Does Your Meeting Really Need an App?

Author: Michelle R. Davis       

Several years ago, Cambridge Innovation Institute thought it was moving to the cutting-edge of event planning by adopting a conference app for its events. Ideally, the app would keep attendees updated with the latest schedule and speakers, be used for onsite registration, and eventually make the printed program and agenda obsolete.

But that didn’t happen, said Janette Harper, vice president of meeting planning for Cambridge, a for-profit conference and trade-show company for the life-science and energy industries, based in Needham, Mass. Uploading data to the app was labor-intensive, and it didn’t get much uptake with attendees.

Instead, Cambridge has now reinvested in its own website using a platform from Conference Technology Enhancements (CTE), that links different systems together to streamline data entry and provide real-time updates. The change is part of how Cambridge is rethinking the tools it uses to manage its events. “Everybody was so gung-ho on apps,” Harper said. “But people are absolutely starting to second-guess that strategy.”

Cambridge Innovation Institute puts on more than 50 events a year, all over the world. Its conferences related to biomedicine and developments around rechargeable batteries can range from under 20 to hundreds of attendees. Despite heavy promotion by Cambridge, less than 20 percent of attendees across their conference portfolio downloaded their app, Harper said. And those who did, really only used it to check in and register at the event.

Janette Harper, Vice President of Meeting Planning, Cambridge Innovation Institute

But when Cambridge staff members looked at the usage of its website, they found that visits spiked during conferences and events. Despite having a conference app, attendees were still relying heavily on the website.

So for the last 18 months, Cambridge has moved away from the use of a conference app and has focused instead on its website — making it more mobile-friendly and stocking it with the resources attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors want. “We were using our website as a marketing tool to get attendees to sign up,” Harper said. “Then we decided to shift gears and add all the stuff we’d normally put into our program guide.”

Cambridge was already working with CTE’s platform for on-site registration and Harper collaborated with the company to customize its product for Cambridge’s needs. CTE’s on-site registration process links to Cambridge’s internal registration database, so information didn’t need to be entered into the system twice and was uploaded instantaneously. “It syncs up nicely,” she said.

CTE’s platform can collect data from different systems and allow that data to interact, said Brad Skaja, a managing partner at CTE. Though an app may seem user- friendly, on the back end it can be labor intensive for organizers, he said. Focusing on CTE’s platforms and the Cambridge website resulted in “a tremendous savings in time,” Skaja said, in terms of developing content, “and getting it out.”

Harper concurred. For example, when Cambridge was using the app and a conference’s agenda changed, the website had to be updated, then the printed guide had to be updated, and then the app had to be updated. To do that, Harper said, Cambridge had to go through the app developer — another layer, often when time was of the essence.

By the time Harper got approval from the app company to go in and proof information featured in the app, it was often just days before an event. She said: “You find an event planner who has time to spend two days proofing an app four days before a conference.”

The result was that often staff didn’t even have time to thoroughly vet the app information and it wasn’t always accurate, as last-minute changes came in. Hosting that data on the mobile-friendly website instead allows any device — Apple or Android phone, iPad or tablet — to access the information and it’s easy to make changes and updates, Skaja said.

Brad Skaja, Managing Partner at CTE

The platform can also collect data that a mobile app can’t. For example, click-through rates can tell exhibiting companies what visitors are really looking at, what pages they lingered on, and other metrics to help them hone their agendas to reflect attendees’ interests, Skaja said. The platform can do lead-retrieval for exhibitors, too.

It has also transformed the process for exhibitor spaces, Harper said. As sponsors and exhibitors make purchases and buy booths, the live floor plan is constantly revised in real time. Previously, if an exhibitor bought a double booth, the floor plan had to be reworked in the system and then reprinted out. Now it adjusts automatically throughout the sales process, she said.

“They had been doing a cardboard map and marking it with a Sharpie,” Skaja said. “Now every iterative branch is updated at the same time when a booth is sold. It takes out a great number of steps and a great deal of burden.”

At events, Cambridge’s sponsor sales area now features a 60-inch video screen displaying the live floor plan so exhibitors can see what spaces have been sold and booths remain for next year’s event. The screen even highlights booths that are in the process of being sold, Harper said. The process is electronic from beginning to end. “We stopped printing a big floor-plan sign. We stopped having a three-copy paper contract,” she said. “This really brought us into the 21st century.”

Cambridge has not yet eliminated printed agendas and still needs to add a “build-your-own scheduler” feature to its website. But it’s headed in that direction and Cambridge’s Janette Harper said she hopes that events in the fall of next year will be paper free. Almost no one has missed the app, she said. The blending of CTE tools and resources along with what Cambridge is using has been a successful recipe. “We’re constantly tweaking and customizing the web site,” she said. “We’re putting our money there, to make it user-friendly and on-site friendly.”

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