In this episode, I talk with Corbin Ball (@corbinball) about trends and the future of EventTech at the Plannertech conference.

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John Federico: Welcome to the Event Tech Podcast coverage of Plannertech 2013 here in downtown New York City. We’re at the Convene Event Space, a very tech-savvy event space, I have to say. We’ve all been very happy with it. My guest right now is Corbin Ball. Corbin, is it the Principal or Founder of Corbin Ball associates?

Corbin Ball: Both. Founder and Principal.

John Federico: Founder and Principal is how you refer to yourself, I should have captured that, I’m sorry.

Corbin Ball: It’s alright.

John Federico: I’m very excited to have Corbin jump in because we didn’t have him scheduled beforehand but we did get him scheduled earlier today, so I feel like we have a nice, rounded schedule, shall we say? The topic today is “Corbin’s Crystal Ball.” Before we get into that, let’s just talk a little bit about why that’s so important. Liz has referred to you as the father of event technology, how did you earn that moniker?

Corbin Ball: That was not my choice. I think I’ve had a lifelong interest in technology. My past life was as a meeting planner for 18 years. I ran international, citywide technology meetings and so I was immersed with technology. I was working with Nobel Prize winners. It just became so apparent that technology was going to change everything. So, before the explosion in 1997, I decided there would be a market for someone to go out and speak, consult and write about this issue. I guess when you’re the first one to do it you can get to the top of the niche pretty quickly.

John Federico: Never hurts to be a first mover! Excellent. You threw out a few touch points there, points in time. The boom, that’s easily thirteen years ago.

Corbin Ball: Yes, it was 1997. So that’s a little more than that.

John Federico: OK. So a little more than that. Excellent. You not only were producing tech events but, of course, preaching the message.

Corbin Ball: Yes.

John Federico: Excellent. Today at 4.30-an hour from now-4.50, something like that, you’re going to be telling us about the future of event tech, based on trends that you’re seeing et cetera. No one’s going to see this until after the event, so we’re not actually cutting in on Liz’s presentation. Why don’t you share with us a bit some highlights from the talk that you expect to cover?

Corbin Ball: I’m going to start with being an analyst for this time, for nearly 15 years, I have never seen a more exciting time than right now in terms of event technology. It’s faster, things are more interesting, there are more opportunities, ideas a bubbling up at a faster rate than it’s ever been before. I believe that meetings are going to change more in the next five years than they have in the last fifteen years due to technology. A couple of the key drivers for that are the confluence of social media and mobile technology. It is really changing the experience onsite in very profound ways, and so that’s one of the terms I’ll be talking about, just the impact of mobile technology. I am tracking nearly 300 event app companies right now. And a couple of years ago there were not more than a handful of them. And so you can see this explosion that’s happening there. And it’s just opened up a whole wealth of ideas, of ways it can be done. And I used to call meetings “the black hole of event data management” because you had all the tools before and after but you’re flying by the seat of your pants during the event because you just didn’t know. And now we have the opportunity to track every click, to track ever interaction, to be able to serve a much richer and much better event experience to people by knowing what they want and what they’re like and where they’re going for it. So that’s one of the trends I’ll be talking about.

I will also be talking about open source technology and the impact; particularly for web content and design. There are companies such as, Joomla and others that now run some of the most significant websites around; eBay and New York Times and others and they’re starting to move into event space as well. What intrigues me about web content management, free web content management, and that’s what it is, Joomba has more than 200,000 plugins. These are building blocks that you can do just about anything with a website that you want. And so, the trend in the last ten years has been that event management has become web-based. It used to be shrink-wrapped products, but now it’s web- based. Now, what you’re starting to see is a whole range of tools that are coming up that are event management plugins and these are coming in at a fraction of the cost of standard event management software. I’m not really suggesting that people are going to go immediately out and drop their existing systems for doing that because there are some very good ones out there. But what I’m suggesting is that open source is going to drive the cost down for event software because there can be lots more options out there, it’s going to allow you to keep your website futureproofed essentially. I’ll give you one example; responsive web-design. We are entering into a post-PC world right now. There are far more mobile devices, mobile operating systems being used and sold than PCs right now. We must be developing out websites for four screens; HDTV, for PC, for tablets and for mobile phones. The ability to do that, for example, with a responsive web design plugin in WordPress becomes a lot easier than going to your web content developers and have them recode everything. It’s a streamline in cost as well.

