by Deanna Ting | March 01, 2013
It may be hard to fathom, but it's only been six years since the first iPhone debuted, and less than three years since the iPad was launched. Today, it's hard to imagine doing business without these devices, and countless other revolutionary technologies, from Wi-Fi to cloud computing. And as technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, the demand for high-tech conference centers that not only keep up - but stay ahead of the curve - is growing.

"If you look back three years ago, the technology that we have now was still struggling just to come online," explains Fred Cannizarro, vice president and creative director for New York-based production agency, nVision. "When organizations go to a conference center, they want the center to give them the ability to amplify their message and get it out to their audiences, and they need technology that helps them do just that."

"When you think of the conference center of the future, it's about people expecting to have the same things that they have at home," says Corbin Ball, founder of Bellingham, WA-based meetings technology firm Corbin Ball Associates. That, says Ball, means high-quality audio and video, flat-screen TV displays, digital video systems, and excellent network connectivity.

"There's going to be a greater demand in the quality of the meeting space; people want more flexibility, shorter presentations, and more interactive activities that involve working in small teams," Ball says. "The essential 'talking head' for two hours or more is not going to be the norm anymore. It's about people collaborating and having the flexibility to do that and have good quality tech support to go with it."

Meetings experts agree with Ball, saying that many of the newest technologies make it easier for attendees to learn collaboratively and interactively. "I think the way that we learn is changing now," says Samuel J. Smith, managing director of Minneapolis-based Interactive Meeting Technology. "We have this need for more collaborative environments and spaces, and that's where conference centers can really set themselves apart from other meeting venues."

Developing an ideal, interactive learning environment at today's conference center involves a number of key technologies. Here's a closer look at the top trends in meetings technology on which conference centers are focusing.

Get Familiar With Bandwidth
While it may seem like a no-brainer these days, handling the increasing demand for bandwidth, or network connectivity, is still a major issue for conference facilities. "If you don't have bandwidth, you can't do very much," says Keith Purcell, director of sales and marketing for the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center in Austin. "That's the key to everything, and it's the backbone of any meeting that you deliver."

Bandwidth is simply a measure of data transfer and, in an increasingly digital world where a single meeting attendee relies on more than one electronic device to do her work, the need for extremely large bandwidth is absolutely crucial to getting business done. According to a January 2012 PhoCus Wright Market Research report, nearly three in four business travelers own and use a tablet, and the Pew Research Center predicts that 10 billion mobile devices will be in use globally by 2016.

"Bandwidth is king," says Cedric Fasbender, regional vice president and general manager of Dolce Hayes Mansion in San Jose, CA. "If you don't have at least 100 Mbit/s, you're at a disadvantage. If a conference center doesn't have enough bandwidth to facilitate the client's meeting, it'll interrupt everything and destroy the ROI."

One of Fasbender's clients, Cleantech Open, a clean technology company, relied on the mansion's wired and Wi-Fi access to pull off its annual Cleantech Open Global Forum last November. "This was a very complicated and complex event with nearly 1,000 attendees," explains Helen Lambert, programs director for Cleantech Open. "Without the Wi-Fi being able to be accessed in all corners of the campus, we couldn't have done anything."

Jennifer Slaski, executive director of marketing communications for Spiceworks, an Austin-based information technology company, says that her meeting attendees - all IT professionals - won't tolerate spotty bandwidth. "Bandwidth is a non-negotiable for an IT show that wants to be taken seriously," she says. "IT professionals simply have to be able to connect and work remotely while they're at an event."

Bandwidth size is just one factor that meeting planners need to take into consideration when choosing a conference center. Multiple access points, the ways in which the bandwidth can be routed, and the availability of options for secure networks that keep any meeting information confidential and private, are also key. On its website, PSAV Presentation Services has even developed an Attendee Bandwidth Estimator to help planners gauge just how much bandwidth they might need for their next meeting or conference. "That's become the starting point for a conversation," explains Meg Fasy, vice president of industry relations for PSAV. "I think that conference centers and meeting venues are realizing that as much as they need great food and beverage, they also desperately need high-speed Internet."

