MD of exhibition consultancy Fine Thinking David Pearson looks at the pros and cons of RFID technology, and asks if the industry is prepared to take it up.
Two years ago, while working on the FESPA Digital exhibition, the event organiser introduced me to an interesting new technology that, on the face of it, delivered an interesting new approach to visitor data capture at events and more statistics than an event director could shake a stick at.
Since then, a lot has been said and published about Fish technology, but we're yet to see it in use at large scale trade events in the UK. As with any new technology, there are lots of grand claims about the potential of the system, but how does it fit with what organisers are doing now?
Talking to the product's UK representatives, the first thing is that Fish has no ambition to be a registration company or manage the entrances of shows (probably very sensible - it's hard work). Also, it has approached venues directly to install the infrastructure for its systems without publicly talking to the people whose feet are on the ground managing the entrances.
So it looks like we are having the Fish system in our industry. It has venues all excited and at least one major organiser has agreed to use it across the board on their events.
That still doesn't answer the question: "But how will it work with what we have already?”
Talking to the directors of a number of registration companies, the general view is that while they love new ideas, they are worried about the impact on a range of areas, not least of which is their revenue.
It's not a very well hidden secret that registration doesn't make any of its money from the organisers - the lion's share is from badge scanners and services to the exhibitors. Often, this charge subsidises an organiser's costs.
With a Fish system, registration companies lose this revenue stream, potentially increasing cost to an organiser and meaning that registration companies are effectively doing the same job for far less money.
Secondly, it adds an extra ‘layer’ to a visitor attending - not only do they need to have their printed badge, but they need to collect an RFID enabled badge holder that matches their record. While this is a quick operation, it will mean an increase in staffing costs at shows and generating artificial queues in entrances where previously there was entirely ‘self help’ or ‘fast track’ access to the event.
Next, it means that data entry on the entrance of a show needs to be live to the internet, fully networked and possibly not allow ‘short form’ data entry. This increases staff and equipment as well as infrastructure costs.
Lastly, there are the tags/badgeholders themselves. These are expensive items and the entire financial model hinges on getting them all back - with the best will in the world there will be a quantity of them that disappear completely. The model also needs a high percentage of exhibitors to take the service up - or for an organiser to include it as part of its stand costs. Potentially, this increases the cost per stand across the board and can make that organiser more expensive than competing shows.
Those are all the challenges in adopting the new system. The encouraging thing is that three of the UK's registration companies are actively working with Fish to create a model that works, both financially and in terms of service to the visitors.
What are the benefits to the organiser? Hopefully, a new approach to data capture for the stand will inject some life into the exhibitors. On trade events that include data capture as part of the stand package, still only 60 per cent of exhibitors take the service up and AEO research still indicates that the majority of those leads are poorly followed up.
The organiser gets valuable information on flow patterns in halls, dwell time in stands versus in gangways and you start brokering contact between people interactively rather than in a visitor to exhibitor flow. This last item is nothing that can't be achieved with two-way lead recording systems but the goldmine of information will have organisers, stand salespeople and the AEO's research report writing team overflowing with new facts and figures.
Reactions from organisers are mixed, many are playing their cards close to their chest with a ‘wait and see’ approach. One or two have been directly sceptical, commenting that it will only tell them things about their event that they already know for quite a high cost.
Marketing director at Centaur, Nolan O'Connor, falls into the more cautious group: "At the moment, we are focused on spending our budgets on brokering increased contact between our visitors and exhibitors as well as guiding how they manage their visit,” he says. “Anyone who wants to exchange details can do so using cheaper technology and the intelligence a system like this would give us would most likely prove interesting, but unlikely to generate significant new revenues.
“It looks to be a great system, but for the cost, not one we will be using on our events at present," he adds.
Many others, partly due to the high profile support the product has, are simply trying to work out how to deliver it on their own events.
Do I think the system is good? Yes, I'm a techie and I love new gadgets. Do I think it suits our market? Only on certain events, but there are those which will clearly benefit from it. Do I think there are significant hurdles to overcome? Definitely.
I firmly believe the technology has a place on events and I am looking forward to working on shows using it later in the year but I don't feel it will become ubiquitous in the way that barcodes have been over the last 20-30 years.
Every year I have an organiser call me and ask whether we can put in "an RFID system for their show". Finally there is a solution I can offer, and I'm hoping it's excellent. If not, well, the good old barcode will just have to suffice for the time being.