CMP Series

How Meetings and Events Can Leverage Personalization

Creating customized experiences for your attendees makes your event more meaningful to them.

Consumers are used to seeing these recommendation algorithms every day: Spotify proposes your next favorite band based on your listening habits. Netflix identifies new shows to binge-watch based on your viewing patterns. Amazon delivers the next books to read and shoes to buy based on your past purchases. As people have grown accustomed to these personalized suggestions at home, Chris Cavanaugh, chief marketing officer at Freeman, believes they will come to expect similar intuitive, one-size-fits-you-only suggestions from conferences and trade shows they attend. “People,” he said, “are looking for highly curated experiences.”

Chris Cavanaugh: ‘Every organizer wants their attend-ees to trust them.’
Chris Cavanaugh: ‘Every organizer wants their attendees to trust them.’


‘Every organizer wants their attendees to trust them.’

But turning a conference with tens of thousands of participants into an event that speaks directly to each individual attendee is no easy task. “As a conference grows larger, attendees may feel like the experience is no longer about them,” Cavanaugh said. “Instead, it’s about the size and scale of the crowd.”

Making that crowd feel more like a collection of individuals starts with gathering — and making sense of — attendee data. “You can’t really create hyper-personalized experiences unless you go back and analyze who’s coming, why they’re there, who isn’t coming, and how you might be able to get them there,” Cavanaugh said. “Then, you can use that data to better understand what your attendees think, feel, and believe to shape a more meaningful experience for everyone.”


That personalized experience starts with the very first touch point, requiring an under-standing of who prospective attendees are so that the event-marketing team’s messages — via email, social media, and other forms of communication — are highly targeted. “‘To whom it may concern’ no longer applies,” said Reed Exhibitions President Nancy Walsh, who is quoted in The Next Big Opportunity: Mass Personalization and the Art of Brand Experience, a recent white paper from Freeman. “What’s important is that we are talking specifically to our customers and that we can indicate that we know things about them — both for our exhibitors and our attendees.”

“Personalized marketing gives customers a sense of identity,” entrepreneur and small-business expert Susan Solovic said in a blog post on marketing-automation company Marketo’s website. Solovic added: “They cease to be one of the masses and instead become an individual with unique wants and needs.” Personalized marketing can pay big dividends, too. Personalizing an email message increases open rates by 26 percent, according to Marketo. However, the customized marketing must go beyond the subject line to include tailored messaging based on specific interests — such as the sessions and speakers most likely to resonate with certain attendees based on their job titles.

The personal relationship goes both ways. In addition to appealing to the individual interests of recipients, organizations must create a more human identity for themselves.  Consider how Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI) refreshed its approach to communication. Every week last year, CEO Don Welsh crafted a note with his personal updates. The email message, which is now sent out biweekly, comes from him, not the organization. “It was important for communications to our members to come directly from the highest level of the organization,” said DMAI Chief Marketing Officer Melissa Cherry, “especially as the organization transitioned leadership.”

IBM InterConnect 2016’s app gamified networking by awarding points to participants based on  the number of other attendees they met.
IBM InterConnect 2016’s app gamified networking by awarding points to participants based on the number of other attendees they met.


Jeff Sinclair: ‘Technology will be able to do the think-ing for attendees.’
Jeff Sinclair:
‘Technology will be able to do the think-ing for attendees.’

All the efforts to establish a human connection matter only if the on-site experience can live up to the hype. For this, more events are focusing on the mobile devices in attendees’ pockets, looking to unlock their power to personalize. When mobile apps first debuted at meetings and conferences, they didn’t do much to personalize the experience — their main purpose was sim-ply to replace a printed program. They’ve since evolved to foster interactivity, said Jeff Sinclair, cofounder and CEO of event-app platform company Eventbase — and he believes the events industry is entering a new era for the technology. “We’re seeing the rise of the intelligent app,” Sinclair said. “With the combination of data and location-based technology, mobile apps are becoming smarter. They’re using data to help attendees make decisions about who to meet, where to go, and what to do.”

Those smarts were on display this past January when more than 165,000 attendees powered up their smartphones at the global technology show CES to use a new mobile app provided by Eventbase. CES organizers wanted to make sure that the event’s record-breaking size wouldn’t leave attendees feeling lost. With more than 3,000 beacons placed throughout the show floor at CES 2017’s venues — the Sands, the Aria, and the Las Vegas Convention Center — CES attendees could easily find their way to booths they wanted to see, and along the way, they received notifications every time they were near one of their LinkedIn connections.

