Right On Track: How Tracking Devices Can Improve Meetings

A chip in your conference badge that monitors your meeting activity? It might sound a little creepy, but that chip is improving the meeting experience. Many associations are taking advantage of technology such as NFC and RFID and carefully weighing the benefits, risks, and security concerns.

When Kristin Torres, the executive director of meetings and events for a Colorado-based association, began using RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology in convention nametags in 2010, she was aware that other associations had run into some challenges. Sometimes attendees were unfamiliar with the technology, which wirelessly transfers data about badge-wearers back to a master database, and occasionally people were concerned about how their personal information was used or what was happening with their credit card information.

But Torres wasn’t worried. After all, this was the annual convention and tradeshow of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and these folks, she says, knew all about RFID tracking.

“Our members are cattle producers,” Torres says. “They use this technology in their operations to track cattle as they’re going through different areas. We’ve had no complaints.”

An increasing number of associations are turning to RFID and NFC (near- field communication) technologies to track attendees—whether it’s to provide exhibitors with hard numbers, monitor how people navigate conferences, record continuing education credits, retrieve leads, or simply get a head count for lunch.

In NCBA’s case, it was also a way to implement greener practices. “We wanted to stop printing tickets to all the events and lunches,” Torres says. “Now, everything is encoded in the RFID.”

From the data collected, NCBA learned exactly how many people visited the tradeshow and how long they stayed. The data also prevented them from running out of food and drinks at one function and spending $25,000 too much at another. And since members were familiar with the technology, the association had some fun with it: An exhibitor that makes RFID tags for cattle sponsored smart screens that displayed an attendee’s name when he or she walked within a 12-foot radius.

Torres says the RFID transition has been seamless, and the only challenge is fitting the cost of the technology—roughly $1 per badge—into her budget. Other associations echo this concern, but the consensus is that the expense is well worth the data and streamlined processes.

Easy data, Happy Members

And as it turns out, it’s not just the cattle folk who don’t mind being tracked—and if they did, NCBA would assure them that the association has total control of the data for each person and only pulls contact information (no credit card information); they can even opt out of the email sharing if they wish.

“Our members trust us,” says Michaelle Shultz, vice president and chief technology officer at the Association of Corporate Counsel. “If we say we’re not sharing their information, they believe us.”

David Haas, director of digital solutions for FreemanXP, says every association should have a data security policy that is referenced in all digital communications, and attendees should be able to review it before submitting data.

When Shultz began working at ACC eight years ago, she was struck by the long lines of attendees waiting to reach handheld scanners at the annual meeting. “It frustrated me, so I thought, this must be really frustrating our members,” she says, “and it was.”

Every year since, Shultz has made improvements. First, she switched to tabletop scanners, which tracked continuing-legal-education credits for each session. But sometimes the devices weren’t charged, which left people scurrying, looking for power.

Eventually, in 2011, Shultz made the switch to RFID. To offset the cost of the RFID readers that scan badges, ACC secured sponsorship, and the sponsor’s logo is at each portal. Initially, the setup confused members. “They would walk very slowly past the reader, but now they don’t even think about it. They walk in and out, and they love it.”

In the future, the association will be able to determine how many attendees are going down each aisle of the tradeshow floor, which will provide sponsors with traffic numbers. Another upcoming change: printing on demand, which prints an RFID-encoded badge in less than a minute. Attendees will find four self-check-in pods and a few counters with ACC staff members to help those who need assistance, which also gives staff a chance to interact with members.

Shultz says the data retrieved from badges is accurate, and it’s also easy for members to go online and check their education credits. Best of all, long lines are a distant memory. “The number-one thing it’s yielded for us is happy members,” she says.

Lindsey Knight, director of membership and meetings for Raybourn Group International, an association management company that works with the Indiana Commercial Board of Realtors, says the information collected from RFID technology is invaluable.

“Having all the demographics of the people—brokers versus lenders, etc.—knowing which sessions they went to, and having all that immediately—that’s priceless,” she says. “That’s the kind of data that drives our marketing and helps us refocus our energies. For that alone, it’s a good investment.”

Knight secured a grant from the National Association of Realtors the first time she used RFID at the 2013 Indiana Commercial Real Estate Conference. For a one-day local conference with 350 attendees, the cost was $3,000, which included the chips, readers, onsite staff, and cleanup of the raw data after the event—eliminating data from false reads and multiple entrances.

Even without the grant money this year, Knight says she’s sold on RFID. “It’s a good chunk of change,” Knight says, “but I just don’t want to go back to paper sign-in sheets and paper certificates.”

In the Details

Haas says although other options are now available, RFID is still the “granddaddy” of tracking technology.

“It’s been around for a long time, and hands down, it’s still probably the most reliable and highest accuracy for tracking attendees down to the minute,” Haas says. “None of the technologies out there are perfect, but RFID is still the best thing going in terms of people not having to do anything but wear the badge.”

One of the downsides is that some devious attendees find loopholes—like giving their badge to someone else and hitting the golf course. Haas is seeing more associations using nonremovable NFC wristbands so people can’t game the system. Attendees are instructed to tap their wrist to a reader to get credit for each session.

“When we double up with both RFID badges and NFC wristbands, we are very upfront about it,” Haas says. “We tell people, ‘You’re being tracked. We’re doing this to collect data, to make the conference better.’ By using both technologies, we’re able to give the client a safety backup and a really good representation of what’s happening.”

Haas says the bracelets, also rolled out by Disney this year (see sidebar), are lightweight, easy to use, and nontransferable. But unlike RFID—which simply requires users to walk by a reader—the NFC technology requires users to tap the reader or at least be in very close proximity for it to register.

“If you have an event that’s in the low hundreds, the tap-and-go technology works well,” Haas says. “Once you get thousands of people, that really breaks down, unless you want to queue people in line.”

Other technologies for counting attendees include a heat map of the show floor, which detects devices with WiFi receivers, and intelligent flooring, which relies on a pressure-sensitive material to count feet and track how long they’re staying in one place.

Increasingly popular is Apple’s iBeacon technology, which works on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) with both iOS and Android devices to send information back and forth. Retailers use the technology to push coupons to your smartphone as you pass a store. Similarly, it senses when attendees walk by a booth. Say you’re a heart specialist (per your registration); the booth with cardiovascular devices can push information onto your phone as you approach.

Earlier this year, mobile applications provider DoubleDutch rolled out Head Count, an iBeacon-based feature, on its event app. It tracks session attendance based on attendees’ proximity to the beacons in the room—eliminating the need for badge scanners.

BLE is appealing to organizers because it’s free and it’s easy: Simply set up beacons and tell attendees to activate Bluetooth (not activating is a way to opt out). The only hitch is that for the technology to be successful, attendees need to download and use the event app, and only 50 percent to 60 percent of them, on average, do so, according to Haas.

Other wrinkles still need to be ironed out: The few remaining flip-phone users are entirely off the grid, and those with three devices will be read as three humans. Then you still have one or two people per show who don’t want to be tracked, Haas says. A simple solution is assigning their RFID tags a random number that’s not associated with a name.

Or, follow the lead of NCBA, which incentivized scanning with a green reward. “Once they’re scanned, every hour we’d give away $100 in cash at the NCBA booth,” Torres says. “It not only increased traffic to our booth, but we knew exactly who was on the show floor.”

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.

(Getty RF)

Melanie D.G. Kaplan

By Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Melanie D.G. Kaplan writes regularly for the Washington Post and is a contributing editor at Smart Planet/CBS Interactive. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!