Welcome to the convention of the future. Salespeople you've never met will approach you with an uncanny, maybe even unnerving,
familiarity and strike up conversations eerily close to your thoughts.
Signs and data centers will flash messages tailored to your interests, guiding you to displays, meetings, and products and services.
You won't need cash or a credit card to buy things.
Speeches and presentations will seem tailored just for you.
And kiss your privacy goodbye. Your boss will know which sessions you attended and how you spent your money. This is the George Jetson world of radio frequency identification—better known as RFID. The whizbang technology is making its way to trade shows and conventions from warehouses where it tracks inventories.
RFID is in Chicago, Las Vegas and other big convention towns, and is bound to show up in Indianapolis.
The American Heart Association used the technology at its medical trade show in Dallas in 2006. Financial, manufacturing and retail sectors have tried it. Even a convention for baseball team managers and operators in Chicago last year used RFID.
"It's just so much more dynamic and flexible than any other type of system previously available," said Gary Hobbs, CEO of locally based HTech Consulting LLC. "Like any new technology, it will require a different mindset to realize its full potential.
"But once that's done, watch out."
RFID technology may be new to trade shows and conventions, but it dates to World War II, when it was used to identify U.S. airplanes.
In the past decade, the technology has been adapted to everyday applications ranging from entering office buildings to rolling through toll lanes without stopping. In 2005, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and the U.S. Department of Defense mandated suppliers use the technology on pallets, crates and boxes.
Trade show organizers have tracked attendees with bar codes on tags for more than a decade. But RFID takes trade associations, convention operators and convention centers to a whole new level.
Attendees feed information about themselves to show organizers, who in turn put the information into a central computer system which corresponds with numerical codes on RFID tags the size of postage stamps. During the convention or trade show, the information is transmitted to remote receivers, which helps vendors, speakers and attendees communicate.
RFID can hold much more information than bar codes, and the data can be added and deleted on the fly. Unlike bar codes, RFID tags don't require line of site: Multiple RFID tags can be read simultaneously and the tags have much greater range—as far as 1,000 feet—than bar codes.
The tags transmit and pick up information from readers placed at strategic locations around shows. Readers are often placed at doorways, but also can be put at kiosks or other stand-alone stations.
In most cases, an exhibitor or vendor asks an attendee if the information can be scanned from the attendee's tag to ease making contact in the future.
Exhibitors gain a huge edge, the technology's promoters say.
"You don't have to wait until a trade show is over to cultivate leads," said Mark Roberti, founder and owner of New York-based RFID Journal, an international trade publication. "You can know exactly who you are talking to on the spot. That can help in the sales and demonstration process immensely."
In the future, and even in a few isolated instances now, RFID is capable of much more.
RFID readers at a medical trade show, for example, can notify exhibitors when a surgeon walks by. A diesel engine mechanic can be pointed by electronic signs to booths, courses, group meetings and product demonstrations.
Trade show organizers get a leg up, too.
A medical trade show operator could divine in real time that 65 percent of attendees at the meeting in Room 100 are doctors. So event organizers could quickly stack by the exit door registration kits for a physician-related conference a few months away.
If traffic dries up in Section A (where there are more than a few dues-paying exhibitors), event organizers can whisk in coffee and doughnuts or other attractions to generate interest.
If an usually large percentage of attendees leaves during a keynote speech, the topic or speaker could be re-evaluated for the next conference.
RFID also arms speakers and presenters with a wealth of information. Small monitors tell who is entering the room. If a presentation seems particularly relevant, the speaker may have tweaked it just for you when you walked in.
RFID readers—which, unlike bar code readers, don't require a person to operate—also allow trade show organizers to track human traffic flow in real time.
"Congestion issues can be addressed, and dead areas can be enlivened," Roberti said. "It even allows event organizers to more efficiently locate a particular person at a large show."
Though some in the trade show/convention arena debate its value, there's little doubt it's here to stay, said Gregg Maggioli, founder and owner of Blue Bean LLC, a Carmel based RFID consulting, sales and implementation firm. The technology is so powerful, he said, it gave birth to his company's name.
"RFID technology is so precise, it can track a blue bean shipped in a truckload of white ones," Maggioli said.
A study by Chicago-based consulting giant A.T. Kearney found that RFID could save manufacturers and retailers $1,200 per container shipment due to less shrinkage and fewer out-of-stocks. No such studies have been done with respect to the trade show/convention sector, but HTech's Hobbs said the technology could have a similar impact.