Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

January 2014

How Location-Based Technology Can Take Your Event to The Next Level

By Sarah Beauchamp, Assistant Editor

Seventy-four percent of smartphone users today enable location-based services, according to a recent Pew Research Center report. More and more users are downloading photo apps that have geolocation tags like Instagram, and car-service apps with driver profiles and real time route updates like Uber. Attendees expect location-based apps to help them get their bearings at events. Here's what you need to know.

While he was a freshman at the University of Illinois School of Engineering in 2008, Stan Chang was enlisted to produce the 30-page visitors guide for the tens of thousands of alumni, faculty, students, and community members who would come through campus for the annual weekend-long Engineering Open House (EOH).

In 2008, at the 88th student-run EOH — featuring exhibits and competitions showcasing engineering graduate students’ research — attendees wandered the university's sprawling campus, searching for presentations they were interested in and voting for their favorites the same way they had for decades, using pen and paper. “We normally didn't get much response,” said Chang, who during his senior year became director of the 2012 EOH, themed “Dream, Design, Discover!” Not only was it difficult to get attendee feedback, but with roughly 400 presentations scattered throughout more than 15 buildings, it wasn't always easy for delegates to find specific presentations that suited their interests. So in 2012, Chang and his committee worked with Lextech, a mobile-app development company, to create a location-based app that acts as a virtual visitors guide.

The app uses attendees’ GPS coordinates and QR codes to help them navigate the campus and guide them to sessions they're interested in, which they can mark with a star before arriving, crafting their own schedules. Attendees can also leave personal reviews, “so people can see where the hot exhibits are and gravitate toward those,” Chang said. Attendees can search for presentations by major, vote for their favorites, and scan QR codes at each exhibit for more in-depth information.

For remote attendees, the app also includes livestreaming video from EOH. “Students can engage alumni and people who can't make it back to campus,” said Lextech CEO Alex Bratton, a University of Illinois alum who worked on the EOH app. “It was a great way to do community building. That's one of the powers of mobile technology — how you can connect people.”

A sense of community is central to any event, and location-based technology helps amplify this culture of comfort and trust. “When I read the reviews, I felt more connected to the rest of the people that were visiting that weekend,” Chang said of using the app at the 2013 EOH, which he attended as an alum. “I could see what people were interested in and where the crowd was headed. We wanted to make something that was high-tech and easy for people to use, and I think the app accomplished that.”

Exhibitors were also encouraged to upload video demonstrations to the app, so attendees could view them before and after the open house. “It gives the event a much longer life,” Bratton said. “Nowadays, events are more about building communities of like minded individuals. The apps should be integrated into the strategy of ‘let’ s connect people.’”


The key for meeting organizers is to give attendees the means — through location-based apps — to make connections without overextending their reach. Case in point: At the 2013 New York Comic Con (NYCC), held Oct. 9-12, attendees were surprised to find an enthusiastic message tweeted on their behalf using the NYCC hashtag once they entered the Jacob K. Javitz Convention Center. Tweets like “I love #NYCC!” and “#NYCC is the Best Four Days of My Year!” were automatically sent out via the event app — without attendees’ knowledge or consent. The resulting attendee backlash is a case-study lesson in how not to use location-based services.

Mario Haneca, vice president of marketing at TapCrowd, a mobile marketing firm for events, said there are definite rules for meeting organizers to follow when offering location-tracking features at their events — and open communication tops the list. “A cornerstone to the long-term viability of location-based offerings [at events],” Haneca said, “is transparency.” That means that the meeting organizer must clearly indicate to the user how his or her location will be tracked, and for what purpose.

Haneca also advised that app users might be willing to share their location only if the return — “in terms of knowledge, financial advantage, or speed” — significantly exceeds the offering when their location is not disclosed. If attendee-location data is important to you, you first must make it clear to attendees that you are tracking them, make it even clearer why you are doing it, and then offer some kind of benefit for them to disclose their location.

At the University of Illinois’ EOH, location-based services are used for navigation and connection. Instead of requiring attendees to sign up with brand-new profiles, the university asks users to log in using their Facebook profiles — however, the school doesn't post anything on the delegates’ behalf. Also, all comments go through an approval process before going live. This not only helps facilitate networking by putting names to faces, but also helps avoid any fake users or inappropriate posts.

“The keyword is relevance,” Haneca said. “When organizers apply location-based technology, they should not exceed specific thresholds.” TapCrowd implements the best practices from GSMA, an international association of mobile operators. The company's Mobile Privacy Principles include important restrictions such as “collection of any personal information should be limited to meeting legitimate business purposes,” and users should be “given opportunities to exercise meaningful choice.”


In addition to facilitating data collection, location-based apps open up new revenue streams for organizers. Tap-Crowd's location-based event apps allow sponsors to send targeted messages to attendees once they arrive on site. Based on the interests they've indicated, Haneca said, attendees “can receive suggestions for product demonstrations at the moment of arrival.” This feature was used at ESHRE 2013, the annual meeting for the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, in London last July.

When ESHRE's app identified that someone had arrived at the conference area, based on the user's specifications, it notified the attendee to “visit booth X to buy a product with discount Y,” Haneca said. “So organizers can sell lead-generation campaigns to their exhibitors.” Organizers can also deliver custom messages to visitors, so the information is relevant specifically to them. For instance, Haneca said, “all C-level profile information that can be detected in the registration information is combined with attendees’ measured location, so the app can guide them to special sessions for C-levels only.”

Tailored advertising and special deals are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to location-based sponsorship opportunities. In Las Vegas, MGM Resorts recently partnered with tech company Cisco to work on location-based apps for all of the hotels that MGM operates on the Strip. The goal is to have businesses make suggestions and offer deals based on a visitor's location. This not only will increase sales by creating more engaged customers, but will monetize an otherwise free, non-revenue-generating Wi-Fi infrastructure.


Aside from location-based technology

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