John Federico: Sure. And we see a lot of that. Actually, we were just today chatting we encountered a new mobile app company and I visited their website on my phone and it wasn’t mobile- optimized! . The whole responsive web design movement, I think, is huge. The fact that it’s so easily accessible, to your point, is a great thing. So, what else do we see coming?

Corbin Ball: It’s just a multiplicity of things. I mean the whole area of virtual meetings. I saw a presentation this morning about being able to have cloud-based video production management. Instead of sending teams of people to do multiple track events, you can send one person, pre-set up cameras in events and then the direction is really done in a cloud-based manner, cutting the cost from tens of thousands of dollars to perhaps a thousand dollars, that’s another example. For all these things, the price for everything is getting lower because of these free tools for doing them, because of good ideas, because of the way people are managing technology. It’s getting simpler as well. You have to give the iPhone and tablet, iPad, credit; the design team there which has now been the standard for mobile devices everywhere, it’s finally brought technology that’s easy enough that a grandmother or a three-year-old can use. That’s such a game-changer when everybody’s carrying around a supercomputer in his or her pocket. That trend is going to continue: we are seeing exponential growth in technologies. Doubling recurs. A well-noted futurist has looked at technology in dozens of different ways. And pretty much every way you measure it, broadband penetration, processing speed, data storage cost, you name it. Every way you measure it, it’s doubling every year. If you follow that through, by the end of this decade-seven doublings-technology will be 128 times more powerful than it is today. That’s why I feel strongly that there’s going to be such an amazing change that’s happening in the next few years because of that.

John Federico: You mentioned a lot of things here: social, mobile event apps, open source, virtual events and the fact that the cost is coming down. What about the complexity? I know people, plenty of very smart and very effective event planners, who don’t know their Internet Explorer from their Google. They don’t know their Evenbrite from their spreadsheet. It’s not their forte. They understand the people side but not the technical side. How much does that have to change? All these other things I agree with and I see your point, but the usability piece and the grasp of the technology, I feel, could possibly be a concern. What do you think?

Corbin Ball: I think ease of use is the number one criterion for adoption. It’s got to be easy, it’s got to be simple, as I mentioned, so your grandmother can use it. That’s a key criterion for success with that and we’re seeing that. I think the one of the biggest challenges that meeting planners have right now . . . First of all, you put together an event, the analogy I use is it’s like putting together a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle with all these interlocking pieces and if you forget a couple of pieces you don’t have a full picture. People will notice if something’s missing. They don’t notice if they look at the picture and all is great. An event planner is juggling lots of balls and technology is typically not the highest in their priority list, they’ve got a lot of things to manage.

I think the biggest challenge meeting planners have right now is there’s a multiplicity of choices. They just have so much it’s just like drinking out of a fire hose. How do you sort through this? How do you make more sense out of it? That’s what I hope to do in a small way, what Plannertech has done, what you’re with this is help explain this process and make some better choices with it. The good news is that it’s getting easier every day and lower cost every day. I think that the future is bright for it and in a way simpler because everything has gotten web-based, essentially. You don’t have to have special software to download. You don’t have to have elaborate setups or all sorts of different AV equipment. You need a data projector, access to the Internet and a screen and of course the audio and stuff like that. In many ways things have simplified. Same for venues and meeting venues is that they . . . The key thing is provide good quality Internet access and wireless access. The rest takes care of itself.