"Most of our conference center members are working very diligently to increase bandwidth, especially in the meeting space," says Jerry White, director of education and technology for the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC). Understanding how to deliver the right amount of bandwidth is of such great importance, White says, that he and his fellow IACC colleagues are making it a major focus of an upcoming IACC technology report they hope to release later this year. (See page 42 for a Q&A with IACC's new CEO, Mark Cooper.)

Tech Gets Personal
The proliferation of mobile devices, from laptops and smartphones to tablets, has also changed the way attendees approach a meeting. "We're going from having everything broadcast on a big screen to putting all of the information in the palm of a person's hand through tablets and smartphones," explains Jessica Levin, president and chief connector of Seven Degrees Communications. "A lot of planners are buying or renting iPads to help people communicate and collaborate with each other."

Mobile apps can even let attendees adjust almost every physical setting in a conference center. Tim Philpot, integration sales manager for LMG Systems Integration, says that many of the conference centers that he works with use mobile control applications like the Crestron control system, which allow meeting attendees to control everything, from the projectors to the lights in the room, from their personal smartphones.

Some apps can also transform a smartphone into a polling device, allowing attendees to instantly vote on topics during a meeting. "It allows you to data mine the audience and allows participants to become resources," says Jeff Loether, president of Gaithersburg, MD-based Electro-Media Design. Loether says some apps are utilizing location-aware software to act as interactive way finders, helping to guide attendees through larger meeting venues.

To stay ahead of the tech curve, many centers are also in the process of adopting their own customizable mobile apps, say Levin, Philpot, and Loether. "Conference centers are buying or developing mobile apps that their planners can reuse for their own events," says Levin.

At Babson College, Chief Information Officer Samuel Dunn and his team develop a social group for meeting clients. "It's like a Facebook group for that particular event, and they can use it before, during, and after the actual meeting, and have all the normal social media features you'd find elsewhere," Dunn says. He says that the platform is also accessible via mobile device.

At Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva, WI, Sales and Production Manager Katie Fricke is working with her on-site IT team to create a mobile app that lets planners try out different themes and layouts with A/V equipment .

Cool to the Touch

The touchscreen technology that has become so familiar thanks to smartphones, iPhone, iPads, and tablets is also infiltrating more traditional forms of meeting technology, like the TV. These digital, high-definition multi-touch screens allow meeting attendees to engage with meeting content at a personal level but on a much larger scale than with their own mobile devices.

"Touchscreens are great because they allow you to create ways to help people get that interactivity that they need," says Michael C. Magnani, president, CEO and founder of nVision.

Brands like Sony, Samsung, and Perceptive Pixel specialize in creating multi-touch screens, but these often come at a hefty price. "Interactive, multi-touch direct-view displays are very expensive; they might cost $80,000 each," explains Loether. He says, however, that he expects the cost of these products to go down in time.

Another alternative is using surface technology to create what Fasy of PSAV Information Services describes as interactive video walls that "drive interaction and engagement," she says. "People want to get their information on their own and something like this allows for that."

SMART Technologies' groundbreaking interactive whiteboards combine touchscreen technology and collaborative learning. "With these boards, you can write on them with your finger or a stylus but, at the same time, other meeting attendees can log into the software and draw onto it at the same time," explains Les Goldberg, LMG president and CEO. "Even in a conference room of 20 people, you can have all of them drawing on the same board at the same time." Whatever is drawn on these interactive boards can also be downloaded and saved for reference.

Building on that theme is the idea of "smart" or tech-equipped furniture, says Paul M. Leguillon, technical support director for the Q Center in St. Charles, IL. "We're working on upgrading one of our rooms and working with one of our vendors - Steelcase - to work on different types of 'smart' furniture, like tables with built-in monitors and electrical cables. The technology is all built in already." Levin says this idea of built-in technology is adding to planners' desire for meeting spaces that have less-intrusive technology, and thereby let attendees focus more on the meeting than on anything else. "It's about making the technology work for you," she says.

