How Tech is Changing the Events Game
As technology rapidly changes the way humans interact, the events industry is evolving with it. Businesses look to the hospitality sector to help them bring together customers and employees. When companies gather people for a conference, annual meeting, or employee celebration, they want their events to reflect the digital world we live in.
Twin Cities Business interviewed event planners, caterers, and other experts to learn about the latest industry technology and how it’s enhancing the impact of business events in the Twin Cities area.
Setting the bar
Once upon a time, event planners, caterers, and other industry professionals had to wait for magazines or other publications to be published before they could check out the latest and greatest trends. Today, the internet and social media provide a constant stream of ideas 24/7. Whether it’s scrolling Pinterest categories or watching Instagram Live, there’s no shortage of inspiration coming from the web.
“We’re really able to identify trends as they’re emerging or, hopefully, slightly ahead of that,” says Christie Altendorf, senior event planner and marketing manager of D’Amico Catering and former president of the Minneapolis-St. Paul chapter of the International Live Events Association.
“Inspiration is so much more accessible than it used to be,” says Jessica Barrett, executive director of Minneapolis venue Machine Shop. “It’s no longer just what you’ve seen yourself in real life or what your friends did. You can see what someone did at a wedding or event in Germany or New Zealand and draw inspiration from that.”
Barrett says she has a worldwide network of friends on social media in the events industry. “I can watch their [Instagram] Stories and see what they’re setting up right now and send them a message and say, ‘What is that? Tell me about it!’ ”
Social media’s influence goes beyond the pretty pictures. “I’ve seen specifically how technology has really impacted the catering world in that it’s really just educated our clients to a level that I don’t think any of us expected to happen so quickly,” says Altendorf, who’s been in the events industry for 12 years.
People are more knowledgeable about diverse topics like nutrition, packaging, sustainable agriculture, and waste; they’re vegan, gluten free, dairy free—you name it. Recently, one of Altendorf’s clients came in with a dietary regime Altendorf had never heard of. “She essentially gave me a list of the things she could eat, because that was easier than telling me what she couldn’t eat,” Altendorf says. “Years ago, nobody was working to incorporate that sort of thing into large-scale events.”
Amy Zaroff, founder and creative director of Amy Zaroff Events + Design, loves helping her clients build “shareable moments” into their events—moments of engagement that can be shared with the outside world via social media.
Speakers often encourage audience members to post on social media with a specific hashtag during events. That approach involves the ever-popular tagboard technology, where posts on social media with a specific hashtag show up on a screen at an event. “Not only does it promote engagement and sharing it out, but it also makes you see or realize, ‘Oh, that person’s here. I need to find them,’ ” Zaroff says.
Then, of course, there are the photo moments—something Jacob Stewart specializes in. In 2005, Stewart founded The Traveling Photo Booth in Minneapolis, creating the software to run it in-house. Now, the business has expanded to more than a dozen cities across the country and provides photo booths, stands, and even a photo camper for rent.
“People want a low-cost way to give their guests something to take with them,” Zaroff says.
Plus, Stewart adds, corporate clients can use the photos to promote brand awareness and gather information. The Traveling Photo Booth offers clients the chance to customize photo templates and skins with logos, overlays, and more. People also can text themselves their photos from the machine, which an average of 70 percent of attendees do, Stewart says.
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“Now our customers can personalize the text message that users receive,” Stewart says. “A lot of times, clients will put a call to action in the text—maybe it will say, ‘Great pic! Visit our website to enter into a drawing’ or ‘Be sure to check us out here’ or some other touchpoint.” Not only can users share the branded content on social media, but the machine can also collect contact information on behalf of the client.
A double-edged sword
As event specialists are quick to point out, though, social media has its drawbacks. “When you want people to tweet out and you want people to hashtag and put stuff on Instagram, you’re also encouraging them to look down [at their phones] throughout the event,” Zaroff says. “So you have to be really strategic in how you use the technology so they can still take in information, process it, and then decide when those shareable moments will be.” Often, she says, she encourages event speakers to carve out a little time within their presentations to pause, so people can use social media. “Otherwise, their heads are down, and what are they really absorbing?”
D’Amico’s Altendorf and Ashley Fox, owner of Woodbury-based floral business Ashley Fox Designs, agree on social media’s mixed impacts. Fox frequently asks her clients to find pictures of things they like on Pinterest so she can identify their design tastes. But, she says, it’s often challenging to make them understand that not everything on Pinterest fits every budget.
Likewise, Altendorf says, there’s “a fine line to walk with clients and explain that something is a beautiful picture, but that ice cream cone display is going to realistically melt within 30 seconds.” When clients want something that isn’t practical, she works to identify what they find so inspiring in the picture so they can realize their idea more realistically.
Altendorf nonetheless loves that social media makes space for creativity. “No longer is [event planning] just showing a client a menu and they’re picking out chicken or fish,” she says. “People see things that really resonate with them, inspire them—that they feel like is a true reflection of their brand.” She notes that clients can now bring all those ideas to planners. “Technology helps them be able to articulate those [ideas] better, so that’s pretty cool,” she says.
