Technology

Supercharging the Discussion: Let’s Talk Electricity at Events

Now more than ever, event attendees are in need of a charge—specifically of their laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. Event companies are working on solutions like charging lockers, but planners should be asking themselves deeper questions about this growing challenge.

My trip to the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Nashville last week was defined by two things: music and recharging my batteries.

The music part started early, before I even made it to Music City. In Charlotte, as I was about to make my connecting flight to BNA, I walked out of a restaurant to see a middle-aged guy with a little bit of rock star flair. He looked familiar, but I wasn’t exactly sure if my instincts were right. Then I saw another guy join him, and yep—I was standing five feet away from the drummer and bassist for Weezer. I (of course) had to get a photo:

I later got a chance to go to Third Man Records, about half a mile from Music City Center, where I made a vinyl record for my wife in the shop’s recording booth, a refurbished coin-operated machine that produces a three-minute vinyl record right on the spot—at a cost of $15. This put me in exclusive company, joining (among others) shop owner Jack White and iconic rocker Neil Young, who recorded an album in the machine. Here’s the famous duo showing off the wood-and-metal device to Jimmy Fallon and Louis C.K. on The Tonight Show back in May:

Beyond those music-heaven experiences, there was the conference itself, which was full of music at every corner—from Dierks Bentley to Phil Vassar to the Detroit choir that owned Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” to the many cover bands that filled the bars on Broadway Street.

But more common at every corner were contraptions like this one:

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. That is a locker for smartphones, complete with charging cables for every modern type of device. There was one of these on nearly every floor of Music City Center, and people were using them frequently, from what I saw. Those who tweeted about them—there were obviously event professionals in the audience—appeared to have never seen such devices before.

One vendor in the expo hall was promoting its charging stations:

And at the end of the conference, the Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau handed out portable chargers to attendees to promote the 2015 ASAE event:

They were so common, in fact, that it seemed like the only places that didn’t have chargers at every corner were the Learning Lab sessions. And in a year or two, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them there, too.

I was right there with everyone else, looking for a way to kickstart my iPhone and MacBook Pro. I even had to buy a charging brick in the airport myself because my phone was constantly losing power. (I later learned this was because my phone’s charging capacity has dropped by more than half since I bought it—clearly I don’t use it much.)

About Those Kiosks …

The charging lockers at this year’s conference came from a vendor called Totally Mod, which sells a variety of conference furniture pieces, as well as a whole array of elaborate charging stations, including a clover-shaped couch with 16 separate tables, each with the ability to charge a laptop or USB device.

They’re far from the only ones to offer these kinds of products, either. Doing a quick check online, I spotted dozens of companies—among them Veloxity, goCharge, ChargeAll, and PowerTower—trying to hit this market. Many of them promoted their solutions as ways to add more sponsorship throughout expo halls—the idea being that the devices would, in effect, pay for themselves.

And more practically, there are ways to retrofit what’s already in the convention centers. While waiting for my flight out of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport last week, I got to charge my energy-draining smartphone and laptop out of—get this—a wall of repurposed old payphone booths. In other words, BWI took something nobody’s using anymore and replaced it with something everyone suddenly wants.

Electricity is hotter than ever right now.

Thinking Big Picture

To me, this trend, though welcome, raises a lot of questions. Some are more practical, low-tech. Others have the potential to blow minds.

First off: If attendees are going to an event always on the hunt for a way to fill up their quickly draining phone, how does this change their experience? If they’re spending 20 minutes looking for an open outlet in the convention center so they can email their boss, are they wasting their time? And if they’re hidden away in some obscure corner of the center, does that mean they’re missing opportunities to do what they’re supposed to be there doing—networking? Or is that an opportunity for “quiet time” that might have previously been filled by reading a book or studying up on event materials?

Secondly: Are conference planners putting the outlets in the right places? For example, at many convention centers it’s common to find outlet in lounge areas, but attendees are guaranteed to be sitting in the educational sessions for roughly an hour at a time, multiple times a day. It seems more practical (if maybe less cost-effective) to put outlets there. Are the most engaged attendees—those who want to take notes and tweet what they’re learning—being punished, in a way, when they’re forced to sit on the floor to be near an outlet?

Finally: Is this just a temporary phenomenon waiting for a permanent solution? Is wireless charging going to fix this issue down the line, possibly at scale? This isn’t a sci-fi type question here, but one that’s actively being worked on. Last week, mobile tech giant Qualcomm suggested it was working on getting wireless charging solutions into stores by late this year or early next year—with eyes on collaborations with furniture companies, coffee shops, and auto manufacturers. Starbucks is already installing similar devices in its stores. And, looking a bit more in the Jetsons mode of things, researchers at the Queen Mary University of London, working with Nokia, invented a device that can charge itself using nearby chatter as an electricity source. Could you imagine being in an expo hall or opening event and—instead of desperately looking for an outlet—you can charge your phone simply by exposing it to the noise in the room? Apparently, it’s a thing.

It’s possible that someday in the near future, these “charging lockers” and outlet-laden kiosks will evoke a bygone era, much like Jack White’s recording booth does now. Until then, though, now’s probably a good time to look into how we can optimize this experience.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to charge my phone.

(iStock/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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