How Location-Based Technology Can Take Your Event to the Next Level

Seventy-four percent of smartphone users today enable location-based services, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.

While he was a freshman at the University of Illinois School of Engineering in 2008, Stan Chang was enlisted to produce the 30-page visitors guide for the tens of thousands of alumni, faculty, students, and community members who would come through campus for the annual weekend-long Engineering Open House (EOH).

In 2008, at the 88th student-run EOH — featuring exhibits and competitions showcasing engineering graduate students’ research — attendees wandered the university’s sprawling campus, searching for presentations they were interested in and voting for their favorites the same way they had for decades, using pen and paper. “We normally didn’t get much response,” said Chang, who during his senior year became director of the 2012 EOH, themed “Dream, Design, Discover!” Not only was it difficult to get attendee feedback, but with roughly 400 presentations scattered throughout more than 15 buildings, it wasn’t always easy for delegates to find specific presentations that suited their interests. So in 2012, Chang and his committee worked with Lextech, a mobile-app development company, to create a location-based app that acts as a virtual visitors guide.

The app uses attendees’ GPS coordinates and QR codes to help them navigate the campus and guide them to sessions they’re interested in, which they can mark with a star before arriving, crafting their own schedules. Attendees can also leave personal reviews, “so people can see where the hot exhibits are and gravitate toward those,” Chang said. Attendees can search for presentations by major, vote for their favorites, and scan QR codes at each exhibit for more in-depth information.

For remote attendees, the app also includes livestreaming video from EOH. “Students can engage alumni and people who can’t make it back to campus,” said Lextech CEO Alex Bratton, a University of Illinois alum who worked on the EOH app. “It was a great way to do community building. That’s one of the powers of mobile technology — how you can connect people.”

A sense of community is central to any event, and location-based technology helps amplify this culture of comfort and trust. “When I read the reviews, I felt more connected to the rest of the people that were visiting that weekend,” Chang said of using the app at the 2013 EOH, which he attended as an alum. “I could see what people were interested in and where the crowd was headed. We wanted to make something that was high-tech and easy for people to use, and I think the app accomplished that.”

Exhibitors were also encouraged to upload video demonstrations to the app, so attendees could view them before and after the open house. “It gives the event a much longer life,” Bratton said. “Nowadays, events are more about building communities of like minded individuals. The apps should be integrated into the strategy of ‘let’ s connect people.’”


The key for meeting organizers is to give attendees the means — through location-based apps — to make connections without overextending their reach. Case in point: At the 2013 New York Comic Con (NYCC), held Oct. 9-12, attendees were surprised to find an enthusiastic message tweeted on their behalf using the NYCC hashtag once they entered the Jacob K. Javitz Convention Center. Tweets like “I love #NYCC!” and “#NYCC is the Best Four Days of My Year!” were automatically sent out via the event app — without attendees’ knowledge or consent. The resulting attendee backlash is a case-study lesson in how not to use location-based services.

Mario Haneca, vice president of marketing at TapCrowd, a mobile marketing firm for events, said there are definite rules for meeting organizers to follow when offering location-tracking features at their events — and open communication tops the list. “A cornerstone to the long-term viability of location-based offerings [at events],” Haneca said, “is transparency.” That means that the meeting organizer must clearly indicate to the user how his or her location will be tracked, and for what purpose.

Haneca also advised that app users might be willing to share their location only if the return — “in terms of knowledge, financial advantage, or speed” — significantly exceeds the offering when their location is not disclosed. If attendee-location data is important to you, you first must make it clear to attendees that you are tracking them, make it even clearer why you are doing it, and then offer some kind of benefit for them to disclose their location.

At the University of Illinois’ EOH, location-based services are used for navigation and connection. Instead of requiring attendees to sign up with brand-new profiles, the university asks users to log in using their Facebook profiles — however, the school doesn’t post anything on the delegates’ behalf. Also, all comments go through an approval process before going live. This not only helps facilitate networking by putting names to faces, but also helps avoid any fake users or inappropriate posts.

“The keyword is relevance,” Haneca said. “When organizers apply location-based technology, they should not exceed specific thresholds.” TapCrowd implements the best practices from GSMA, an international association of mobile operators. The company’s Mobile Privacy Principles include important restrictions such as “collection of any personal information should be limited to meeting legitimate business purposes,” and users should be “given opportunities to exercise meaningful choice.”


In addition to facilitating data collection, location-based apps open up new revenue streams for organizers. Tap-Crowd’s location-based event apps allow sponsors to send targeted messages to attendees once they arrive on site. Based on the interests they’ve indicated, Haneca said, attendees “can receive suggestions for product demonstrations at the moment of arrival.” This feature was used at ESHRE 2013, the annual meeting for the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, in London last July.

