The Events Expert Interview Series #9: Corbin Ball

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We've been interviewing some of the smartest, most interesting event professionals around--sharing their insights, advice, and unique experiences. This week we sat down with Corbin Ball,  of Corbin Ball & Co., the longest-running site about meeting planning, tradeshow and events technology. As an event and trade show technology analyst, he is an internationally renowned expert on helping clients to save time and improve productivity.

1) With more than four decades of experience in live events, including 21 years of running Corbin Ball Associates, you've got a unique perspective on this industry. What one or two aspects of the events space have changed the most since your career began?

I ran my first meeting in 1979. Things have changed greatly since then:

  1. The industry grew up to be a real profession. In 1979, many hotel contracts were often a handshake.  There were no certification programs such as the CMP.  There were no event management courses in colleges. There was virtually no technology except for overhead and carousel slide projectors.
  2. The sweeping change in technology has transformed events and exhibitions. The first event software programs (Amlink and Peopleware) were written in 1984 for  mini-computers.  The first online forum started in 1993 (MPINet on CompuServe). The first web-based registration systems started in about 1995. Today, there is a web/cloud-based software program for virtually every part of the planning process and everyone (including technology laggards) are carrying around a smartphone.

2) And what concepts or characteristics, if any, have remained constant?

As I recently wrote in As Technology Changes Events, These 5 Things Will Likely Stay the Same for Meetings Today, I believe there are five constants that will keep meetings viable in the future: 

  1. Human gregariousness: Humans are social animals. We like to get together. 
  1. Social connectivity (the desire to meet with people of like interests): Meetings can be considered the original social media and associations the original social networking platforms.
  1. The value of tradeshow and exhibitions as marketing vehicles: For service-oriented, non-commodity businesses, tradeshows and exhibitions afford a great way to meet these service providers and gather information in a condensed, time- and cost-efficient manner. 
  1. People like attractive destinations and are enriched by the travel experience: Meetings offer busy professionals the opportunity to get away from day-to-day business routine and explore new horizons.
  1. Live events provide a much richer experience than virtual meetings: 30 to 60 minutes is usually the maximum you can expect someone to pay attention sitting in front of a monitor. But with face-to-face meetings—as long as people are informed, entertained and fed—event hosts can keep attendees engaged for days. 

3) What does a typical day look like for you now?

It depends. I spend about 100 days per year travelling for speaking, consulting and other engagements. My notebook computer (and a variety of other tech tools) allow me to have my office on the road.  When I am in my home office, I am writing, preparing presentation content, billing/office tasks, answering email and, usually, I spend at least 2-2.5 hours each day researching and reading content on technology. 

4) What's the biggest challenge you face in your work?

I think I share a common challenge with many event professionals: keeping up with technology change!  As this is my full-time job, I likely spend more than the average amount of time doing so. Innovation is alive and well in the events and exhibitions industry, and new ideas, software and tools are popping up daily.

5) What types of event-related technology do you use or interact with most regularly?

As an independent analyst, I typically do not buy technology products. The event-related technology products that I most commonly use are event apps. Also, I regularly work with a range of webinar platforms, speaker management tools (from the presenter’s view), and I am pretty proficient in PowerPoint as well.  I love looking for new event management ideas and technology at the many events I attend annually.

6) What do you see as the biggest trend(s) in events this year, particularly in relation to event technology?

I recently detailed Eight Meetings Tech Trends to Watch for 2018 on my blog.  A few of the key trends include:

Augmented reality (AR) and chatbots with artificial intelligence (AI) will enhance the attendee experience. Google Indoor Maps and newer products using beacon technology can provide conference attendees with a sort of "indoor GPS" system to find their way around large event venues. But as I note:

"Now, AR technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world...will soon be added to the arsenal of indoor positioning methods. Typically, this is done via your mobile phone camera...The benefits to event attendees could be significant, including step-by-step navigation of a venue or an exhibition hall. AR technology will also open the door to gamification options (a Pokémon-like event scavenger hunt?) as well as interactive booths, signs, banners and displays."

As for AI-powered chatbots, "The explosion of voice-activated systems such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home attest to the rapidly increasing capabilities of these systems. However, the voice interface does not work well in crowded environments such as a meeting room or a tradeshow...(so) text-based systems are starting to emerge as an excellent chatbot alternative to answer questions, to gather feedback and to engage attendees at events." There are several interesting vendors emerging in this space.

Cloud-based software will make an “event tech deck” and integration easier, Powerful event technology platforms and advanced APIs are making it easier to share data between applications for functions like event registration), exhibitor and speaker management, audience polling/engagement, event logistics, and data analytics and marketing.

New methods for friction-free event check-in are developing. Automated check-in terminals are becoming standard at many events. For smaller events, guest list check-in apps replace cumbersome paper check-in spreadsheets with mobile devices and QR code scanning. Beacon technology is also working to streamline event check-in, slicing wait time down to just a few seconds. And facial recognition technologies are moving into event registration, making event check-in up to five times faster.

7) If you could give event planners / marketers one piece of advice, what would that be?

I think the best professional decision I have made is to join (and become active) in professional associations (such as MPI, PCMA, IAEE, ICCA, and others). 80% of the volunteer work is usually done by 20% of the members. If you get active in your association, you are working with the influencers – the movers of that organization. It is one of the best way to make connections in this relationship-based industry. 

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