile meetings technologies — and talked to users — to get you the lowdown (and the price tag) on investing in them for your next meeting.

nTAG Version 2

What it is: A wireless, interactive name-badge system with color display

Capabilities: Real-time audience response/
polling, networking, contact information/
e-business card exchange, electronic agendas and directories, surveying, electronic messaging, real-time event monitoring, reporting, and ROI analysis

Pros: The device doubles as a name badge, making it impossible to toss the nTAG into your bag and forget about it. Agenda and conference materials are provided electronically through the device, eliminating paper printouts.

Cons: Cost, some training may be required for first-time users
Who has used it: IBM, Procter and Gamble, Lucent, MasterCard, General Electric, Financial & Insurance Conference Planners, others
Events it is best suited for: User conferences, sales team meetings, customer/partner meetings, seminars, executive summits, association meetings, etc.

Noteworthy: nTAG Version 2 was named a “Hot Contractor Technology” by Expo magazine in May 2007 and a runner-up in the 2007 EIBTM Worldwide Technology Watch.

Cost: Rental of the nTAG system starts at $15,000 for events with 100 attendees. Pricing depends on the number of attendees and the length of the event.

Contact info: www.ntag.com

Case Study—NetScout Technology: NetScout, a Westford, Mass.-based computer software company, tested the nTAG system at its Sixth Annual Users Group Conference in Miami last October.

The group of 200 used the device to facilitate the exchange of contact info between conference-goers as well as to send broadcast messages and reminders. In addition, the badges were used as a polling device during breakout sessions.

A big benefit of the technology was the ability to facilitate contact exchange through networking games, which “really broke the ice,” says June Nugent, director of knowledge resources for NetScout.

“Our audience was awarded points for the number of people that they [exchanged info with via the nTAG system].”

Nugent says the devices were easy to use once nTAG staff — who were on-site — walked users through the functionality. The only challenge, says Nugent, was when an attendee got a “weak nTAG” and had to bring the device back to the technical staff for a replacement.

Overall, Nugent was very pleased with the results. The conference amassed thousands of exchanges of data, and attendees reported their experience had improved from years past.

Shockfish SA’s Spotme 2

What it is: The second generation of wireless handheld device created by Swiss company Shockfish SA. The device features an RFID card reader, positioning technology, color screen, keyboard, and wireless microphone and speaker.

Capabilities: Networking, e-mail and instant messaging, audience polling, lead exchange, scheduling, conference programs, attendee database, attendance and education tracking, RFID badge scanning

Pros: Robustness of capabilities; the electronic business card exchange functionality allows for automatic integration into MS Outlook or an attendee’s PDA.

Cons: Cost; some training may be required for first-time users.
Who has used it: Reed Travel Exhibitions, World Economic Forum, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Nestlé, Siemens, others
Events it is best suited for: Meetings and conferences with 100 to 5,000 attendees

Noteworthy: Spotme 2 was the winner of the 2007 EIBTM Worldwide Technology Watch competition. In addition, the product is now available in Spanish.

Cost: Prices for the Spotme service start at about $14,500 for setup and $36 per person, per day. With volume, these prices go down. Add-on and customization services are available.

Contact info: www.spotme.com

Case Study—ICCA Technology: The International Congress and Convention Association used Spotme 2 at its 46th Annual ICCA Congress in Thailand in October. The conference, which each year aims to showcase new technologies to it members, deployed Spotme to the more than 700 meetings industry attendees. The association used the device to support networking, CEU credit tracking, RFID card scanning, live voting, distributing feedback forms, and to provide conference information in electronic form.

Attendees found the new Spotme simple to use, something that Martin Sirk, ICCA CEO, attributes in large part to the intuitiveness of the design and to the training sessions that ICCA organized before and during the conference.

“We ran a half-day introduction program for first-time attendees on how to use the device,” says Sirk. “We also communicated where attendees could go to get help.

“If you don't invest the time and make it as simple as possible to use, you won't get the level of [adoption] we had,” he says.

During the five-day conference, attendees sent each other 21,000 messages and exchanged more than 12,000 electronic business cards. The best part, says Sirk: “It was fun to use.”

Log On’s Event Assistant

What it is: A Web-based application from Dutch company Log On that allows attendees to use their mobile phones to access conference info, give feedback on the event, network, and more

Capabilities: Networking, agenda and conference updates, search functionality to locate exhibitors, travel info and city guides, SMS text messaging, and audience response polling using SMS messaging

Pros: The product works on any device connected to the Internet and on any type of connection, regardless of the phone’s service provider. Attendees use their own mobile phones, easing usability. Eliminates the need for additional audience-polling systems by using SMS messaging to poll attendees.

Cons: If attendees do not get cell-phone reception in the venue, they cannot access the application. Capabilities are not as robust as on some of the proprietary devices, and attendees need to have Internet access on their mobile devices to use the full functionality of the application.

Who has used it: Vodafone, BT, Oracle, 3M, Hewlett-Packard, others
Events it is best suited for: Meetings ranging from 100 to 20,000 participants

Noteworthy: Winner of EIBTM’s 2006 Worldwide Technology Watch

Cost: The system starts at around $7,500 for events with up to 2,000 attendees; a 10,000-attendee event would cost roughly $14,500. Pricing also depends on the number of text messages sent and received and the number of service modules selected.

