Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

January 2014

Crunch Time: How Big Data Makes Meetings Smarter

By Michelle R. Davis, Contributing Editor

group that works in the area of supply management for conferences, thinks that bringing a wider-angle focus to the marketing and attendee-experience side of events is what will take big data to the next level in the industry. Using that data to evaluate what he called the “emotional return on investment” for a meeting, for example, is something Dwyer calls “a fantastic concept” — tracking to what extent the meeting resonated with attendees by looking at online evaluations and post-event discussions, reporting sales and new contacts that were facilitated, and so on. “Knowing how effective or great a meeting was in terms of quality and effectiveness and being able to apply that to next year's event... goes a long way for planning,” Dwyer said. “Emotional ROI is big.”


Perhaps the biggest potential for big data at meetings and conferences comes through the increasing use of social networking by attendees, exhibitors, speakers, and other participants. Data collected from such platforms can provide significant information to meeting professionals, with new technology tools tapping into the social networking that often precedes or follows an event. And once attendees register, they can access their own profile in the conference's online community, send messages to other attendees, schedule private meetings, comment in community discussions, and watch vendor videos — all of which is capturable data, according to Jonathan Bray, senior account executive with Pathable, which creates exclusive online communities for event organizers.

You can provide some of that data to exhibitors and sponsors, including the number of visits an attendee makes to individual conference pages online. “When you're having a conversation about sponsorship for the following year, you can tell the sponsor how much activity they had related to other sponsors,” Bray said. “This is very powerful information.”

In addition, Pathable can track online traffic to the page created for each individual breakout session and determine which session handouts or slides are being downloaded in advance of the meeting. That can help organizers set their agenda appropriately, according to Pathable CEO Jordan Schwartz. Plus, during the run-up to a conference, organizers maybe able to detect that some sessions don't appear to be generating as much interest and can retool them accordingly. Likewise, attendees may register for certain sessions, but the more valuable information might be which session pages they're actually viewing ahead of time, which can help with scheduling. For example, organizers may not want to schedule two popular sessions competing in the same time slot. “If you have two popular sessions going head-to-head,” Schwartz said, “you maybe losing an opportunity to deliver maximum value and content.”

The American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) used Pathable this past October at its 2013 annual meeting in San Francisco, which attracted about 16,000 attendees, said Jeff Schultz, ASA's convention and conferences manager. Through the mobile app and online community, attendees networked, talked about sessions before and during the conference, created and downloaded their own personal schedules, and visited exhibitors’ pages. ASA was also able to embed its conference evaluation into the online community and each session page, which boosted the number of evaluations received from about 11,000 when the paper version was used for previous conferences to 28,000 in 2013.

Schultz said he'll use that and other data collected to help plan future conferences and to see if any topics need to be added or expanded. In addition, the data that ASA has collected through Pathable technology has given the organization more information it can share with advertisers and exhibitors. “We can show our exhibitors that there is traffic there, that people are using this,” Schultz said. “We can show them which exhibitor logo or company was clicked on the most.”


Big-data technology can collect information in another hugely important area as well: budgeting. Active Network's platform records venue costs, hotel-room rates, catering expenses, audiovisual investment, travel fees, and just about any other line item associated with your events — large and small, on a global scale. “You can start to see how much you spend with a particular hotel group, for example,” Miller said. “You can negotiate significant annual savings.”

You can also compare your events locally or globally, see whether one area of costs seems too high, and accurately plan for expenses the following year. James Vachon, CMM, associate director of events, meetings, and conventions for the Takeda Pharmaceuticals International Company, said Takeda is launching a global initiative to streamline purchasing using Active tools. The company is looking at using that data to negotiate with suppliers on all conference-related areas — from hotel rooms to transportation services — to lower costs. Vachon said he expects to save about 20 percent on meeting and convention expenses by using data effectively. “We want to streamline the process of purchasing, establishing best practices,” he said. “We want to be more efficient in how we do this.”

Similarly, Paul Wakelin, formerly a global deployment manager for IBM, now in a different position for the company, deployed Active software for a data project that standardized IBM's meetings and events procurement process. Over a period of years, IBM collected data for the majority of gatherings it held around the globe, ranging from those with 10 attendees up to the annual 10,000-attendee IBM Pulse conference in Las Vegas.

This massive amount of data provided important insight into spending trends and areas for possible savings, allowing IBM to zero in on whether a particular department seemed to be spending more than others on events, or whether certain conference expenditures in a particular country seemed out of line. “You can have a global view,” Wakelin said. “You can see the data on a department level, across countries and regions.” Armed with that information, it's easier to negotiate better rates with hotels and other suppliers. “More knowledge is power,” Wakelin said, “and you're able to gain a better deal with that.”


That's what big data can do for your meetings and events. But not everyone thinks the industry is at the forefront when it comes to adoption. “We're on the very starting edges of the whole phenomenon,” said David Rich, senior vice president of strategy and planning worldwide for George P. Johnson Experience Marketing. “There are some early adopters, but we're still in the beginning stages.”

Mike Maturo, a managing partner at Infotonic, who works with high-tech companies to improve their conferences, said he sees resistance to big data. “The data is difficult to use and difficult to gather,” he said, “and some people might feel it threatens their jobs.”

And Marie Hunter, senior director of meetings, conferences, and events for IEEE, said that even though the industry is starting to collect large amounts of information related to events, it still doesn't approach the more traditional definition of “big data” on a vast scale. When it does, making that information usable is going to take people with specialized abilities. “The folks who interpret this data need to be experts in both the data analysis and the subject matter itself,” Hunter said. “Those are skill sets that don't currently exist.”

Nevertheless, Rich says he sees “tremendous value” in pursuing the collection of large amounts of information

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