Online attendee management, including event registration, revolutionized the meetings industry a decade ago or so. Automated registration, by which attendees enter their own information online, means much less data entry for planners and thus many fewer errors. Groups save money while planners save time and headaches.
Since then, the innovations have been more evolutionary than revolutionary, with features such as cross-event reporting staples of professional-strength attendee management software.
But now a pioneer in online registration, San Rafael, Calif.-based Cardinal Communications, has released software for scheduling sessions and private meetings during events that promises, if not necessarily to revolutionize online attendee management, then at least to represent the next big step forward.
“We have in our hands the next killer app for the meetings industry,” says Cardinal Chief Executive Rodman Marymor, who in 1996 launched RegWeb, one of the first online event registration applications (he sold it in 2002 to StarCite). “We are in a position to leapfrog everybody else technologically.”
Cardinal released its new calendar application, ScheduleFlex, in July as a module that planners can add onto their event registration software. But Marymor already plans to turn ScheduleFlex into a stand-alone, event registration application by the first quarter of next year and provide data integration with hotel and air reservation systems by the following third quarter.
Noted event-technology expert, Corbin Ball, president of Bellingham, Wash.-based Corbin Ball Associates, is also enthusiastic about ScheduleFlex.
“This represents a substantial advancement,” he says. “It is state-of-the-art.”
ScheduleFlex is built on Adobe Systems’ Rich Internet Application technology, Adobe Flex, which came to the fore last year among software developers as a way to improve the interactive experience of online users. Although users would typically access ScheduleFlex via a Web browser, the application actually operates in Adobe Flash, software common in most computers that enables the animation and interactive features seen on many websites.
Cardinal’s software features drag-and-drop functionality, whereby attendees can click on session titles from a searchable database and then drag the session onto a personal event calendar. They can also reserve time slots for one-on-one meetings at exhibitor booths.
Thanks to Adobe Flex, the process is much quicker and smoother than with previous Web programming technologies, according to Ball.
“It doesn’t require a lot of system resources,” he says. “That’s why it’s so quick and can handle large amounts of data.”
Essentially, Adobe Flex gathers up all the data an attendee needs to schedule breakouts and individual meetings at the beginning of the online session, sending the data to the attendee’s computer.
Less-advanced Web technology sends data back and forth between the event website server and the user’s computer when the user clicks on selections, thus slowing response times and placing heavier loads on the event producer’s servers.
The new technology is especially helpful for meeting planners who must manage a large number of breakout sessions. Planners can easily reschedule session times, for instance, and the system will show attendees not only the changed time but whether the session conflicts with previously scheduled sessions.
Planners can also limit session seat capacities or allow over-booking in anticipation of opening an overflow meeting room. They can assign sessions to certain audience groups such as presenters or employees while blocking others from even seeing those sessions, and they can track in real time session sign-ups and cancelations.
ScheduleFlex was subject to a beta test last March at the annual Lawson Software Conference and User Exchange in Las Vegas. Nearly three-quarters of the 5,000 people attending the event used ScheduleFlex to sign up for about 1,100 sessions, including sessions scheduled exclusively for 650 Lawson employees.
Sonja Lundeen, manager of event technology services for Triad Conferences in Minnetonka, Minn., an event management company, pronounced ScheduleFlex a success.
“For me, using this system was a great improvement over what we had before,” Lundeen says. “On the back end, it was so easy to manage sessions, meeting rooms and presenters, and it was easy to update sessions and records. And on the front end, we got comments back that it was user-friendly.”
On the negative side, Lundeen says that ScheduleFlex’s online calendar cannot be downloaded to portable communications devices like smart phones; attendees can only view their personal calendars on a computer or print them from an Adobe PDF.
Jeff Rasco, president of Attendee Management Inc., an event-registration company near Austin, Texas, also faulted ScheduleFlex for failing to include a social networking component, whereby meeting goers can search for other attendees with similar interests and then exchange messages with them. (The one-on-one meeting scheduler allows attendees to select time slots for individual meetings at set locations, but it does not allow the other parties to respond.)
Overall, however, Rasco praised ScheduleFlex after viewing a demonstration. He estimated that his staff could create a digital event catalog in one-third the time with ScheduleFlex as compared with older technology. “For one meeting we’re doing this fall,” he says, “we probably can turn a 100-hour design job into a 30-hour job using ScheduleFlex.
“I can’t wait to show it to three clients for meetings next year,” Rasco continues. “If I can use it for those three programs, that’s going to make our lives so much easier, and it will make things a lot easier for attendees, too.”
ScheduleFlex could also save event producers money if the savings in labor costs supersede the application’s price. Cardinal declined to provide pricing information other than to say it is offering an introductory discount throughout this year.