Tech Forecast From digitalNow 2015

240 association executives gathered in South Florida this May to discuss how new technologies are shaking up the meetings industry.

 When business consultant Rachel Botsman’s book about the sharing economy, What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, was published in 2010, it wasn’t exactly an instant success. In fact, as Botsman told an audience of 240 association executives at digitalNow, held May 28–30 at Walt Disney World’s Swan & Dolphin Resort, when her publisher sent her an email reporting initial sales, she thought the number was a typo. She had sold 12 copies — and her grandmother had bought half of them.

A lot has changed since then. Airbnb, one of the most visible examples of the collaborative economic model, has become the largest hotelier in the world, and Uber is fast replacing traditional taxi services in major American cities. As the business world has caught up with Botsman, she has become a global thought leader, advising companies such as Google and Microsoft, and teaching the world’s first-ever MBA course on the collaborative economy at the University of Oxford’s Saïd School of Business.

Companies like Airbnb and Uber aren’t anomalies, Botsman told digitalNow, but rather represent a profound, technology-enabled shift that will disrupt many more industry sectors, including banking and health care. Successful organizations not only will learn to think differently about their assets, she said, but will excel at providing easy-to-use digital platforms that simplify complex processes and connect customers with one another. In the collaborative economy, technology creates not marketplaces, Botsman said, but “connected communities.”

I left Botsman’s session wondering what an Uber-style business model might look like in the meetings industry — and later that day walked into a session that gave me a glimpse of one answer. “Innovation Through Incubation,” presented by Alex Rudloff, chief digital strategist for TEDx, and Sterling Raphael, president of, was engaging in its own right. The pair talked about how organizations can accelerate innovation by bringing together small, agile groups who continuously develop and test ideas on a small scale before implementing them.

As I learned later from Raphael, he and founder Eric Schaumburg are launching a new model for the exhibitions industry: a cloud-based platform that allows exhibitors to consolidate much of the day-to-day work of managing trade shows, including assembling different vendors onto a single dashboard, managing shipments, and scheduling payments to and tracking costs from multiple vendors. Like Uber, the platform has the potential to radically streamline business transactions — and may disrupt or alter existing business relationships.

Connecting the dots for attendees between a global business leader like Botsman and a real-world meetings industry innovator like Raphael is what digitalNow, produced by Fusion Productions, does best. The conference included keynotes by Wharton marketing professor David Bell and business author and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan, whose book Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril is considered a classic on the psychology of denial. These were interspersed with case-study-fueled sessions on topics ranging from revenue diversification to online learning to leadership challenges shared by participating association CEOs.

 Receptions, generously long breaks, and stellar meals gave attendees opportunities to connect with one another and with presenters. DigitalNow annually hosts the CEOs of technology companies that are pushing the envelope. This year they included Niklas Jansen of Blinkist, a Berlin-based company that offers easy-to-digest summaries of nonfiction books, capitalizing on the increasing tendency of users to “snack” on content; and Terry Jones of Austin-based Wayblazer, which uses IBM’s Watson platform and advances in artificial intelligence to refine online-travel recommendations.

Thinking — and talking — about disruption is not always comfortable, said Botsman, who in an interview with Convene noted that the reactions by association executives to her keynote ranged from excitement to flat denial about the need to adapt. For leaders who are embracing the changes underpinning Uber and Airbnb, rather than ignoring or fighting them, there is an upside even if they aren’t yet sure exactly how to proceed. “They realize that this is a lens to get their organization thinking differently about creating value,” Botsman said. “A lot of leaders have talked about how it can actually inject a humility back into the organization — humility that maybe we don’t have all the answers.”

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.