Contact info: www.log-on.nl

Case Study—Vodofone Technology: Netherlands-based Vodafone Group Research and Development has used Log On's Event Assistant at its annual conference for the past four years. Vodafone Group R&D hosts the event to present research findings to about 150 execs from Vodafone companies worldwide. Group R&D uses Log On to facilitate communication between attendees as well as to disseminate information during and after the conference.

One of the most valuable uses of Log On is that it allows attendees to submit requests for additional information, says Patrick Waters, head of enablers for Vodafone Group R&D. “Many people do not want to carry a report back with them, so instead, they request it using Log On, and we mail it to them once they are in the office.”

In addition, attendees at last year's conference in Valencia, Spain, used the solution to facilitate networking with other conference-goers and to receive updates on program changes.

To get the most out of the investment, Waters advises spending some time with the team at Log On before the event. “The content needs to be tailored so that it is appropriate for viewing on a mobile phone.”

Jambo Networks’ Mobile Attendee Directory

What it is: A mobile directory that allows attendees to detect, search, browse, and message other attendees using their Internet-enabled mobile phone

Capabilities: Attendee database search, SMS messaging, positioning technology to reveal when contacts are nearby

Pros: If privacy is a concern, messages can be sent through Jambo rather than directly between attendees so that an individual’s phone number is not disclosed. The service is offered as an annual subscription, allowing attendees to search for and connect with each other before and after the event.

Cons: The event organizer needs to have access to attendees’ cell-phone numbers and profiles in order to upload this information into the Jambo system before the event.

Who has used it: Young Presidents Organization, Publishing Concepts Inc., South By Southwest Festival, Macworld Expo, Fuel Cell Seminar, National Outdoor Leadership School, others

Events it is best suited for: Conferences, large association meetings, events at which networking is a top priority. Groups typically range from 200 to more than 15,000 attendees.

Noteworthy: Jambo Networks was a runner-up in this year’s EIBTM Worldwide Technology Watch competition, and in February 2005 was one of 60 companies selected by the DEMO Conference as having the best new technologies coming to market.

Cost: Jambo charges an annual fee for the service, which depends on the size and needs of the group. Prices generally range from $2,500 to $15,000 per year, which amounts to between $2.50 to $10 per person per year.

Contact info: www.jambo.net

In a Nutshell: Jambo Networks’ Mobile Attendee Directory improves networking at meetings by alerting attendees when the people they may want to meet are nearby. The company launched the first version of its technology in 2005, and has since introduced an updated version that works on any Internet-enabled handset, anywhere in the world. The new version was launched at the Young President’s Organization Global Leadership Conference in February 2007.

Using any cell phone or PDA device, attendees search for contacts in the system by name, company, home town, or other identifying criteria. They can then send someone a text message or e-mail or call the person directly. The system also shows users if contacts whom they have identified as wanting to meet are nearby (within a few miles).

The way it works is pretty simple. Event organizers collaborate with Jambo Networks before the conference to customize the criteria that attendees will be able to use to search (e.g., name, company, title, industry, home town, breakout session preferences, etc.). The organizer then sends profiles of each attendee to Jambo, which loads the info into its system.

A text message or e-mail is then sent to each attendee’s cell phone with a link to a Web site that is customized for the group. Using this Web site, attendees search for contacts based on information in their profiles. Using positioning technology, the results are sorted by contacts who are closest to the user. Because this is an annual service, users can continue to search for and connect with conference-goers once the event wraps.

Have Phone will Travel

Business travelers armed with mobile phones can access a vast amount of information — and save themselves valuable time on the road. Here are our picks for some of the coolest mobile sites and apps for business travelers — and a few that we're hoping come stateside soon.

Ready for Your Phone:

www.google.com/gmm — A mobile version of Google Maps, this downloadable application gives users access to maps for easy viewing on their phones. The site includes detailed traffic reports, step-by-step directions, search functionality, and satellite imagery.

http://mobile.seatguru.com — A pared-down version of Seatguru's site, offering color-coded seat maps for various aircraft. Info about leg room, bathroom proximity, and exit rows helps users to find the seats that are right for them.

Keep an Eye Out for:

www.lingolook.net — Lingolook's downloadable foreign language flash cards for the mobile phone are available for iPhones, Blackberry devices, and Pocket PCs running Windows software. The display translates key words and phrases that travelers need most. Versions for Japanese, Chinese, and French are currently available, with Spanish and Italian coming in fall 2008.

www.geovector.com — Available only in Japan, the GeoVector application works like a digital compass in your cell phone, pointing users to various locales and allowing them to search for things such as movies and restaurants, to buy tickets, or to make reservations. The application requires cell-phone manufacturers to embed the compass hardware (about the size of a pencil point) into phones, and may be available in the U.S. in 2008.

www.fonekey.net — FoneKey technology could be coming soon to a hotel near you. Currently in use in a few hotels in Mumbai, India, this technology allows hotel guests to check in and out, lock and unlock their rooms, and access guest services and billing via their cell phones. The technology is patent-pending in the U.S.