Sinclair said that the functionality was designed to make “big events feel small again” and to help attendees maximize their networking opportunities. “Rather than just giving attendees a long list of the attendees who are there, it’s important to be able to automatically identify the people around you at any given moment,” he said. “The most valuable potential connection might be stand-ing right next to you, but you could be like ships passing in the night. It’s a way to help facilitate more spontaneous connections.”

At IBM InterConnect’s ‘The Park,’ attendee interaction was aided by both the casual environment and beacons.
At IBM InterConnect’s ‘The Park,’ attendee interaction was aided by both the casual environment and beacons.

IBM InterConnect 2016, held at MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas last February, also leveraged its Eventbase mobile event app to fuel a more personalized approach, with networking assistance powered by beacon technology. The company partnered with LinkedIn to create “The Park,” an environment designed to look like a true public park, complete with benches to encourage more interactions. The app also tapped into participants’ competitive spirit with a game that rewarded them with points based on the number of other attendees that they met.

Of course, location-based personalization efforts are only productive if there is a reason for attendees to actually use them. Beacons rely on attendees opting in to receive notifications and enable the Bluetooth connection on their smartphones. 

“The key to encouraging users to keep their Bluetooth on is providing them with engaging, compelling content,” Theodore Conroy, digital transformation manager at IBM, wrote in a summary of his takeaways from InterConnect 2016 for Mobile Business Insights. “There is no spam folder beacons, so an unimpressed attendee will simply turn the feature off.”

In addition to pointing attendees toward the right business connections, conferences can use the combination of beacon technology and sophisticated mobile apps to direct attendees toward learning opportunities that make the most sense for them. The organizers of South by Southwest 2016 also worked with Eventbase to make finding the right education more convenient via the SXSW GO app. More than 1,000 beacons placed at 250-plus venues around Austin sent out push notifications to alert attendees about education sessions that matched the topics they had pre-selected for their profiles. 

“A lot of attendees don’t start planning their schedules until they download an app on the plane,” Sinclair said. “Some conferences have so many sessions that attendees are likely to miss something that could really matter to their careers. If a mobile app is designed well, it can make sure they participate in the most relevant programming.”


Today’s conferences and events have varying degrees of personalization, much of which can be attributed to the item on every planner’s mind: budgetary restrictions. But as more events allocate dollars to experiment with emerging technologies, those costs will come down. As of early 2016, there were approximately 4 million beacons deployed around the world, but by 2020, ABI Research forecasts that number will reach 400 million. Undoubtedly, hotels, convention centers, and other event venues will be among those imbedding sensors.

Beyond the physical world, there is another space where personalization will increasingly come into play: virtual reality. Cavanaugh points to VR’s explosion as another opportunity to give attendees more individual control over their experiences. 

“VR gives attendees the ability to decide which path they want to take in a virtual world,” he said. “They can physically do something that has a cause and effect. There will be new ways to infuse a greater degree of personalization into a range of experiences.”

For example, Cavanaugh points to medical trade shows. “Imagine putting on a pair of goggles and being transported into an operating room,” Cavanaugh said. “Instead of watching an experience, [each attendee] will be part of the experience, and that creates a new world of opportunities for organizers of face-to-face events.”

Sinclair agrees that event organizers are “only scratching the surface of the possibilities of personalization.” Over the next few years, he said, “technology will continue to evolve and be able to do the thinking for attendees.” 

Once event organizers leverage technology effectively, they’ll be able to influence the most important thought process of all: whether or not to attend. “If organizers can make it easier for attendees to find content and connections that appeal to their personal interests and needs,” Sinclair said, “they’ll be more likely to return the following year.”

Test Time

Earn one clock hour of certification credit. Once you’ve finished reading this article, read the following material:

The Next Big Opportunity: Mass Personalization and the Art of Brand Experience, a white paper from Freeman, available for free download here.

“The Psychology of Personalization: Why We Crave Customized Experiences,” a blog post from marketing company HubSpot here.

To earn continuing education clock hours, visit to answer questions about information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material.

The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Convention Industry Council.

David McMillin

David McMillin is staff writer at PCMA.