“An unusual number of attendees left the ROI meetings before the end. We need to re-evaluate the topic for next year.”

“Sixty percent of the attendees in the A track meetings are Northeast distributors. Put a stack of pre-registration kits for the Boston training event by the exit door.”

“The banquet seating is filling up fast. Check attendee count again in two minutes, and we'll start adding tables if needed.”

Planners 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.

Well, the wait is over. This is the potential of radio frequency identification technology — RFID — in use today for meetings, conventions, and trade shows.

“With RFID, planners can see what attendees are doing in meeting rooms and on the trade show floor 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, Dallas, which has used name badges with embedded RFID technology for the past two years at its annual convention.

In the past decade, RFID technology has been adapted for a range of applications — from swipe cards for entry to office buildings to electronic windshield tags that allow drivers to roll through the toll lane without stopping. More recently, it has made headlines with Wal-Mart's controversial decision to use RFID to track inventory and the U.S. government's plan to embed chips in passports. And meeting applications present new possibilities for attendee tracking, lead retrieval, and event inventory control.

In a name badge, a small bump is the only giveaway that the RFID chip, or tag, is there. The tag is encoded with a number that corresponds to information about the attendee, gathered through the registration process and/or from an organization's databases.

The information, encrypted for privacy, is transmitted via radio waves to antennas or “readers,” which provide the power for the tag to send its information. Once that information is transferred, software decodes the ID number to translate the attached information.

The data connected to the ID number in the chip can be customized, but might include the attendee's name, title, contact information, and relevant demographic or buyer/seller information.

“The badges themselves do not contain any personal information,” says Tony Melis, vice president of business development for Washington, D.C. — based Laser Registration, a leading provider of RFID 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.”

But what if someone unauthorized is able to capture an attendee's RFID tag? “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.”

Privacy issues related to RFID are complex and, to some, conjure images of an Orwellian society in which Big Brother knows everything. For meeting applications, however, concerns have been minimal. For example, when IBM used RFID badges for its 2005 and 2006 PartnerWorld conferences, attendees could opt out of having their RFID badges scanned. Of the 5,500 attendees — which included CEOs and presidents of IBM Business Partner companies — only 20 to 25 individuals chose to do so in 2006. That number was a bit higher in 2005, but Joyce Keller, manager of the PartnerWorld Conference, says she has had good results with clear communication, and she recommends including RFID information on your conference Web site and at the on-site registration area. “Attendees need to feel comfortable that you are using the data to enhance the value of the event versus tracking individuals,” she says.

In conference materials, her rationale for the badges is well-explained: “RFID badge scanning is a noninvasive way for the conference managers to analyze attendance and get real-time information on session popularity and capacities. Information gathered from your PartnerWorld 2006 registration and the badge scanning process also helps us to plan meal, hotel, and convention center requirements of future conferences.”

PartnerWorld attendees who opt out still wear a conference badge with an RFID tag, “but the traffic data associated with that badge will not be associated with any identifying data,” says Keller. She will know, for purposes of the head count, that a person has entered a particular workshop or meal event, for example, but not who that person is.

Hacker of IAEM was on alert for opposition to badges because of privacy issues, but received no complaints. “It was a big ho-hum in terms of negative response,” he says.

Custom Data Retrieval

The information collected, and the kind of data and reports supplied, are dependent on a group's information needs.

For example, IBM has used RFID data for future conference planning — for example, being able to accurately tell potential sponsors the number of unique visitors to the event's Solution Center — as well as on-site problem solving. In one instance, RFID tracking revealed that more than 1,000 attendees had spent time in the exhibit area when it wasn't officially open and booths were not staffed. That quickly led to a series of announcements to attendees about the exhibit hours to redirect traffic to open activities.

In 2005, the Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association monitored just a few sessions with RFID badges, but expanded its use greatly at this year's annual meeting. “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,” says Robert Cowan, PCMA CFO, who, along with the meeting department, spearheaded the use of the badges. Cowan notes that organizers can receive different types of information from the badges at different points in the meeting. “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.”

For PCMA sessions that awarded CEU credits, however, a name had to be attached to the information. For that, attendees held their badges in front of a reader, which generated a receipt.

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.

An RFID — enabled personal welcome was also a feature for attendees at Canon Expo in Paris last October. Organizers worked with Dutch registration company Summit and Zebra Technologies to create RFID badges for all 15,483 visitors to its imaging technologies event. As attendees walked into the show, the RFID readers picked up their signals and flashed welcome messages on the screen.

One factor for many groups is the trade-off between the value of the information received and the cost of the badges. The badges cost between 50 cents and $3 more than a standard badge, which can be prohibitive.

“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.”

RFID Tracker, Survey Tool, and More

Today's meeting nametags provide attendees with increasingly personalized experiences. The company nTag, for example, uses a combination of RFID — radio frequency identification — and infrared technologies as an attendee tracker, a survey tool, and even as an icebreaker.

Needham, Mass. — based software company PTC used nTag name badges in 2004 for a combination of fun and hard data — gathering at PTC/USER, its international customer event. 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. Kevin Johnson, PTC/USER executive director, says they used the RFID technology to track attendees' physical whereabouts, but even more importantly, 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.

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 also used the badges as an icebreaker, playing games that simultaneously taught attendees how to use the badges 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.”

RFID Resources