When ESHRE’s app identified that someone had arrived at the conference area, based on the user’s specifications, it notified the attendee to “visit booth X to buy a product with discount Y,” Haneca said. “So organizers can sell lead-generation campaigns to their exhibitors.” Organizers can also deliver custom messages to visitors, so the information is relevant specifically to them. For instance, Haneca said, “all C-level profile information that can be detected in the registration information is combined with attendees’ measured location, so the app can guide them to special sessions for C-levels only.”

Tailored advertising and special deals are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to location-based sponsorship opportunities. In Las Vegas, MGM Resorts recently partnered with tech company Cisco to work on location-based apps for all of the hotels that MGM operates on the Strip. The goal is to have businesses make suggestions and offer deals based on a visitor’s location. This not only will increase sales by creating more engaged customers, but will monetize an otherwise free, non-revenue-generating Wi-Fi infrastructure.


Aside from location-based technology making it easier for attendees to network, navigate a convention, and learn, it can also add a fun element to their experience. TapCrowd once worked with a client to develop a “QRhunt.” “Given the current limitations of indoor navigation,” Haneca said, “we rely mostly on QR codes that we attribute to a certain location in a conference or trade show.” At this particular event, attendees could “collect” various codes by scanning them at the booths. “When 15 of them were scanned, attendees could participate in a contest and win VIP tickets for a Formula 1 race.” The alternative would be using GPS coverage and giving attendees the ability to “unlock” the codes by checking in at a booth, sans QR codes.

In addition to gamification, apps like Guidebook and Icons help attendees explore cities that are new to them. By utilizing location-based technology, these apps help identify tourist attractions and noteworthy restaurants and activities within the destination. “You just need to tap over the monument,” said Joanan Hernandez, creator of Icons, which guides users toward major tourist attractions in cities without using any maps, “and you get that information right away. It is not possible currently with a map, because it will become a book if you put in every single piece of information for a monument. That’s what people end up carrying, a book.”

To give attendees a more “lightweight” experience, colorful dots within Icons indicate to visitors their proximity to major landmarks. The dots change size and color as they get closer. When Hernandez launched Icons in Barcelona two weeks before the 2013 GSMA Mobile World Congress, he immediately saw a peak in usage. And during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, he saw another peak in usage of the London Icons app, proving that large-event attendees are finding these location-based apps useful and fun. “When people are visiting [a] city,” Hernandez said, “they need to know what to see.”


Apps locating attendees’ whereabouts based on GPS coordinates are just the beginning, according to Haneca and Lextech’s Bratton. “We believe that location-based technology can be a true driver of contextual information,” Haneca said. “This would imply that only functions are shown that are relevant for the location and context of the user.” For instance, Haneca said, when preparing for a trade show in advance, professionals require different information than when they are actually at the show. TapCrowd plans to release apps that send notifications to people based on their interests and proximity to meeting rooms, so prompts for attendees can be made in real time, making them easy to act upon.

“We’re really going to see [more apps] geared toward not just expressing preference, but more ‘Here’s what I’m in need of, and here’s what I’m looking for,’” Bratton said. “More of an active engagement, like automated matchmaking services for buyers and suppliers, but we’ve only just scratched the surface.”

Bratton predicts there will be more “smart agents” built into apps that are more acutely context-aware — meaning that apps soon will know not only your location but who you’re near and what those people’s interests are, too. He hopes the app used at EOH in the near future will be able to provide recommendations to attendees when they are within range of a session that aligns with their interests. “Not advertising-based, but something they’re personally interested in,” Bratton said. “I really think the power lies in how mobile helps us connect and build a community, in a world where technology can sometimes cause people to be more isolated.”


Do’s and Don’ts of Location-Based Event Apps:

  • Do understand your audience. It’s important to provide the specific information that you know individual attendees will crave, and not bog them down with push notifications that are irrelevant to them.
  • Don’t impose on your audience. Don’t ask for too much personal information or attempt to hijack their social-media streams (à la NY Comic Con). Give attendees autonomy within the app.
  • Do state the privacy settings very clearly for attendees. Make sure they know what is being shared and what isn’t. Be as transparent as possible.
  • Don’t roll out a brand-new app every year. Lextech CEO Alex Bratton suggests updating your app each year — maybe a couple times per year — to “push interactivity.” Upending and redoing an app every year will become confusing.

Sarah Beauchamp

Sarah Beauchamp was formerly assistant editor of Convene.