Virtually There
Another area where meetings technology has grown rapidly over the past few years involves virtual or hybrid meetings. At the most recent edition of SpiceWorld, SpiceWorks' annual conference held at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center in October, 500 on-site IT professionals shared their meeting experience with thousands of virtual attendees who had access to live HD-streamed footage from the actual event.

"We have more than 2.5 million IT professionals and 1,300 technology vendors around the world who use SpiceWorks, and we want all of them to be able to get a taste of SpiceWorld from wherever they are, so we've always made an effort to live-stream some aspect of the event," Slaski explains. "In the past, bandwidth constraints have been the biggest hurdle to making this happen. But at AT&T, bandwidth was more than sufficient to pull it off, and their tech experts worked closely with us to coordinate the live stream with a full tech setup - lighting, network connections, a sound board, the works - and the end result was pretty seamless."

As live-streaming events become more popular, videoconferencing continues to evolve. At the Thunderbird Executive Inn & Conference Center in Glendale, AZ, a recent summit involved a videoconference with 80 different attendees and a speaker based in India. "We used a 15-foot projection screen so that the entire audience could see everything," explains Jim Harnden, chief information officer at Thunderbird. "We also had microphones built in everywhere so everyone could really engage and pick up on the conversation."

Levin says that sophistication of videoconferencing can become a "real conversation."

"At the New York Institute of Technology, there was a room so wired with microphones that all over, throughout the audience, people could just speak and the sounds were instantly transmitted to the other end so you can have a real conversation with the virtual presenter," he says. "It's seamless."

Telepresence - or tools that allow a person to feel as if they were present in a meeting - has also become more sophisticated. Thanks to high-definition technology, screens that are more or less life-sized in scale are also more lifelike in appearance.

At Loether's company, Electro-Media Design, telepresence has been taken to another level with the inclusion of a robot, VGo, that can be manipulated by remote users. "We bought this robot so we could experiment with virtual meeting attendance and understand what you can and cannot do with telepresence," explains Loether. "Whenever I'm out, I can sign onto the robot and see people; it's like having Skype on wheels - a blend of the virtual and physical world."

Challenges Ahead
An obstacle preventing many conference centers from being able to have the latest and greatest technology is cost. A robot like the one used at Electro-Media Design costs $6,500. "Technology trends continue to move really quickly," says Babson's Dunn. "It's an ongoing challenge to keep up."

Another challenge is education. Chris Kelly, principal of Convene (formerly known as Sentry Centers), says "meeting participants are generally not comfortable being introduced to new, foreign technology during meetings as much as they are simply demanding that the devices that they walked through the door with - smartphones, tablets and laptops - are being fully supported."

In some cases, the advanced technology is simply that - too advanced. "If you have cutting-edge technology but there aren't any facilitators who are accustomed to using it, it wont get used," says Loether. He adds that at a recent class he conducted for IACC, he polled his audience of students to ask how many had interactive whiteboards in their facilities. He says that two-thirds had them but almost none had a client use it even once. "The conference center is like a concert hall, but we're not musicians."

To help educate meetings professionals about the latest in meetings technology, Wizerize's CEO Fleming Fog and Convene's Kelly teamed up to host the first ReThink Conference in February 2011. The hybrid event included nearly 300 meeting planners and suppliers from conference centers in New York, Copenhagen, and Paris, as well as 100 online attendees. "We really wanted to show planners exactly how to leverage technology that expands beyond even the physical meeting space," says Kelly. "We wanted the planners to be able to take what they learned about these new technologies and bring it back to their companies and introduce it internally to their leadership."

Overcoming knowledge gaps and modest budgets will continue to challenge today's conference centers but starting with a solid foundation, says Loether, is a start. "When conference center clients ask me what they can do to prepare for the future, I tell them this: invest in the quality of the environment and infrastructure," he says. "The better we make rooms for attendees, the better the rooms will be for the many new future technologies that we'll have."