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A game of tag

Let's get one thing straight; the electronic tracking of our behaviour is nothing new. Be it a youth offender breaking curfew or a mountaineer plodding unwittingly toward an inescapable crevasse, we can tag them, trace them and get in touch. Most importantly, we can record their habits to learn from their activity and plan for the future.

In the brave new world of RFID-mapped (Radio Frequency Identification) and Bluetooth-enabled exhibition halls, the tag bearers are business executives and potential customers. They are walking, talking contributors to the future of exhibitors' businesses and subsequently, they are crucial to a successful exhibition.

Before we delve deeper, it's important to understand the science driving the technology. RFID technology, as used by US technology solutions provider Fish, uses electronic tags, in the form of a registration card or wrist-band, that can be read remotely and in real time on the exhibition floor by mobile phones and PDAs. This enables you, as the exhibitor or organiser, to track visitors' movements around the show, drawing your attention to their presence on your stand and afterwards to provide a detailed analysis of habits.

UK technology solutions provider Taap achieves a similar goal using Bluetooth technology and software loaded onto the aforementioned handheld devices. As with RFID, this enables tracking and interaction between exhibitors and visitors, only without the infrastructure required for RFID.

Fish has just signed a deal with UK venue the NEC, Birmingham, for the use of its RFID technology, a pact which continues a venue partnership programme that began with Excel London.

As well as tracking visitors, Fish¹s system can trigger stands to send customised and interactive messages to visitors¹ phones and PDAs in real-time. For example, when a VIP comes within 50 feet of a stand, a text alert is transmitted to the stand manager to ensure they receive a suitable greeting. It can also automatically deliver a customised message or presentation for that visitor.

Other elements of the design include staff intelligence, which tracks the behaviour of employees on your stand, and aisle intelligence; the ability to selectively attract the right demographic to your stand.

"Today the onus is on the show organiser to fill the aisle," says president of Fish Software, Michael Gilvar. "What our technology does is shift the onus back to the exhibitor in terms of getting the right people to your stand; you can identify all the people who you have failed to selectively attract.

"You may get 350 people at your stand, but using Fish technology the organiser knows there are exactly 5,654 people who spent their time at similar types of stands. From a marketing perspective, we can start to marry people together after the show who we failed to engage."

Fish has been a regular feature in the exhibition trade press in recent months, Gilvar spoke at the recent UFI Open Seminar in Portugal and his presentation was well received. Demand for his product is clearly there.

Taap, by its own admission, has been 'flying under the radar' in getting its product to market. However, in hiring a new CEO, former Microsoft UK sales director Gordon Smillie, and embracing the latest generation of mobile phone and PDA technology, it now hopes to become a major player on the world stage. The company¹s product architect, Steve Higgon, says its latest technology, VisitorSpace, will be released this month for Apple's iPhone, Microsoft Windows Mobile and Blackberry devices.

VisitorSpace, trialled by Reed Exhibitions at its International Luxury Travel Market event in Cannes, employs a network of Bluetooth tags positioned within a venue to deliver interactive applications for both business users and consumers. According to Higgon, it also "allows exhibitors and organisers to target people based on their specific location, using interactive maps generated by surrounding Bluetooth devices". The more of these devices you use, the more detailed these maps become.

As with Fish's package, Taap's technology provides exhibitors and organisers with a way of marketing to, and engaging with, show visitors. It also allows footfall and time-stamped location information to be collected and analysed, and captures information so that applications relevant to the user¹s position can be activated. One such example of this is passing a sales lead to the exhibitor or providing an e-voucher for visitors to a stand.

Big Brother

But will visitors and exhibitors really be happy to conduct their business under the watchful eye of the exhibition industry's new-found Big Brother? An eye in the sky, taking in all that you do and sharing it with the person watching you intently from across the stand?

"There were 8,600 visitors at (financial exhibition) Sibos last year, and we didn't have a single person raise an eyebrow. People think there's going to be strong objection but it's much like when you use a credit card; you¹re being tracked every time you buy something but the reciprocal value is good enough that you don't mind," says Gilvar.

According to Higgon, as long as visitors are made aware of what the technology can do for them, they will embrace it. "There's not one person I've spoken to yet who said 'I don't want to be tracked when I¹m walking around'. They only share the data if they wish."

Visitors can allow their data to be transferred, and that may give them discounts or the ability to get into other parts of the venue. Higgon says that the exact details will likely be a condition of each particular deployment, with pre-agreed data available for broadcast back to the owner of the show.

The key factor here is that both technologies function as much for the visitors as the exhibitors. "At points where visitors want to interact, it will - if they permit it - pass over information on where they've been and what they've been doing," says Higgon. "If I'm an MD, I may not want to be tracked by name but I might be happy to share my information as an MD. We're putting the ownership of the actual data over to the attendee. It becomes a symbiotic relationship, I'll give you something if I get something back."

With momentum picking up for both technologies, it's not just organisers and exhibitors that will be looking to benefit from the new systems. Both companies recognise the need to create an open platform that enable other technology providers to piggy-back their technology and bring new solutions to market.

"We want to create an open infrastructure that allows people to build on our platform and create additional innovation, and architect themselves some of that functionality," says Gilvar. "We can do a lot of things with mobile integration. I think that's really the future, integrating with the mobile device. The sky's the limit in terms of being able to leverage a location and a phone that is assigned to a person."

It's the same situation at Taap. “You know how it works in the exhibition industry. Everyone says 'it's our system, you can't use it'," says Higgon. "Our model is to provide this as an open service. Although we are delivering a series of applications initially to demonstrate how the technology is working, we're going to allow other mobile vendors to pull the same data and share it using web services technologies."

Of course, as with all new technology, it has its drawbacks. Fish's technology requires a considerable element of installation. Gilvar has deployed some temporary installations, but the hardware associated with RFID, including roof sensors, lends itself to permanent fixtures.

In Taap's model, active tags in the form of Bluetooth transceivers can be located around the venue, avoiding the need for permanent infrastructure. However, for Taap's technology to work it depends on users agreement to download its software to their devices, and for its model to work effectively, there must be a certain number of exhibitors and visitors using Bluetooth in the first place.

Understanding visitors' movement and browsing habits is key to your show doing well. What remains to be seen is whether or not all this gadgetry and techno-posturing is going to be a cost-effective benefit to your exhibition. Is it realistic and can we honestly take what we learn from these new systems and base our decisions for future exhibitions on their findings any more than, say, a survey of exhibitors and what we witness with our own eyes? One thing's for sure, the exhibition community will be watching closely.