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Why Can't All Of Our Data Silos Just Get Along?

The technology landscape in the event industry is fragmented. There are lots of platforms that do lots of different things. The problem is that many don't share data and functionality, i.e. they don't work well together. Integration would be immensely helpful to change the situation, but there is still pushback and a layer of complexity that many event professionals aren't equipped to address. Read about what's going on and what needs to happen to change the situation.

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Why Can't All Of Our Data Silos Just Get Along?

  2. 2. MPIWEB.ORG 67 What Integration Looks Like Pat Pathade, CEO of Fantail Consulting & Technologies, a solutions development and integration firm specializing in b-to-b events, describes integration as “the process of get- ting two or more technology applications to work together holistically. When something happens in one application, it reflects in the others and vice versa. When you have multiple applications exchanging data and generating new data auto- matically, you create an ecosystem that has value greater than the sum of its parts.” Integration is at the center of smart events. When an attendee registers for a meeting and her profile and session selections also appear in the event mobile app, integration made it happen. As she walks across the exhibit floor and receives messages from exhibitors whose Bluetooth readers have detected her wearable beacon and associated it with her registration details, integration is responsible. When she returns to her hotel room that evening and accesses an online summary of all her activities during the day, thank the connected ecosystem for that too. A SPECIAL SECTION BROUGHT TO YOU BY I n the future, data will automatically flow from one event application to another. It will always be up-to-date and easily accessible no matter what combination of technology vendors is in the stack. Event organizers and planners will be able to craft frictionless customer experiences and build datadynastiesthatwillkeepthemleanandcompetitive.Alothastohappen before those dreams come true. Organizers will have to invest in integration and technology companies will have to build applications with connection in mind. It’s not going to be easy. BYMICHELLEBRUNO WhyCan’tAllofOurDataSilos JustGetAlong? Event organizers have a lot to gain from integration. For starters, it eliminates the need to download a list of regis- trants from the registration application, upload it to the mobile application, download the enhanced attendee data from the mobile app and upload it to the marketing auto- mation platform every time there is a change in a record. It provides organizers with a view of the customer—what he likes, sees, wants, does—from every technology touch point and delivers data to help them develop personalized expe- riences, discover hidden audience segments, market with precision and realize new revenue streams. From Smorgasbord to à la Carte It’s not that integrated systems don’t already exist. They do. There are a handful of robust, multi-feature technology plat- forms that perform a variety of tasks from website creation to online booth sales to registration—and everything works well together out of the box. But no existing system can ever do it all. There is an explosion of best-of-breed applications that solve niche problems, and organizers want those too. In
  3. 3. 68 THE MEETING PROFESSIONAL JUNE 201668 THE MEETING PROFESSIONAL SEPTEMBER 2016 fact, organizers want the full-featured plat- forms and the one-off applications to work together and for the best of breeds to work with each other. The Association of Equipment Manu- facturers (AEM), organizers of several trade shows, made a decision to integrate their existing event technologies. They hired an event technology manager to oversee the solutions, data strategy and integrations across their show portfolio. A year-and-a- half ago, Bobby Hoffman was tasked with bringing AEM’s existing vendor group to the table and doing the hard work of deter- mining standards, mapping data fields and moving the process continuously forward. During Hoffman’s tenure, AEM has transformed the exhibitor experience. Companies can now use a single exhibitor dashboard to access multiple services from multiple vendors—housing, lead retrieval, marketing services, attendee list rental, sponsorship purchases and registration— with one login. The organization has imple- mented a two-way integration between the online exhibitor directory and mobile app and is headed toward bi-directional inte- grations between the exhibitor directory, mobile app and registration. Hoffman began his organization’s trek down the integration road with a face-to- face meeting of the group’s technology companies. “The purpose of the tech sum- mit was to bring people together, build relationships and get them to understand that they are all on the AEM team, and they have to act like team members,” he says. Each vendor brought its account manager, technology lead and project manager. The discussion wasn’t always smooth sailing. “Sometimes, it was a little bit of a battle, but a good battle, the same thing you would want from an internal team,”he adds. Organizer Apprehension Therearelotsofreasonswhysomeorganizers might shy away from integration. The invest- ment required is potentially massive. “We’re talking about getting the management team onboard to buy into it, getting the board to finance it and getting attendees to opt into allowing organizers to use their data,”says Joe Colangelo, CEO and co-founder of Bear Ana- lytics, a data analytics firm for event produc- ers, associations and professional societies.