When you think about "the conference of the future", you might imagine robots, holograms, and virtual reality. While some of this technology has a place in the future of corporate events — and some is already appearing — the most important improvements in conference production are focused on personalisation and connection.
However, that doesn't mean that physical and logistical concerns aren't being addressed. Think of your most common frustrations at conferences — not being able to locate a breakout session, loud spaces that hinder networking, no power points to charge a mobile device, no chance for face-to-face time with your favourite speaker — and imagine that event producers are hard at work figuring out ways to eliminate those frustrations using a combination of gadgetry, experience design, and good old-fashioned hospitality.
Here are some things you can expect to see evolve as you attend conferences over the next decade.
An experience designed specifically for you
Taking their cues from master customer experience designers at Disney and other world-class resorts, conference producers are using mobile technology to eliminate frustration from events, giving directions, for example, to a shorter queue for a lavatory after a keynote speech. They also help you tailor experiences based on preloaded preferences or biometric data.
Christopher Cavanaugh is executive vice-president and chief marketing officer at Freeman, a Dallas, Texas-headquartered brand experience company that produces conferences for some of the world's largest brands. He said: "As we put more sensors integrated into live experiences and connect individuals to those devices through a smartphone or a wearable, there are all sorts of things that can happen."
Imagine ducking into a work pod that syncs seamlessly with your Spotify playlist, getting notified about a breakout event based on your interests, or entering a chill-out room that changes colour based on your mood.
Networking apps to connect with the right people
Tinder-style networking apps have already made it easier to connect with like-minded professionals at conferences, but there are many more innovations designed to bring attendees together around shared interests.
"Networking is a big part of why people attend and feel the value of face-to-face versus just online," Cavanaugh said. "There are lots of dimensions to matching that can happen through technology. We're creating physical spaces that allow people to connect around pop-up content that is happening in real time." TED-like talks, he said, can be promoted through push notifications that allow attendees to gather and connect with people who are passionate about similar topics.
Getting to where you're going
Nothing is more frustrating than wandering a large space, often with a heavy bag toting a laptop and all your conference materials, and not being able to find your next session. Conference producers have solved this issue by building apps that help you navigate interior space. At a recent event produced by Freeman, virtual assistants (think Alexa) were preloaded with conference-specific answers to FAQs like keynote times and lavatory locations.
Better presentations, with immediate feedback
Virtual and augmented reality make it easier to tell complex stories that weren't previously demonstrable in a conference setting. Attendees can wear headsets that allow them to interact virtually with materials, from large engineering projects to tiny medical devices, in a way that wasn't previously possible.
Cavanaugh uses the example of a jet engine. "There's a time and expense associated with actually getting the physical product onto the trade show floor," he said, "versus creating a virtual reality experience that allows someone to touch and feel the product, showing them the way the mechanisms work."
Mobile technology and push notifications also make it easier for event producers to gather immediate feedback on presentations and speakers via real-time polling, so you can offer your thoughts while an experience is fresh in your mind versus filling out a long survey when you're back in the office.
Finding a place to recharge yourself and your phone
While conferences are certainly about making connections with other people, all that outward-facing time leaves attendees wanting space to recharge.
"We spend a lot of time ensuring the breakout areas support this," said Debra Dufty, director of Lime & Soda, a conference and event production company based in Auckland, New Zealand. "A recent conference we managed had different areas depending on what the conference delegate was after. A coffee lounge, a shoeshine guy, a 'plug in' hub, lounge areas and pods for discussions, bar leaners for the more casual attendees, and so forth. Gone are the days of a buffet catering table down the middle and a few tables for people to sit on."
Sponsors are getting in on the action as well, forgoing the traditional tote bags for immersive experiences such as VIP lounges, chill-out rooms, phone charging stations, and even snack bars.
A festival atmosphere that entertains as well as educates
Inspired by events like Davos, TED, and Burning Man, conference producers are seeking to provide a more all-encompassing experience for attendees. As brands focus less on what Cavanaugh calls "the nuts and bolts of education" in favour of immersive experiences that tell a story, conference-goers can expect festival atmospheres that transform stodgy conference centres into street fairs, with activities scheduled well into the evening.
"People expect there to be a certain level of engagement and entertainment infused with the business content at conferences," Cavanaugh said. A recent Freeman study found that 15% of organisations that produced more than 20 events per year used gamification to enhance brand experiences.
A more intimate experience with better access to speakers
Technology can help large conferences feel smaller and more tailored, but companies are also coming to the conclusion that mini conferences and events, held in smaller, nontraditional venues with fewer attendees, foster better interaction between speakers and conference-goers.
Bespoke events like Salesforce's Forcelandia, which takes place in a historic school turned boutique hotel in Portland, Oregon, are becoming more common as brands look for ways to segment audiences and provide tailored experiences to each.
Attending in your pyjamas
"Companies are aware that people are time-poor and are taking a significant amount of time out of their workday to attend conferences," Dufty said. To cut down on the need for travel, more people are looking for innovative and immersive ways to attend conferences remotely. Traditional webcasts will likely continue to make presentations available to remote attendees, but virtual attendees may also be able to take advantage of networking opportunities remotely via telepresence robots and even human surrogates, such as Rekimoto Lab's ChameleonMask (see lab.rekimoto.org for more information).
Katherine Raz is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.