Data Lessons Learned From a First-Time Beacon User

Making Waves WQA was able to track where 90 percent of its 2017 show participants went, thanks to beacon technology.

Since joining the staff at the Water Quality Association (WQA) in 2014, Nancy Henkel heard a persistent request, whether in post-convention surveys or casual conversations. Certain exhibitors and members wanted WQA to introduce a trade-show-only pass — a less costly, more limited alternative to its standard all-access pass, which includes education sessions.

Henkel, the events and marketing manager for Lisle, Illinois–based WQA, which has more than 2,500 member companies that treat and deliver water, understood their reasons. “Some people can only come for one day,” Henkel said, “and they just want to attend the trade show.” Certain exhibitors also supported the idea, believing it could boost show attendance. But given the risks — attendees might choose the cheaper option and still visit the education sessions — WQA needed proof that the change was truly needed.

To obtain that proof, Henkel hired TurnoutNow, a data-analytics company, to provide beacon technology at its 2017 Convention & Exposition, which was held at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center on March 28–31. It was the first time Henkel had used beacons, and the goals were clear: to determine how many people only visit the trade show, how many only attend the sessions, and how many visit both. In the process, she also gained new insights on everything from exhibit-floor traffic to the popularity of education tracks.


About two months before the show, WQA staff discussed logistics with teams from TurnoutNow and Convention Data Services, which provided registration services for the event. Once in Orlando, TurnoutNow trained registration staff and placed receivers for the beacons in each of the education session rooms, as well as on the show floor. Affixing beacons to more than a thousand name badges added an extra step to the registration process, so WQA hired additional temporary registration staff to prevent lines.

Henkel worried that the beacons would create privacy concerns, but about 90 percent of attendees agreed to wear them when they were asked on site. “That was probably our biggest surprise,” she said. “We thought we would get some pushback. But we explained that attendees were only being tracked when there was a receiver in the space — we weren’t tracking people in the bathroom or the bar. If someone asked, we said it was to help us provide a better show experience in the future.”

For the education sessions, WQA obtained information on overall traffic (1,005 attendees), average stay time (29 minutes), and average attendance (112 people per session), as well as similar statistics on individual sessions. “We can break down the data to find out which sessions and tracks had the most and least traffic,” Henkel said. “We also know the breakdown of attendees based on their registration type — such as association member versus non-member — their purchasing role, their job title, and which country they live in. We can say, ‘Okay, in this particular session, 30 percent of the attendees were final decision makers on purchases, 20 percent were joint decision makers,’ and so on.”

Data from the exhibit hall offered similar insights, from average stay time per booth to the average number of booths that attendees visited. Henkel also wanted information on the flow: “Are the hot and cold spots where we think they are?” To do that, she created zones to determine which areas had the most visitors and how long they stayed. As with the education sessions, she can break down the data to see the job titles of show visitors, their purchasing role, and more — which will help WQA market the show to potential exhibitors.


Now that she’s a beacon veteran, Henkel says she’d do a few things differently. For one thing, WQA’s events staff didn’t have time to monitor real-time data during the show. TurnoutNow provided heat maps that pinpointed the busiest and slowest times in the exhibit hall, as well as which zones were more bustling than others. At future conventions, Henkel will use that information to increase traffic in quiet areas. WQA has already changed the floor plan for 2018 to boost traffic, adding a bigger center aisle and some bigger booths alongside it.

One thing Henkel wouldn’t change? TurnoutNow uses disposable beacons, which spared WQA from collecting them at the end of the show. Henkel had considered another provider that required the beacons to be returned — and charged a fee for each one that was missing. “It’s a variable cost that I can’t control,” Henkel said.

As for the show-only pass, WQA has vetoed the idea. And if members question the decision, Henkel isn’t worried. “We can back up our decision,” she said, “with data.”


If you’re thinking about using beacons, WQA’s Nancy Henkel offers this advice: Know exactly what data you want to gather. With well-defined goals, you can place receivers in the right locations and you’ll pull the right data from your registration system for the beacon reporting. It will also allow you to clearly tell attendees what you’re tracking and why.

“I always encourage clients to develop a data strategy,” said John Kimball, president and CEO of Convention Data Services. “What do you want to accomplish? What business outcomes do you want? Don’t just grab the data and say, ‘We’ll figure it out later.’ If you use beacons without a solid data strategy, you’re going at it blind.”

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.