“It requires a lot of folks to change how they’re going to do their day jobs.” The return on investment of large-scale integration isn’t always clear or big enough for some event planers. Despite the across- the-board value that an integrated appli- cation ecosystem can bring to an orga- nization, much of the data gleaned from technology today is only being plowed back into marketing initiatives, Colangelo explains. So, the data insights and gains in net new attendees and exhibitors that could come from integration have to be absolute game changers in order for the potentially large investment to pay off. Even if senior management is open to the possibility of integrating all of the event technology the organization currently uti- lizes, there simply aren’t many case stud- ies to use as reference points. “The CEO is going to find out that the list of comparable events that have accomplished a big inte- gration is either extremely small or non-ex- istent,” Colangelo says. “He is going to have to think about whether he wants his orga- nization to be first or wait for some other group with deeper pockets to do it.” Vendor Resistance From the vendor’s perspective, there are costs associated with integration. Some of the newer application developers are busy perfecting their features and don’t have funding to also work on standardizing their data exchange capabilities. Established ven- dors with open application programming interfaces (APIs) are reluctant to work with best-of-breed newcomers over fears about data security. “We’re dealing with really important data, sometimes addresses and phone numbers,” explains Terence Donnelly, CMP, vice president of sales for Experient. “We’re not going to integrate with companies that aren’t following accepted standards.” Some legacy technology vendors are bearish on integration for other reasons. “Making it easy for other technology pro- viders to access your app is a business deci- sion,” says Fantail’s Pathade. “By allowing other companies to build new capabilities on top of your existing software, you’re potentially shut out of any opportunities to develop those capabilities yourself.” Drop- ping everything to integrate with a com- pany that might not even be in business the next day is another reason why some solution providers aren’t flinging open their data doors. Not all members of a proposed eco- system are aligned with a single service category. For example, some mobile app providers also offer lead retrieval services. So, when a planner requires the registra- tion system to integrate with a mobile app vendor—the former knowing full well that the latter is a would-be competitor—it doesn’t sit well with the registration vendor. In these instances, registration companies are not only resistant to integration, but are contractually bound to thwart it when pric- ing structures are potentially compromised. The State of Integration Two issues have to be addressed before applications can be integrated: connec- tions and data storage. Connection is messy in the event industry, according to Pathade. Many application providers still don’t have standard, well-documented and published APIs—the set of rules and instructions an application developer establishes to allow other software developers to access its data. Without standard or open APIs, orga- nizers have to initiate discussions with the vendors about how to connect. The discourse around data integration focuses on three main approaches to data storage. In the first scenario, one existing application in the ecosystem, an association management system (AMS) or a customer relationship management system (CRM), is designated as the “master” application and tasked with storing the most updated and enriched versions of data produced by all the other apps. While it’s a more available When you have multiple applications exchanging data and generating new data automatically, you create an ecosystem that has value greater than the sum of its parts. “ ”
  4. 4. approach, it’s also potentially more costly because it usually requires customization. A second approach gaining momen- tum involves the creation of an indepen- dent database separate from any of the other applications in the ecosystem. Some, not all, of the data from each application is automatically pulled into a smaller, pur- pose-built data warehouse. The indepen- dent application is easier to manage and maintain than a master application, which was originally conceived for a different purpose.“Keeping it simple by storing your most critical data from a variety of sources in the same language and in the same loca- tion lowers the barriers to data access and heightens usability,”Colangelo says. Athirdapproachisdistributeddatastor- age. In this scenario, when data changes in one app it’s updated in all of the apps to which it’s connected. Mechanisms are put in place to ensure the security and integrity of the data, and when an organizer wants to change an application in the ecosystem, he migrates data from the previous vendor over to the new vendor. In a distributed system, the organizer and every ecosystem member can benefit collectively from the data enhancements made by others. The HardWork Ahead Pathade says that it’s more about the will of the industry than it is about available tools and best practices for integration, which are commonplace outside the industry. “Even your smartphone is an example of an integrated ecosystem—all of the individual applications are connected,” he says. “If you want to take a picture and email it or post it to Facebook, you can do it easily. Facebook, Google, Salesforce and others have open, available and standard APIs. They even publish step-by step instructions and demo applications for use in connecting to them. Unlike a decade ago, questions about data standards or programming language compatibilities no longer exist. Data stan- dards have been defined and the computer languages for reading, writing, storing and reporting data are commonly available and well documented. There are even tools (middleware) for facilitating data exchange between applications when vendors don’t offer standard APIs or the languages used across the ecosystem differ. “This is not the wild west. We have the capabilities. It’s a non-issue,”Pathade says. It’s becoming clearer that event plan- ners are in a unique position to drive inte- gration. AEM’s Hoffman addresses integra- tion in his RFPs and contracts.“In every RFP you write, ask the vendor who they have worked with, what kind of integrations they have done and whether they have an open API,” he says. “Write the expectations and deliverables into the contract so that it’s legal. In our contract, we require atten- dance at a tech summit with other vendors where we will go through the processes we’re going to follow and map the [integra- tion] out.” Not all event technology companies will be on board with integration. But the alternative is equally untenable. As orga- nizers hone their internal processes, dedi- cate resources and achieve milestones one by one, the pressure will be on for solutions providers to capitulate lest they be left out of consideration entirely. Hoffman con- soles them with a little heart-to-heart talk. He tells his technology vendors, “I’m going to demand a lot from you because I want to make you better. I want you to push me because I want to be better. That’s what a partnership is.” n Michelle Bruno is a writer, blogger and technology journalist. She publishes Event TechBrief, a weekly newsletter and website on event technology. You can reach her at or on Twitter @michellebruno. SPECIAL SECTION Even your smartphone is an example of an integrated ecosystem. If you want to take a picture and email it or post it to Facebook, you can do it easily. “ ” MPIWEB.ORG 69