WiFi at events is pretty much a no-brainer as we close in on 2020. But it’s no longer enough.
“It’s all about bandwidth and how many unique users are on the system at one time,” says Jeff Johnson, the 15-year executive director of the Minneapolis Convention Center. Now people have a phone, a tablet, a laptop, maybe a watch, all connected to the WiFi.
“Many events are coming in with apps that they want their attendees to be on or social media platforms that they want their attendees to be engaging with during the event,” Johnson says. “It’s been a real challenge and an area that I think just continues to grow and grow as more devices come into the building.” To keep up, the Minneapolis Convention Center has made major capital outlays every three to five years to meet growing needs.
Event photographer Alex Carroll, of Alex Carroll Photography, says WiFi connectivity is also important while he’s shooting events. Most new cameras connect to WiFi, allowing for the automatic, cordless transfer of photos from the camera to another device.
“I now offer a live-feed social media package where I can have someone with me just running an iPad,” says Carroll, who’s worked in the industry for 10 years. A camera app allows his client to “access all of the photos from my camera, pick and choose what they want to download, and really just curate an immediate social media gallery for the event,” he says. (He can also rate photos on his camera as he shoots, so that he still has quality control over which photos the client can access.)
Maple Grove commercial event photographer Justin Cox, of Justin Cox Photography, says he’s seen the same trends. “It’s not just about the way that [photos] are made now. Probably the biggest thing is the immediacy of being able to get the photos,” he says. “Before, just being able to see them on the back of the camera was a big deal. Now that’s ancient school. … Now I have customers who want slideshows within a couple hours of an event ending.”
Likewise, WiFi is one of the key technologies that keeps U.S. Bank Stadium scoring touchdowns with its private events business, says David Kingsbury, director of IT for ASM Global, which manages the stadium. U.S. Bank Stadium also recently added 5G coverage—a faster cellular network—which is a big plus for organizations that need to rent space for large events.
Mystic Lake Center, a venue Mystic Lake Casino Hotel opened in Prior Lake last year, has a distributed antenna system (DAS), which ensures clear wireless signals no matter where someone is in the 70,000-square-foot venue.
Staff at smaller venues, like the Machine Shop in Minneapolis, also understand the need for staying connected. Barrett says the Machine Shop has charging stations available during corporate events so people can keep their device batteries fully charged.
Gadgets and gizmos Tablets
iPads and tablets are proving to be major assets in the events world. They can be used for showing digital mock-ups of room layouts, event registration and check-in, auctions, technical controls, and more.
Brooklyn Park-based Auction Harmony, a company that uses technology to simplify event planning and maximize fundraising potential for charitable events, deploys programmed tablets for silent auctions.
Amy Zaroff recently used Auction Harmony for a charity event she planned for a client. “All you have to do is provide your bidder number, we type the bidder number on the iPad, it attaches the bidder number to your credit card, and you’re done,” she says. “That way, you as a guest are not holding a cell phone, holding a piece of paper, filling something out. The beauty of this technology is not only does it promote personal engagement with the experience, but it also allows you to enjoy the event without thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I just have to keep standing here.’ ”
At the Machine Shop, iPads are used to control fully integrated lighting and audio systems. “Standing anywhere in the space, I can turn on and off lights in different rooms. I can dim things,” says executive director Barrett. “We have some LED lights along the balances and trusses that are color-changeable, so if you want the color to change at some point in the evening, I can make that happen really easily.”
The venue audio system is also connected. Bands and DJs can plug directly into the Machine Shop’s soundboard, and levels can be controlled via an iPad.
There also are presets available for audio and lighting that make things even easier. “If you’re there for a cocktail hour and then dinner and then a performance, then I can set a preset, and the guy who is running the AV for that show can just hit the preset at the designated time,” Barrett says. “I can just hand it over and say, ‘Here’s your preset for A, B, and C.’ ”
Smartphones, of course, can be used for many of the same tasks as tablets. Plus, because pretty much everyone has one on them at all times, they can be used to make audience participation easier; instead of someone walking around with a microphone to take questions during a corporate meeting or at a speaking engagement, audience members can send questions to the speaker in real time from cell phones.
Projection mapping is an increasingly popular feature to customize events. Using multiple projectors, a picture can basically be “painted” on a surface with projected light and color. The Machine Shop recently used it during an event to portray a starry sky on the ceiling. “It’s a little more of an expensive technology, but I think it’s growing in leaps and bounds,” Barrett says.
Last year, the Minneapolis Convention Center added digital signage throughout its building—as well as four people to design and run it.
“Our brothers and sisters in the stadium and arena world have, for many years, had digital signage within their venues, and convention centers now are really getting to that kind of scoreboard-like digital signage,” says Johnson. “We now use [digital signage] to help our clients with branding and to help with sponsorship displays—they can now sell sponsorships on the digital signage—and it also helps us with wayfinding that gets our attendees to locations inside the building in a more efficient way.”
Not only is the digital signage useful, but it’s also more environmentally friendly, Johnson points out, because it replaces printed banners and signs. Other local venues, like the Mystic Lake Center, also use the technology.
