Beacon of Intelligence

At PCMA’s Convening Leaders 2018, beacons were placed on attendee badges to gain insight about audience behavior — with some unintended results.

Attendees at Convening Leaders 2018.

Some people were puzzled to find small boxes beneath their seats while attending Convening Leaders sessions at Nashville’s Music City Center. Thinking the units were misplaced and in an effort to be helpful, several attendees brought them to lost and found. What they didn’t realize was that the boxes actually were receivers for beacon technology being used to track attendees  location via their badges.

The specific technology used — called Ping and created by PSAV — featured a small plastic tab on the back of each attendee’s badge. During registration, each tab was matched up to an individual attendee. The technology used Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) components to broadcast an attendee’s presence when they were near portable electronic devices (i.e., those boxes strategically located under seats throughout the center).

The beacon technology reported in real time which sessions and events were the most popular. The 700 receivers placed throughout the convention center were exceptionally helpful in picking up traffic flow, said Jason Paganessi, PCMA’s vice president of information technology.

He could look at a heat map to see where the most populated areas of the convention center were and, when the capacity of a room started to reach a certain level, it automatically kicked off an alert to the events team to start preparing for overflow.          

The returned receivers, according to Paganessi, ended up being the biggest obstacle to successfully implementing the technology during the event. “Everybody’s trying to be helpful,” he said, “but at the same time, they were kind of hurting our intelligence.”

Know Your Audience

Aside from that hiccup, Paganessi said that the technology was a big upgrade to previous data-tracking technologies — including beacons as part of mobile apps and radio-frequency identification (RFID) — used at prior Convening Leaders events.

The beacon-enabled badges are more reliable for tracking than attendees’ mobile devices, Paganessi said, because “people’s phones are different. Different technologies. Some people have widget-enabled phones, some don’t,” he said. Whereas RFID, an automatic identification and data-capture (AIDC) method that identifies and tracks tags attached to objects through electromagnetic fields, “was incredibly inaccurate, and incredibly expensive because you had to set up these huge antennae arrays at the room, so when you walked through the door the antennae would pick [that up].”           

Calculating the Return

Paganessi addressed privacy concerns that attendees might have by communicating that receivers were placed only in areas that would help gather insights about Convening Leaders sessions and events, which included the convention center and a few off-site venues. “The beacon’s not tracking when you go to the bathroom or what have you,” he said. “We put the receivers where we’re going to get value out of it.” As far as the value for attendees, the data that the beacons collected made it easy for them to earn CE credits.

While Paganessi was happy with the results, like with most experiments, he thinks there’s room for improvement. “The biggest learning curve that we had is that we could’ve tracked more. There were a couple of areas that we did not effectively cover, and I think we would’ve gotten a bit more event intelligence had we had a presence in those areas.”

From generating greater insights on the show floor and into attendee behavior to lead retrieval at exhibit booths, Paganessi sees a bright future for beacon technology. And when it comes how beacons help provide an  “understanding of the attendee journey on an individual basis,” he said, “there are already instances of that in play.”

Learn more about PSAV’s Ping technology at

Jasmine Zhu