Behind the Scenes

Where the Meetings Industry Needs to Catch Up

Every meeting generates tons of information. So when it comes to big data, why does the industry lag behind?

Dr. Carolyn McGregor, research chair in health informatics at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, studies premature babies. Premature babies are vulnerable to infection, and early detection — and therefore, careful monitoring — is critical to their survival. McGregor collects 16 real-time vital signs — a thousand data points per second — for each baby in her study group. By doing big-data analysis, Big Data author Viktor Mayer-Schönberger said during a presentation to the University of Maryland’s Future of Information Alliance, McGregor is able to predict the likely onset of an infection 24 hours before the first symptoms appear. “That’s the power of big data,” Mayer-Schönberger says. “Big data saves lives.”

The meetings industry may not be in the business of saving lives (except, of course, for those medical conferences that present lifesaving breakthroughs). But it could be argued that big data — the subject of this month’s cover and CMP Series story — is critical to our industry’s survival.

What is big data, exactly? IT research firm Gartner defines it as “high-volume (amount of data), high-velocity (speed of data, in and out), and/or high-variety (range of data types and sources) information assets that require new forms of processing to enable enhanced decision making, insight discovery, and process optimization.” In other words, it’s getting your arms around a massive amount of information, parsing it, and analyzing it in an insightful way.

It sounds pretty intimidating, but as Convene contributor Michelle R. Davis writes in “Crunch Time,” chances are, you’re already collecting that information at your events. Apps, software platforms, and other new technologies are making it easier than ever to capture intelligence on everything from attendance patterns to purchasing behavior to venue costs. The trick is converting that data into something understandable and actionable — and that’s where we’ve got some catching up to do.

We’re only “on the very starting edges of the whole phenomenon,” George P. Johnson’s David Rich tells Convene. I think Marie Hunter, senior director of meetings, conferences, and events for IEEE, nailed the reason why. “The folks who interpret this data need to be experts in both the data analysis and the subject matter itself,” she says in our story. “Those are skill sets that don’t currently exist.”

But those skill sets nonetheless will need to be honed, and likely will become a subspecialty of meeting professionals — an exciting prospect for a role that is constantly evolving. That’s part of the appeal for many of PCMA’s 20 in Their Twenties winners, who are already making waves in the meetings industry. These rising stars are digital natives, and a few of them told Executive Editor Christopher Durso that their passion lies in integrating technology into meetings. For them, wrestling with big data may not be such a big deal.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.