RFID Made Simple

It's an acronym that planners should now care about: RFID. Radio Frequency Identification uses access points to remotely retrieve information from special tags via radio waves. It captures data from up to 15 feet away without needing a human to read the data. These tags can be attached to a delegate's badge for ID and tracking.

Meeting planners can use RFID (available from companies like ExpoExchange and Laser Registra-tion) for session control access, continuing education unit (CEU) tracking, crowd flow tracking, traffic pattern reporting, and post-show demographic analysis and reporting. The Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) even has a fun way to use the technology, says Lorena Fuentes, senior manager for meetings/events. When a delegate walks into the general session, the access point detects their badge and "Welcome (attendee name)" flashes on-screen.

PCMA also uses RFID to track CEU sessions. If the organizers see people are leaving early, "We understand that, OK, this session did not work, let's try something else." While Fuentes says that delegate surveys are still important, RFID provides more data on where attendees actually went and spent time.

Steven Hacker, CAE, president of the International Association for Exhibition Management (IAEM), says his group uses RFID tags to obtain basic demographic information, such as name, job position, and products and services the attendee is interested in. "If you want to know where delegates went, how long they stayed, where they're going, you can determine that in live time. You can even determine if you have enough chairs in each meeting room based on traffic patterns. It's like looking at an air traffic controller screen; RFID's impact is as great as walkie-talkies."

RFID was originally much more expensive than scan badges, but that's changed fast, says Hacker. "Two years ago it was about twice as much; last year it was only 15 to 20 percent more."

In terms of ROI, "RFID is much better than relying on human interaction," says Debbie Draper, director of national hotel contracts and meeting management for the American Heart Association. "The biggest benefit was to learn that the way our volunteers slotted sessions for various specialties was right on target." Badges with bar codes, for example, must have the codes visible, so a person at the door of a seminar can scan them. This can be a bottleneck in admitting attendees. Hacker says there are still some issues, like limits on the number of people the system can handle. Draper is encouraged, however: "This year we'll use RFID to see how many people visit exhibits at different times."

By contrast, nTAG Interactive is actually moving away from RFID towards a more interactive, PDA-like badge. George Eberstadt, co-founder, says nTAG is offering a wireless product that provides the attendance tracking RFID does, but adds real-time communication between attendees and event organizers (including photographs), distributes agenda updates, surveys attendees, and offers sponsorship opportunities and enhanced networking, "making sure the people who need to meet actually meet." The price is $30 to $40 per attendee per day. Eberstadt says sponsorship often picks up the cost, although "we counsel our sponsors to deliver no more than one or two marketing messages per day."

In terms of privacy, nTAGs come with disclosure right on the tag on how the data is used—if you're not comfortable, turn in your badge for a paper one. Both Hacker and Draper say privacy is a non-issue. "We told all delegates in advance that we use RFID," says Hacker. "The information tracked is no different than on a registration form."


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