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How the Tech Big Shots Do It

By Teresa Bergen

Pulling off a five-day event with 935 attendees from more than 35 countries is challenging, but planners preparing for 3D Basecamp at the Vancouver Convention Centre in September 2022 had an advantage: The entire building was scanned to create a 3D model.

This photo and the following: Attendees partake in various interactive activities and digitized experiences at the 3D Basecamp event, presented by SketchUp, at the Vancouver Convention Centre last September.

Kim Bellavance

“Every column, every railing, every door, everything had exact measurements,” says Aubree Topai, senior events manager at SketchUp, a 3D software company in Boulder, Colorado. During team planning calls, convention center workers, audiovisual and production partners, and people on 10 committees within SketchUp viewed the model on their computer screens. They could plug in every element—from chairs wayfinding to a 30-foot tree in line with the event’s camping theme—and place them with confidence.

You might say that it’s easy for SketchUp to do this for its conference, which gathers management, developers, sales teams, and clients. But less techy planners can also use it. 

“We actually have a ton of free learning resources on our website,” Topai says. “So, it doesn’t matter your skill set, as long as you have the will to learn new technology.”

Fortunately for those who don’t consider themselves tech-savvy, technology is usually scalable to varied experience levels—and planners can learn from the big tech companies, adding similar elements to their own events.

Meeting Modes 

Since the start of the pandemic, many planners adapted to the tech world as events switched from live to virtual to hybrid. And Beth Surmont, vice president of business event strategy and design at 360 Live Media (a Washington, D.C.-based company that has produced events throughout the Pacific Northwest) predicts that getting the hybrid experience right will continue to be the most important meeting trend of 2023. As many people refrain from travel, companies don’t want to create second-class experiences for virtual attendees, Surmont says. “Improved session production, content repurposing, shared challenge apps, and more are all being used to engage people and show them they are part of something bigger.”

In Idaho, the Boise Centre invested heavily in video production equipment in the last few years. Ali Ribordy, director of sales, and Stacie Lisby, senior event manager, note that technology is the most prominently changing aspect of the industry. After eventually downsizing the venue’s event studio, Boise Centre retained the ability to stream presentations, auctions, and sessions from any location within the convention center—such as a Boise-based tech company’s three-day convention last July with 550 attendees plus livestreaming sessions across the globe.

Lynn Edwards, owner of Proper Planning, an event company in University Place, Washington, likened the virtual platform market to the Wild West. When she put out a request for proposals for virtual platforms in mid-2020, bids ranged from $6,000 to $96,000. It was a major project just to understand what the different companies offered. Proper Planning, which manages the technology news website Geek-wire’s events, as well as many other big tech companies, did more than 60 events in 2021 using 30 different tech platforms. 

The biggest challenge with virtual events is engaging people at home and keeping their attention. Edwards found that virtual attendees appreciated an online networking space just for them. She especially likes Twine, an interactive digital tool, for one-on-one meetings speed-dating style. At another large event with 1,500 people on-site and 5,000 people online, Edwards made sure that both in-person and virtual attendees had a chance to ask post-session questions to the keynote speaker. “Every element of your show needs to be evaluated. Does this work in person? Does this work online? Does it work for both?” 

Tech Changes Storytelling

People have returned to in-person meetings, but not in the same ways, says Rob Wilcox, director of sales engineering at Encore, a global event producer with many partners in the Pacific Northwest. “Their attention spans have waned, and it’s taking more to earn their attention—and their attendance.” 

In essence, sessions are getting shorter. In an era where TikTok videos have become the norm, Edwards says the traditional hour slot has shrunk to 25 minutes max. She encourages keynote speakers to aim for a staccato effect, using pithy videos to break up their speeches. Instead of reinforcing what the speaker says, videos need to expand it. “You are not going to get away with death by PowerPoint anymore,” Edwards says.

Despite the emphasis on screens, they don’t replace people. At a recent 500-person meeting at the Seattle Convention Center where the lunchtime keynote speaker appeared via Zoom, Edwards stood up and asked people to stop talking—the first time she did that in her 30 years of event planning. Contrast this with the closing keynote speaker, who appeared in person. “The room was locked on her,” she says. “They weren’t talking, they weren’t distracted. Zoom fatigue is a real thing.” 

