Joe Rominiecki is a contributing editor to Associations Now.
Digital signage is more than just a shiny, electronic version of the standard foamcore posters and easels outside your meeting rooms (though that's a good start). Associations that are converting to digital displays are reaping the benefits of live updates, engaging video, interactive experiences, and new revenue opportunities at their meetings.
There's a memorable scene in the 2002 sci-fi thriller Minority Report that imagines the future of digital signage. As main character John Anderton walks through a shopping mall in the year 2054, sensors scan his retinas and video advertisements on the walls call out to him by name: "John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right about now!"
It's only 2015, but that future may not be so far off. Flat-screen displays have grown bigger, sharper, and cheaper over the past decade, while internet access is now nearly ubiquitous, and consumers lead ever-more connected, digital lives. Tech-analysis firm International Data Corporation forecasts spending on digital signage in retail settings to grow from $6 billion in 2013 to $27.5 billion in 2018.
In meetings and tradeshows, excitement around digital display technology is also growing. At the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, for example, about 70 percent of events take advantage of its in-house digital display network, up from about 30 percent when it was first installed in 2010, says St. Elmo Crawford, president of Digital Conventions, which operates the displays.
"Digital signage just makes it look so much more professional," says Aimee Gabel, MSOD, director of education and professional development at Solar Energy Trade Shows, a joint venture owned by a pair of associations in the solar industry. "You walk in and you're just wowed. You know that this isn't your father's or your mother's tradeshow. This is something different. This is something in the modern age."
A modern look makes a good impression, but associations deploying digital signage at their meetings are finding the benefits run deeper, improving the attendee experience through more up-to-date information, clearer wayfinding, and engaging interactivity—and that may just be scratching the surface of what it can do.
In July, the annual convention of the American Veterinary Medical Association featured 1,030 individual education sessions, spread out across 44 rooms over four days at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Deidre Ross, MHA, CMP, CAE, director of conventions and meeting planning at AVMA, says printing and manually placing signs for all those sessions and all those rooms would be "a big pain in the butt" for her eight-person event team—hence AVMA's use of digital meeting-room signs.
Digital Signs and Dollar Signs
Worried about the cost of adding digital signage to your association's conference? Consider these tactics for trimming the investment or realizing returns in other ways.
Start small. "If you can't make all 10 rooms with digital signs, maybe you try two and test it out and see if it's something that works for you," says Veronica Mooney, director of new markets and education at Solar Energy Trade Shows.
Skip the network connection. Connecting displays to the internet is one of the biggest potential costs and challenges. Uploading content to the displays manually, perhaps on a daily or as-needed basis, can be a savings opportunity. Updates won't be as fast as with networked displays, but they'll likely still be faster than printing new signs.
Find a venue with displays built in. Meeting venues are seeing the trend, too, and getting on board. A common theme among venues highlighted in the Professional Convention Management Association's 2014 Best in Show "High-Tech Venues" category was their impressive digital display installations.
Consider reduced expenses elsewhere. How many print signs can a digital display replace? And how much time do preprogrammed displays open up for your event staff to do other things? "To have one person dedicated to signs for meeting rooms would not be an efficient use of our time because we're so small," says Deidre Ross, MHA, CMP, CAE, director of conventions and meeting planning at the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Working with audio/visual provider PSAV, AVMA placed a 55-inch flat-screen monitor outside each room to display information on the current education session as well as the title and time of the next session. The displays were networked and managed from a central location, enabling updates or changes with a few keystrokes. "It keeps my staff happy to think that they don't have to do all this extra work," Ross says.
Informational signage is the low-hanging fruit of the digital display opportunity, says Richard Reid, vice president of business development at The Freeman Company, and it's where most of Freeman's clients start with digital signage. Meeting room signs are often accompanied by full-schedule signs—"what I call the airport schedule signs," Reid says—and from there meeting organizers can add signage for other purposes, such as news feeds, announcements, and sponsor logos.
Even the simple ability to cycle through multiple images on a digital display is big advantage.
