Hey Alexa, Who Won the UFI Digital Innovation Award?

Author: David McMillin       


Freeman’s A.l.-powered chatbot technology solution allows event organizers to reach audiences through a variety of channels. (Freeman)

When the American Society of Hematology (ASH) began preparing for its annual conference, organizers were looking for a new way to answer the barrage of questions from attendees who need answers on directions, session times, and a range of other topics. Rather than hiring a massive cast of volunteers for help desks, the plans relied on one recognizable voice: Amazon’s Alexa. They partnered with Freeman to implement a chatbot service to assist attendees, and over the course of the 2017 conference, attendees asked the chatbot approximately 6,000 questions.

The AI-powered conversations impressed more than the hematologists who went to San Diego to learn and network, though. This week, Freeman won UFI’s Digital Innovation Award for the company’s work to bring chatbots to the convention experience. The honor spotlights the most creative applications of technology in the events and exhibition industry. While consumers have grown accustomed to talking to smart speakers and interacting with digital bots at home, Wilson Tang, vice president of innovation at Freeman, told Convene that developing a bot for the niche events industry carried some additional complexities.


Wilson Tang

“There’s a lot of jargon in the events industry,” Tang said. “And organizations often create fancy names for each part of their event environment such as the ‘Global Innovation Hub’ and the ‘Pavilion of Outdoor Exhibits.’ So this has been an iterative agile process where we have added more questions with each new event and manually finessed it to design and tailor our solution specifically for our industry.”

The application at ASH featured 12 smart speaker locations scattered throughout the San Diego Convention Center. However, Alexa was only one of the communication channels. Tang said that the company has used the bot at approximately 30 events and exhibitions, and the bot is also responsive across SMS, websites, app integrations, and Facebook Messenger. The starting point for knowing how to listen and talk across all of those channels, though, did not require any site visits.

“What we realized early on was that we have this immense resource of employees who have been doing this for decades,” Tang said. “So, we reached out to the whole company and said, ‘Can you give us all the questions you’ve ever been asked.’ We ended up getting hundreds of questions. We sorted all those, and we read through them and made variations. It became sort of the baseline to our learning model.”

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

That model has managed to get smart quickly. At ASH, Tang said that the bot managed to answer approximately 80 percent of questions correctly. The most-asked question was a simple one: “How do I get to the bathroom?” While navigational assistance and responses to inquiries about which speakers were appearing at certain times provided a better experience for attendees, Tang pointed out that one of the most valuable benefits of a chatbot is knowing which problems it cannot solve.

“We also collect all the questions that aren’t matched,” Tang said. “Some of those end up being very interesting, and they alert organizers to attendees asking about topics that may not have any sessions. That information can be very valuable when outlining content for future learning opportunities.”

Speaking Multiple Languages

By the time the next wave of learning opportunities arrives, the ASH chatbot will be smarter. After all, chatbots are designed to process more inputs and mature. However, there is one area where Tang said that bots need some human assistance: Welcoming audiences from around the world. ASH planned for a large contingent of Japanese attendees at the annual conference, so the chatbot needed to process and speak more than English.

“When we first started, we assumed we could take the English answers and translate them programmatically into Japanese,” Tang said. “But that proved to be clunky. When using the jargon of the industry and specific session names, the bot’s answers sounded like a child wrote them. We wound up translating the responses first and then hiring a third-party translation company to fine-tune the answers.”

For now, that approach will apply with all languages. Tang said that there is so much cultural nuance to conversational speaking that artificial intelligence sounds, well, artificial. “You really need a native speaker to bring the bot to life in a meaningful way for international attendees,” Tang said.

Next Wave of Digital Innovation

That meaning should not disappear when attendees return home — wherever they live. Tang stressed that “the value of a chatbot is that it lives all year.” While helping attendees navigate convention centers and shuttle bus departure times for three or four days is helpful, Tang looks at that assistance as a “kickoff” to the rest of the action throughout the next 12 months. Freeman is currently working on a content management system for chatbots that will give organizations more flexibility to update content and more data on how people are consuming it. For example, consider this article that you are reading right now. What if Alexa read it to you instead?

“We used to classify content as something you had to actively consume,” Tang said, “but now, there are so many opportunities to passively consume. Consider podcasts, news reports, and articles in newsletters. A lot of people go to events, and the day after, they drop off the face of the planet because they’re exhausted. This kind of chatbot can be a simple way to re-engage with those members. It’s a gentle nudge to help them keep exploring, learning, and creating positive interactions with the brand.”

Interested in finding a new way to communicate with your attendees and members? PCMA members can hear the event organizer’s perspective in chatbot development in a PCMA webinar, “Artificial Intelligence at Events.” Anyone can learn more about Freeman’s chatbot design.

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