John Federico: That’s a tough challenge, though, depending on the crowd. You go to a tech conference, a conference like this even where people are just very heavily into social media. A lot of venues believe that, “Yeah, we’ve got a rock-solid network!” until they encounter a crowd like this. And all of a sudden it brings the network to its knees. That’s interesting, too. That’s coming along. I think more and more they’re getting up to speed.

Corbin Ball: That will be one of the trends, actually, I’m talking about during the program this afternoon. Wi-Fi technology exists to make it happen, high-density Wi-Fi hotspots exist. They’re using them at stadia where you have 40,000 people accessing it simultaneously and create huge streaming video. Heavy bandwidth demands. Technology infrastructure exists to do it. It’s a complex subject that bandwidth demands are exploding because everybody’s bringing in multiple devices. They’re wanting to stream video, they’re wanting to do that. From that standpoint, meeting planners aren’t really ahead of the curve because they’re reliant on last year’s data and it’s whole new this year and it’s going to be even greater the next year. The venues are doing the same thing. The key thing is going to be, it’s a complex subject, and I think both meeting planners and suppliers need to educate themselves. It’s one thing for a meeting planner to say, “Well, I want free Wi- Fi.” The supplier should immediately respond with at least ten questions. “Sure, at what speeds? How many devices? What are they going to be downloading? Where they’re going to be doing it?” And on and on and on. It’s an education issue rather than a technology issue. Some venues aren’t up to speed, those will not either be just less competitive as people go to facilities such as this to do it.

John Federico: There’s a break between sessions. No, we’re not having a dance party for those of you who are listening to the MP3 version! There’s a break between sessions and they’ve been playing a little dance music. Clement just went to ask them to turn it down. I want to make sure we get a good picture of what your talk is going to be like, especially for those people who aren’t fortunate enough to be here. I do want to ask two more questions and then we’ll let you go off. Two questions. First is choice; 300 mobile apps. How is a planner supposed to understand the difference between Product A and Product B, or can they? Are they just so similar that now it’s just a matter of, “I like this logo versus that logo” or “I like this salesperson better than that salesperson”? What’s the tack they need to take?

Corbin Ball: One size doesn’t fit all for meetings, is one of the main things. There are lots of choices out there. I think that this is where social media can help, where your colleagues recommendations, where going to events like this and seeing and seeing the demos can help people to decide with that. Reading blogs, listening to podcasts, there are ways that can assist in that process. The way I see it, is there’s a multiplicity of choices, but you can narrow it down. Consultants can sometimes help with that, if you have a very big project. Meeting planning software can be expensive on a major basis but choosing the wrong product can be a lot more expensive . . .

John Federico: Much more expensive, yes.

Corbin Ball: And it depends on what level you’re trying to do with that. I think that asking your colleagues what they’re doing and checking the many meetings technology resources now can be a big as well.

John Federico: Sure. And you already hit my next question. I’ll just frame it a little bit differently: with all this technology, do meeting planners suddenly need to be CTOs and CIOs? Do they need to change their role or do they need to find people to complement their role to help them make these decisions?

Corbin Ball: I think that meeting planners need to be tech savvy. They don’t need to be a CTO but they do need to be tech savvy. They do need to look for people as their assistants or as their colleagues who are excited about technology, that embrace it and understand it as well. Technology is going to be the single strongest driver for the change in meetings in these next five years or so because of that. From that’s a whole range of social media tools and engagement tools and all the different things that I’ve talked about. To understand these changes is going to be very important, I think, a meeting planner’s job is-my past life was as a meeting planner and I really understand the value of what they do-but part of that is to really understand what’s happening with this or at least have somebody on your staff that understands how to do it.

John Federico: Right, a team-based approach doesn’t hurt.

Corbin Ball: Absolutely.

John Federico: Excellent. Well, Corbin, we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much. If people want to reach out and say thank you, how can they reach you?

Corbin Ball: At my website is an excellent way,

John Federico: OK, great, thank you.

Corbin Ball: My pleasure.

John Federico: So this has been the Event Tech Podcast’s coverage of Plannertech 2013 at the Convene event space in downtown New York. Thanks for joining us . . .