"The last year when we had printed signs, I think we had seven different meter boards outside each entrance of the expo hall talking about different things, which was obviously ridiculous. You can't see anything with that many signs," says Mark Bogdansky, vice president of exhibit operations at the National Retail Federation. Now NRF displays all the same information via a single digital sign that loops through multiple images.
Where digital displays leap ahead of print signage is their potential for attendee interaction and engagement. For the past eight years, NRF has also deployed touchscreen kiosks for wayfinding on the expo floor of its two annual tradeshows.
Evan Shubin, president and cofounder of Atlas Event Technologies, which provides NRF's wayfinder kiosks, says they offer a step up over the paper map.
"An attendee can search on keywords or exhibitor name or session titles, and they can easily identify what they're looking for. They not only get more information about it but get a very specific location and rough walking directions as to where that location is," he says. Attendees can also search by product category and get directions to education session rooms.
What was once a novelty is now a popular tool, Bogdansky says. "We've found that over the years [attendees] get more and more comfortable using specific systems," he says. "The first year that we did it we definitely didn't get as much usage as we did the second year and so on."
In the age of the selfie, social media integration is proving popular, too. Tweets, Instagram photos, and even competition leaderboards—for expo scavenger hunts or pedometer challenges, for instance—can all be streamed to digital signage. "People love to see themselves on the digital signs, so we do try to have as much social engagement as possible in as many locations as we can," Bogdansky says.
While digital signage can get costly quickly, it can create new opportunities and efficiencies that can make the investment worthwhile.
The capacity for live updates to digital display information, for instance, saves time and effort for meeting planners. Some AV firms package digital signage with event management software, meaning the display information runs from the same set of data that powers the conference website, registration, and back-end logistics.
CadmiumCD provides such a package to Solar Energy Trade Shows (SETS). "When a speaker submits their photo two days before the conference, it's automatically in the speaker-ready system, and it's automatically keyed up to the digital signs without [the meeting planners] having to go in and do something special," says Peter Wyatt, CadmiumCD cofounder and chief technology officer.
On-the-fly changes can also help with overflow. The American Heart Association has used its digital meeting room signs to broadcast a full room's presentation to attendees outside the room, says Reid.
Meanwhile, big, bright, high-definition screens make advertisements and sponsor logos shine. Gabel says SETS is drawing advertisers who want to buy video ad time on digital displays at its 2015 conference. At NRF's tradeshows, about 60 percent of exhibitors pay to have their logos included on screen in their listings on wayfinding kiosks, says Bogdansky. And Crawford, of DC's convention center, says displays allow planners to "brand the space" when they host a meeting. "We've found that large displays sell, especially for sponsorships," he says.
From a hardware standpoint, digital display technology will only continue to get sharper, cheaper, and—for the green-minded meeting planner—more energy efficient. Reid saw cutting-edge "8K" TVs at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show and wrote for Freeman's blog that the ultra-high-resolution screens may one day revolutionize poster sessions at scientific and medical conferences.
"The trend is going to move significantly toward not just viewing information on a loop but being able to interact with the signage yourself," he says.
Pairing digital signs with people-tracking technology will open new doors, as well. Wyatt says his company is working on integrating Bluetooth beacons with its displays, which communicate with mobile devices that pass within close range. Potential uses include automatically surfacing the corresponding session's handout materials on an attendee's smartphone as she enters the room, as well as tracking the number of attendees in a room to indicate remaining capacity on signs.
Shubin says NRF's wayfinder kiosks already track aggregate usage data, but badges with RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips could let it track users on an individual level. "That data obviously can be valuable to the show and valuable to sponsors and exhibitors and give us a much stronger sense of exactly what people do and how they use the wayfinders," he says.
For Gabel, the opportunities for digital signage to create a future-focused environment are too great to resist.
"If what you're trying to do is bring your show into a modern age or sell an upscale event or really think about how to bring more value to your speakers and your sponsors and the session content, I think this is an easy way to accomplish that goal," she says.
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "All Signs Point to Digital."]