Now the convention center staff is focused on understanding how each unique client can use the digital signage best, Johnson says. It’s a new challenge for a new age.
A growing number of businesses offer digital forms of entertainment specifically for events.
Sassy Lassy Interactive Events provides an array of games and shows to engage attendees. Sassy Lassy Trivia, for example, uses electronic scoring for fast, accurate results. The company also has software for large-scale scavenger hunts that allows for tracking and projection of how each team is doing in real time.
“Technology has changed how people work and interact, so much so that the industry has had to adapt to the very nature of how our audiences arrive at our events,” says owner Julie DuRose.
“Many of our games were born because no meeting planner wants to see a room with 300 people all on their phones, checked out from the event,” she says. “People will always be moved by live, unscripted interaction with other people in a way that technology can’t replicate. And wild, spontaneous laughter isn’t something you can program either.” Perhaps ironically, Sassy Lassy uses technology, DuRose says, to inspire these things that she believes technology can never replace.
Feedback.video also keeps audiences engaged with the help of technology. Owner Hal Lovemelt has created what he refers to as “the photo booth of the future.” It’s a modular machine that provides photo and video “experiences” with customizable, physical dynamic lighting options, body and face tracking, and other effects. In short, it’s a souped-up, modifiable photo and video booth. It can be fully branded and “provides endless high-quality shareable moments for users,” he says, noting “the tech of big show production is no longer out of reach for small businesses.”
Event security is also becoming more technologically sophisticated.
In an age where security seems more important than ever—as of Sept. 1 of this year, the United States had already seen 283 mass shootings in 2019— security for large-scale events is imperative.
“There are some products now that are coming out that could help us down the line do a better job with security,” says Johnson of the Minneapolis Convention Center. Artificial intelligence, such as facial recognition and cameras that can scan a person as if they’ve walked through a metal detector to check for potential weapons while they’re out in the open, can help ensure safety in the building. Plus, it alerts security without alerting the person being scanned.
“Convention centers always want to have this free-flowing, community feel” without sacrificing safety, Johnson says. “You can keep that if security and technology are watching out for you.”
Software and apps
With the dynamism of the events industry today, it takes a lot to keep things running smoothly. Appropriate software can help manage tasks such as scheduling, payments, planning, and more. Here are some favorite software products of events professionals:
Gather is cloud-based event management software designed for restaurants, caterers, and other small and midsized hospitality businesses.
“It’s very user-friendly, and it’s not overly complicated,” says Barrett of the Machine Shop, who uses the software to manage the venue and its bar.
Minneapolis-based Create Catering also uses the software. “It helps with everything from menu writing to scheduling to tracking how we’re doing with sales,” says event sales director Nicky Metchnek. “We can pull up all kinds of reports, [and] it allows us to track if we’ve lost clients and why.” gatherhere.com
Calendly is automated scheduling software that helps manage meetings and events simply and efficiently. Andrew Henley, owner and audio engineer at Henley Audio, uses the software to manage his schedule, which includes all kinds of audio work, including AV rental for events. calendly.com
Social Tables is collaborative event management software that helps with sales, planning, and event and client services. A favorite feature of caterers is the software’s ability to create accurate diagrams of event spaces.
D’Amico Catering, which serves as the exclusive caterer for 10 venues, uses Social Tables. “It allows us to upload a CAD [computer-aided design,or essentially a room diagram] of any of our venues—any room that you may find in any of those buildings—and it allows us to collaborate on what the layout and the flow of the event is going to look like,” says D’Amico senior event planner and marketing manager Altendorf. “It’s no longer a map of the space where you’re hand-drawing tables with little stencils to get those perfect circles. And it allows us to be very, very detailed.” socialtables.com
HoneyBook is a client management software for small businesses that helps with project tracking, sending branded communications, invoicing, contracts, payments, and more.
Event planner Zaroff says many venues, including Minneapolis’s The Neu Neu, use the software. “It allows you to customize your workflow process,” Zaroff says. Also, “every correspondence that you have is saved in the HoneyBook system, so not only can you look back at transactions for correspondence, but so can [your clients].” honeybook.com
Asana is an online team management software—with an app—that helps teams organize, track, and manage their work.
Zaroff uses the software for her business. “It has really helped us streamline our internal workflow and internal communications, and we can also assign a task to an outside person,” Zaroff says. “If I want my client to provide me with something, I can invite them in without them then seeing the entire project.” asana.com
Twin Cities-based food bank Second Harvest Heartland launched the MealConnect app in 2017 to capture prepared-food donations.
D’Amico Catering’s Altendorf says D’Amico takes advantage of the app whenever possible. When an event is over, if there are any safe prepared-food leftovers, they use the app to alert Second Harvest Heartland of the extras and to arrange a pickup.
“It allows us to be reducing food waste and feeding our community at the same time, and the manager onsite doesn’t have to track down a phone number or figure out who to call,” says Altendorf. “It’s literally five or six quick steps on this app and then, boom, it’s set and ready to go.” 2harvest.org
Tess Allen is associate editor of Twin Cities Business.