Managing an event with 18,000 attendees is a daunting task, especially when making adjustments in real time. But Cisco makes it look easy.

At the 2015 Cisco Global Sales Experience in Las Vegas, organizers used beacons to learn how people moved around the arena and convention hall. They learned which breakout sessions and food lines were busiest. They even equipped buses with sensors that reported the vehicles’ speeds and precise locations. The result? Optimized seating, breakout sessions easily accommodating high demand, food lines without bottlenecks, and a tightly run shuttle bus service.

It’s an example of crowdshaping—a marriage of design, facilitation, technology and even neuroscience that helps organizers refine events in real time. It’s a wide-ranging term that has the potential to improve logistics, crowd movement, and even the interactions between attendees. And with the advent of wearable technology, smartphones and big data, crowdshaping just may be the next big thing in event planning.

 

Agile Decision Making

It’s nothing new for organizers to make changes to events as they happen. But they previously relied on little more than gut instinct. People aren’t chatting with one another? Let’s walk around and make some personal intros. Is the post-lunch carb load putting people to sleep? Let’s offer afternoon coffee early.

But soon technology and data will drive those types of decisions. Let’s say a speaker is boring the crowd. If the room is equipped with cameras and emotion-detection technology, the speaker will know — in real time — that excitement is waning, allowing him or her to adjust their talk in real time. Such technology isn’t too far off. In fact, events hosted by Pepsi and Google used Lightwave biometric wristbands to sense sweat and physiological and psychological arousal—giving DJs real-time data to help them play the perfect music.

“We’re in the nascent stages of crowdshaping,” says David Adler, CEO of event-planning resource company BizBash. “We’ve been doing it for years without having any science behind it. … Right now, we can collect plenty of data. But nobody knows what to do with the data. When artificial intelligence becomes more readily available, we’ll know what to do with the data.”

 

Crowdshaping data can help cut down on bottlenecks with areas like food service.

 

Privacy a Top Concern

One aspect on everybody’s mind these days is data privacy. Those concerns have heightened with recent revelations that detailed personal information from up to 87 million Facebook users ended up in the hands of voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica. Watching Mark Zuckerberg answer questions from Congress is enough to sway any well-meaning event planner away from using implementing crowdshaping technology.

It’s just another reason why extra care needs to be taken to guard attendee data, says meeting and event-planning consultant Corbin Ball.

“Full transparency should be used when communicating with attendees. What is the data used for? What’s in it for the attendee? Opt-out options should be offered. Attendees must be given a clear explanation of what is in it for them to accept any types of tracking devices.”

Perhaps that should come in the form of a diary of booths they visited on an expo floor or a listing of contacts they met. Or it can be as simple as helping them navigate a large convention center or exhibit hall.

“If the benefits can be explained, they will be more likely to accept. It should not be seen solely as a tracking device for exhibitors,” says Ball.

Despite security concerns, the technology isn’t slowing down. In fact, Adler says we’re on the cusp of facial recognition becoming the “new holy grail in registration.”

“There’ll be less bottlenecking but it’ll bring up a whole new era of privacy concerns,” he says. “But don’t forget, most people sign up for these big events because they really want to go to them. If you have thousands of people coming to an event, you better have your stuff together in terms of privacy.”

For now, we’re still in the early stages of crowdshaping. In fact, less that 15% of event planners use QR code scanning, live polling, beacons, RFID wearables and heat mapping, according to Cvent. Meanwhile just 24% ask attendees about event session preferences and only 4 percent use beacons.

How can you get started with crowdshaping? Here are a few quick starting points.

 

4 Ways to Get Started With Crowdshaping

Analyze your attendee list: Where are they from? Why are they coming to your event? What are their interests? Doing a simple analysis of your list will help you find commonalities (and it doesn’t require costly technology).

Conduct observational surveys during the event: Talk to attendees. What do they like about an event? What needs improving? Get feedback in the moment. Either conduct fact-to-face surveys or use a chatbot, text or email to gather the data.

Learn what’s working for other event planners: Crowdshaping is still very new. So read up on industry publications to learn how the most progressive event planners are getting success.

Explore new technologies: Chatbots, beacons, RFID, heat mapping. They’re all increasingly useful tools, so do your research and learn about how they’re used. You should also solicit help from third-party vendors. Learn if there are low-key cost options to help you get started, or if you should sit back and wait until certain technologies become more mainstream.