User-Generated Content and Engagement

People no longer expect or accept a one-way flow of knowledge from speaker to audience. Virtual meetings and an ever-growing desire for connection have made digital engagement platforms more relevant than ever. “Now that these technologies are in the spotlight, event technology providers are making big strides in making them more applicable and to provide greater purpose in meetings and events,” says Wilcox. Encore’s arsenal of engagement tools includes digital signage, collaborative whiteboards, 3D projection technology, LED walls, array sound, camera tracking, and custom lighting. The technology allows you to poll participants, boost networking, increase sponsor return on investment, and deliver content.

Surmont especially likes a digital drawing tool called Piccles. People draw on their devices, sometimes at the prompt of a facilitator, then the drawings appear together on a big screen. “The tool allows people to express themselves in different ways, and it helps to create that feeling of community whether people are on-site or attending digitally,” Surmont says.

At 3D Basecamp, a 20-foot social media wall connected in real time with the events app. As people uploaded their comments and photos to the app, they appeared on the big wall. The board transformed the solitary act of looking at comments on a phone to a shared group experience. Organizers could also show photos of lost-and-found items, push attendance to different events and trade show booths, give sponsor shoutouts, and reinforce branding. “It was a great way to level up the pushpin board,” Topai says.

The ‘Wow’ Factor

“Coming back in person is all about creating that ‘wow,’ and it starts with your main stage,” Surmont says. She has noticed many companies are using large LED video walls instead of screens and projectors to make a stronger impression. “The content really pops due to the brightness of the screen,” she says. Surmont has also seen projection mapping—a technology that lets you project video onto any surface, flat or curved—used to create compelling visual elements. “Pillars, rooms, even entire buildings can be transformed with projected images, creating the illusion of motion or displaying immersive messaging,” she says. 

Topai was especially excited about two new elements she tried for the first time at 3D Basecamp. The first is The Catchbox, a foam box with a microphone inside. At 3D Basecamp, speakers threw it to audience members during Q&A sessions. “You could actually throw it pretty far, like a football,” Topai says. This noteworthy tech elevated the experience beyond just another Q&A. Second, for a big party during the event, Topai used 3D Holo fans on either side of the DJ booth. To coordinate with the event’s camping theme, as the fans rotated, they projected floating 3D images of flapping butterflies and hummingbirds, a running fox, and crackling flames. “Everybody was completely blown away by them,” Topai says. “You couldn’t stop looking at them. They seriously looked like something from the future.”

The gaming industry is also influencing meeting and event technology, spurring companies to experiment with mixed reality, where the physical and digital experiences merge. Surmont has followed advances in augmented reality, which lets people use their phones to interact with digital elements, no headset required. “We are seeing a lot of this in brand activation,” she says. 

For 3D Basecamp, Topai and her team ran a competition called Curious Creatures. A few months before the event, participants submitted mashups of various creatures. The 10 winners were featured in an on-site augmented reality scavenger hunt. Using QR codes, people could make the augmented reality creatures pop-up in hallways and take selfies with them.

Simultaneous translation and captioning are important trends for making sessions more inclusive and accessible—the Wordly app is a great example. “The artificial intelligence translation is decent but not perfect,” Surmont says. “This is great for breakout sessions, but I would recommend still using a human captioning service for the main stage.”

Entry-Level Tech 

For younger planners who are digital natives, incorporating new technology may come naturally. However, for longtime planners, these tech advances can be a tough adjustment. Edwards suggests analyzing the whole agenda to see where technology can be incorporated, then begin to source and research adequate tools.

Even small innovations can have big payoffs. Remember that trade show staple of having attendees drop their business cards into a fishbowl to win prizes? “We have started using QR codes as an easy way for attendees to enter our contest with their phones,” says Michael Mahanay, chief revenue officer of CTL Corp, a computer manufacturing company based in Beaverton, Oregon. The QR code opens a Google Form where attendees enter their contact information, which is automatically saved in a spreadsheet. Then, CTL Corp. imports the information into its customer relationship management software. 

Another helpful tool are radios, Topai says. “I’m always dumbfounded that meeting planners do not use this technology. When you have one second to solve a problem, being able to get on the radio and ask that question and get an answer instantly is the most powerful tool any event planner can have.” 

So, where do you start? Ask your audiovisual company and other trusted partners. “Our teams have seen and operated a full gamut of tech solutions and are always willing to offer suggestions and guidance throughout the planning process,” says Ribordy at Boise Centre. “We can tailor as much or as little information technology services needed to help each event meet its objective.”

Edwards asks her trusted audiovisual partners to keep her up on technology, sending her pictures and costs of new innovations. “You have to be a student of the industry,” she says. “Don’t be afraid of technology. Embrace it. We are built to change, so apply that to technology.” 

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