CMW embarks on a globetrotting tour of some of the world’s smartest conference venues to find out what sets them apart, and how they stay on the cutting-edge. Stuart Wood reports.
What makes a venue ‘smart’? In this modern age, there are many ways we could define the innovations taking place in conference and congress centres around the globe. One thing is certain, however – venues are adapting, and many of them are now integrating technology as diverse and as intelligent as the delegates that walk their hallways.
For this feature, we spoke to the brains behind some of the most inventive venues in the world, employing technology in particularly creative and business-savvy ways. Our first stop takes us to The Netherlands, where if you look out of the tour bus to your left, you may see a rather unique piece of tech preparing to face the music…
The RAI Amsterdam completed its initial construction in the 1960s, but the venue has since expanded to become a cluster of several interconnected conference and exhibition spaces in the Dutch capital.
It recently partnered with event technology company fielddrive to pilot a new way for delegates to check in to events at the RAI. Facial recognition is able to scan the likeness of delegates as they enter the building, offering them a fast and secure entrance.
The key at the RAI, however, is not technology for the sake of technology, says Pim Schoonderwoerd, the venue’s IT Product Specialist. Instead, it is about using technology to provide a smoother user experience.
“The more advanced the tech becomes, the more invisible it should become,” he says.
“Here at the RAI, we offer service-oriented products, not technology-led products. But technology can be used to facilitate service, and this is our goal with facial recognition.”
The facial recognition tech went into pilot status in January of this year, and is currently in the process of being rolled out across RAI titles, and as a service for external organisers. Schoonderwoerd says it will allow staff working at check-in to personally greet attendees as they arrive, while having all their necessary information easily to hand.
“If there are 24 registration desks at the RAI, facial recognition can reduce the number of people needed to stand there, while still providing strong customer service,” he says.
Schoonderwoerd highlights the importance of practicality when it comes to technology in events: “Technology is not the goal, the goal is what we do with it. For example, virtual reality – it is an answer, but I think many in the industry do not yet know to what question. IT is just the carrier. Content is key.”
Where the RAI is focused on smoothing the user experience once delegates arrive at the venue, Suntec in Singapore has a slightly different approach. It aims to connect potential customers and delegates to the venue remotely, with a couple of smart technology initiatives.
Suntec is pioneering a new AI chatbot named EVA (Essential Virtual Assistant), to provide information to attendees via the venue website. The technology soft launched in February.
Shalinee Bernadette, Marketing Manager at Suntec Singapore, says the AI is currently in the process of being educated by venue staff, and that it aims to reach ‘graduate’ level in 2021. She adds: “EVA will help develop the amount of choice, clarity and convenience we can offer customers. It will be available 24/7 to deliver information in a transparent and interactive manner, helping to streamline the venue’s business and customer service.”
As well as EVA, Suntec has developed an in-house platform called HybriD, which allows organisers to visualise the venue before arriving. It provides a 360-degree, 3D representation of a space, in different set-ups and capacities, and accessible on any digital device.
Bernadette says the platform “allows individuals on the planning committee to get a clear understanding of the event layout, as well as its potential look and feel. This makes the planning process simpler and more streamlined, and empowers more effective decision-making. It means site visits are faster and easier.”
The world’s most sustainable destination
The Svenska Massan koncernen (Swedish Exhibition and Congress Centre) in Gothenburg, Sweden, is a venue with a slightly different definition of ‘smart’.
The venue, which is connected to adjacent hotel Gothia Towers, has been ranked the most sustainable destination in the world the last three years running, according to the Global Destination Sustainability Index.
It operates with an ‘all-in-one’ policy, which aims to house all aspects of an event under one roof. This is to reduce the amount of travel required between sites, while providing delegates with an extra level of convenience.
Svenska Massan koncernen runs on 100% renewable electricity, provided by wind power in Gothenburg. In addition, the venue converts its leftover food waste into biogas, which is funnelled back into its power supply.
Nils Sjöberg, Communications Manager at Svenska Massan koncernen, says: “We want to offer a climate-neutral venue, and renewable energy is a pre-requisite for achieving this objective. We also work to steadily reduce energy consumption by continuously optimising our real estate, lighting, ventilation, heating and cooling, as part of the overall energy goal.”
The venue has a number of other sustainable initiatives, too. Sjöberg says: “All [the SECC’s] shipments are climate-compensated, and we offer climate-compensated transport options to our customers to help them minimise their carbon footprint.
“We endeavour to use only products bearing an EU Eco-Label in our daily operations, such as the EU Flower, Nordic Swan or Good Environmental Choice labels. In addition, we support organisations and projects working locally towards worthy causes that could also have a global impact, such as the Gothenburg Rescue Mission and a research project at Chalmers University to reduce micro-plastics in our waters.”
And from the supplier side?
We’ve seen some examples of cutting-edge technology on the venue side, but for every international conference centre there are hundreds, if not thousands, of event tech companies vying for attention. So how does a tech supplier go about trying to court big venue business, which has the potential to launch a company to widespread success?
Zoi Meet is an emerging event tech company which provides real-time, multilingual subtitling and transcription for international conferences. The company was set up in 2018 by Kevin Oranje and Nick Yap.
When asked how the company goes about courting international venues, Head of PR Magda Misiorny says: “We provide the service as a free trial with a simple set up, to demonstrate how we can solve the basic problem of understanding and allow many more attendees to make the most out of every interaction during a particular event.”
“We have suggested to venues providing it as an upsell service to VIP attendees, allowing them to create an extra stream of income.”
The company is also a part of Techstars, a start-up accelerator which provides funding, contacts and more to help boost visibility. This can be a key pathway to get on to the radar of large-scale event venues.
It is not the only route, however, as Misiorny points out: “Our solution is unique enough for a lot of international venues and trade shows (MICE) to organically find us through internal or external content we put out on our website or social media.”
Survival of the…smartest
Technology within the conference industry is not just about providing a ‘wow’ factor to attendees, or giving event planners a shiny new toy – though there are plenty of those around.
Real, lasting innovations within the sector are those that have a tangible and practical impact on our working lives. Those which strip away the admin, logistics and rough edges to provide a smoother experience for delegates.
Whether that means facial recognition to speed along registration, AI chatbots to provide quick and efficient customer service, or live translation for international events, the goal is the same. Conferences are becoming more connected – breaking down barriers between the physical and virtual, as well as between different cultures and languages.
But perhaps we should be looking to the innovations in Gothenburg if we really want to talk about ‘lasting’. The march of technological progress often comes at the expense of our fragile environment, but Svenska Massan shows us that doesn’t need to be the case.
And if, as Darwin said, it is not the smartest but the most adaptable that survive, perhaps our international conference venues should be taking note.