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In 2009, Gartner predicted the top 10 consumer mobile applications that would be popular by 2012 – it identified that most users would utilise no more than five mobile applications at a time and that the best opportunities lay within niche markets. According to the analysts, “killer” applications would yield the biggest returns. The study identified a string of fields where apps would be huge – money payments, advertising and near field communication, which allows contactless data transfer between compatible devices. Not surprising, its insight has proven true and the technology is increasing in popularity.

As organisers seek new ways to pander to their tech-savvy audiences, a clear picture is forming; technology needs to be embraced and its capabilities realised. Compared to 10 years ago it’s a much easier process. The thing is: other sectors, and not just IT, have been using this technology for years, yet events are only just embracing it.

For example, who’d have thought in 2001 that ABC, in partnership Ipsos, and Lumi Mobile, would be conducting live experimental research during the Oscar telecast using downloaded mobile apps.

Using a combination of chat, polls, trivia and open-ended questions, a panel of over 100 viewers created an extended virtual Oscar viewing party that offered insight into how the different show elements were being received. Over 90 per cent of participants said that AppCast-type interactive applications would make them more likely to engage with live TV events. If that’s what they can do for TV, what of the opportunities for show organisers?

Mardi Gras in New Orleans worked with WWL-TV and Zehnder Communications to develop Experience Mardi Gras and Parade Tracker, an app that allowed visitors to track the carnival, check schedules and start times. But what are the current opportunities in the UK?

Power in your pocket

Compared to other industries, events have never really adopted technology because people are at its heart. Technology has never been at the top of the agenda when you reflect and think that the scanning of barcodes was big some two years ago. A quantum leap has been made, and it’s all possible because of mobile phone technology. Mobile phones have enabled buy-in and are responsible for that “epiphany” moment: technology gives organisers a competitive advantage. Until now, there has been no drive to switch from the low-tech to the high. But when you demonstrate the benefits to a visitor then suddenly people are interested.

Michael Douglas, operations director at EventGenie, does urge people not to think of event apps as a simple online show guide – the phrase does not give the technology justice. And Richard Lewis, business development director, Eventsforce, argues that the trick is to make sure that technology doesn’t look like technology so that people feel at ease and engage. There is a concern, however, that technology has made life so easy for an organiser and visitor that there’s no level of engagement. Do mobile applications allow an organiser to bypass their visitor because they’re not directly asking their visitor to do anything?

Douglas explains: “People have power in their pockets. Technology is more people focused than it was 10 years
ago and is akin to industry more so. It’s important that technology is now moving into the hands of participants.”

EventGenie has developed a mobile platform, enabling event goers to view personalised information, such as live event schedules, exhibitor profiles and interactive 3D floorplans in real-time on their Smartphone. The app which works across iPhone, Android and Blackberry devices plus a mobile website version for other handsets, is designed for both consumer and business events, and provides organisers and exhibitors with insight into their audience.

Douglas confirms that EventGenie is working with Clarion Events, the Middle East Event Show and the European Wind Energy Association’s event in Brussels.

He continues: “It’s clear to us that there’s a good deal of visitor value in this solution. We are assured to remember that only when it delivers benefit will people use it and if it doesn’t deliver content then no one will be interested.

“We’ve built the solution so that it can be versatile and used by organisers of festivals, conferences, consumer events and exhibitions. It’s not just a mobile show guide. The value is greater than saving a few quid on printed copies.”

But now that the potential of mobile applications in events is being realised will the market become saturated?

“We know that there’s a genuine opportunity for the market to get busy,” he continued. “The barriers to entry are low but we’ve made significant investment which allows us to control the app right up to the event. We’ve pushed hard to use applications native to each phone so that they can use EventGenie without the need for amazing connectivity.”

Get connected

Whilst the benefits of such technology are quite apparent, some would argue that venues are poorly sourced by wireless and phone connectivity. Chris Green, managing director of Etherlive, explains: “At most events, certainly the larger ones and those outdoors in temporary locations, the enthusiasm for a mobile app soon wanes when the user finds that all they get is out of date information or error messages saying ‘no connection is available’. The simple fact is that the mobile networks cannot deal with data traffic effectively at event sites and this more than anything else leads to poor reviews in the app stores.

“The two obvious approaches to fixing this problem are to either improve connectivity or make the app stand-alone so that it doesn’t need connectivity once it is installed on the phone.”

Yet, according to Green, there are flaws in the stand alone app approach.

“The whole point of a mobile app is to offer something different, unique, current and interactive. If you take away the connectivity then you are left without most of those features and risk an app that is stale, which, after an initial browse, is closed and forgotten about. The social media generation live in a connected world with a thirst for live information and that feature is what can make an app much more than an electronic programme guide. The second issue with a stand-alone app is that it doesn’t address the problem of downloading the app itself. Although you can try and persuade people to download the app before the event the fact is many will want to do it at then event itself.

“There are some very good examples of mobile apps available but far too many still fall over or perform badly when network connectivity is poor and that’s just unacceptable for an event app.”

Perfect platform

To kick-start the launch of EventGenie, it announced a partnership with exhibition services contractor Melville to develop specific smartphone and web applications for visitors, exhibitors and organisers. These apps will integrate seamlessly into Melville’s core contracting activities, and into the Melville Data Services registration and data management business. These products will be offered to all its customers worldwide as part of its exhibition contracting and registration activities.

At International Confex, Melville also gave demonstrations of its Melville Prism Dashboard product, a web portal that allows organisers to provide their exhibitors with a single point of access. Exhibitors can book furniture, lighting, floor coverings and electrics using the software and get an idea of cost and layout at the touch of a button. Exhibitors get pre-show, at show and post-show support as well as a help and trouble- shooting option. Ted Bloom, Melville Group commercial director says that its Dashboard product will see a string of enhancements and new features, which will be driven by organiser feedback – imperative if Melville is to continually satisfy the demands of an organiser.

Eamon O’Brien, chief executive officer of EventElephant, has always argued that technology is both revolutionising and democratising the event industry, having launched Facebook integration software last year. In 2011, social media is still enormously popular.

Recently, Eventsforce launched a social media module, which allows marketers to engage audiences before, during and after events, increasing audience attendance by encouraging visitors to share interesting website and event content through articles, videos and photos and enabling visitors to follow events on various social media sites.

Event2mobile is an American firm that basically turns your mobile phone into an event guide. Plus, mobile platforms such as Unsocial and Bump allow professionals to meet each other at networking events.

Cider giant Bulmers has also realised the power of mobile phone apps and is now marketing to consumers with Bulmers App. Bulmer’s brand manager, Douglas Cook says that apps are the perfect way to catch people if they are out. But that all depends on connectivity.