Monday, April 30, 2007

Neat Technology

I've spent a few hours recently with Maged Mohamed, CEO of TechNeat. They created an interesting twist on the barcode / mag stripe / RFID badge readers that are common in trade shows and larger events. TechNeat builds their products on top of the Blackberry wireless platform, so data captured on-site at an event is available online immediately. Compare that to the normal method of capturing data on a local network or hand-held device (or on paper, heaven forbid!) and you discover many advantages and some potential new applications.

A Brief Background on Badge Readers

If you've attended a trade show in the past 20 years, then you are familiar with badge readers. Attendees get a name badge printed with their name and a bar code, magnetic stripe, or (more recently) RFID chip. They walk around the show, look at exhibits, and if they find a product of interest then a sales rep scans their name badge with a hand-held or table-top device. Each scan tells the exhibiting company who you are, and after the show the exhibitors either print out your information or take a memory card to the services counter in order to download the data in an electronic format.

Due to technology limitations, a name badge that is 3-4 inches wide can store about 20 characters with "1D" (one dimension) bar codes, about 225 characters (3 tracks with 76 characters each) with a magnetic stripe, 12 characters in an RFID chip, and practically any amount of data in a "2D" (two dimension) bar code (although the bar code will increase in size with the amount of data printed). Thus, except for with 2D bar codes, name badges usually only store a unique identifier for each person, and the full contact information is stored in a registration database with a link to that unique ID.

1D Bar Code encoded in Code 128
DataMatrix 2D barcode Name badge with embedded RFID chip

TechNeat Products

TechNeat supports all of these badge formats, but their products are scanners built upon the same wireless Blackberry devices that currently addict so many techies. When an exhibitor scans your badge at a show, your unique Id or contact information is immediately and securely transmitted via the Blackberry's wireless carrier to TechNeat's Internet servers. There, they record the details of the interaction (date-time, scanner id, etc.) and link the registrant's unique ID to their full contact information. Thus employees who are not at the show can sit at their browser anywhere (with an Internet connection) and watch the leads come in from their colleagues who are exhibiting. When the show ends, the exhibitors simply drop off their scanners and head home, which sure beats standing in line for an hour waiting to pick up a 3.5-inch floppy disk.

Integration Opportunities

While I'm a fan of Techneat, I don't get paid to sell their products, and so the chance to interact with their systems (and customers!) is most exciting to me. For example, registration workers at the front desk in a location without ethernet or Wifi Internet access could welcome attendees, scan their badge, and instantly transmit a signal to our registration database that the attendee has checked in for the show.

Or, if you need to know who is going to each of your sessions at a large event, then you can put TechNeat's RFID scanners or floor-mounted bar code readers at the doors to your meeting rooms. As attendees walk through the door, the scanner reads their registration ID and transmits it and the scanner's ID to their online database. By connecting a scanner ID to a specific room and the registration ID to a person, we can record who went to each session and when they entered and left the session.

Future Potential

I love working with companies, like TechNeat, who find better ways to collect information at an event while we work on producing better ways to organize and manage that information before, during, and after the event.

Friday, April 20, 2007

3rd Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum

I participated in a panel discussion on "The Future of Meetings Technology" at the Center for Business Intelligence (CBI) 3rd Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum on March 27, 2007 in Philadelphia. My co-panelists were Michael Boult (CEO of Starcite) and Rick Borovoy (CTO of nTag). Gaze with me into our crystal ball...

Question 1. Why hasn’t the meetings industry adopted technology tools at the same rate as other industries?

My perspective (since Internet tools became available in 1998) is that meeting professionals have adopted "public-facing" tools such as online registration, event web sites, email marketing, and web-based meetings (webinars) as quickly as other industries. They have not adopted "back-office" systems, however, at nearly the rate seen in other service departments such as Travel, Finance, Procurement.

I think this adoption pattern has several causes:

  • The traditional event planner has been a "people-person" who loves to focus on the attendee experience rather than learn new technologies.

  • Available tools have not been both powerful enough and simple enough to meet most planners' needs.

  • Investment in and development of back-office tools for meetings has lagged that of Travel, Finance, and Procurement because there was not a critical mass of centralized corporate meeting departments and large meetings organizations willing to spend on IT at the same levels seen in the other areas. This situation is changing rapidly.

Question 2. Is the current electronic RFP system working for hoteliers?

Michael Boult took this question from the audience. His view is that current web-based RFP systems (such as Starcite's) are simply digitizing the existing RFP-based sales process. Some planners or companies may have abused this efficiency gain on their end by increasing the number of facilities who receive their RFPs (in hopes of driving costs down via competition), but most systems like Starcite have learned and now send an RFP to an average of 7-8 hotels (which are previously matched against the event criteria). This shouldn't create more burden on the hotels' sales offices than they had before the Internet.

His question to the audience was why don't meeting planners move away from the RFP process and move to a "shop & transact" marketplace, for example, one similar to the manner with which you purchase plane tickets or shopping carts of books and electronics. None of the attendees had a good answer, but my perspective is that both sides of the industry are averse to such a marketplace being controlled by a single company, like Starcite, who would profit handsomely from transaction fees, while all of the suppliers would be forced into a cost-cutting mode that would commoditize the products (hotel services and meeting experiences) which the industry is determined to keep unique. I believe that such a marketplace built upon open standards such as APEX will have a niche in the future.

Question 3. Why is integration so key to meeting management technology?

Most meeting professionals realize that event management applications will not be primary data tools from the perspective of a large organization, relative to enterprise applications such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM), employee databases (HR), Finance, Procurement, and Corporate Travel. Thus meeting management applications will either have to work with these primary systems, or their users must continue to manually export/import and re-enter data from the primary systems.

Question 4. How will Web 2.0, Second Life, etc. affect the way planners hold meetings (if at all)?

Web 2.0 is vaguely defined as the "Internet of You" -personal web sites, Blogs, social networking, and online personas that in some cases are better known than your physical self.

People often ask why video-conferencing isn't more widely used, after all, AT&T created the PicturePhone 40 years ago. Anyone who spends a few hours a day on webinars and conference calls knows that it isn't because the video quality is too low (it still is) but rather it's because we simply don't look as good as we think we do.

Copyright The Economist - www.economist.comEnter Second Life - a virtual world where you create an online persona who interacts with others for you. I can see a future where you combine Internet telephony, instant messaging, webinars, and a realistic computer representation (at the quality of Pixar movies and video games) of yourself into a "Second Life" meeting room. This is being done on the fringes of technologists, but it could become mainstream. I would much rather have a moving representation of my best picture making a presentation in a webinar than to have an actual live video-conference picture of myself - and the technology is easier without the live feed anyway.

Here is a great picture from the September 28, 2006 issue of The Economist, showing grandmother Donna Meyer and her Second Life avatar. Which would you rather watch presenting a seminar on punk rock music?

Question 5. Do you any of you share the opinion that the use of technology in site selection and social networking (before and at meetings) affects the human interaction and will evolve or come full circle (driving more person-to-person interactions)?

I think that the quality of the face-to-face meeting experience is going to increase. Otherwise, there is no point in spending the travel time and costs to leave your office, when you can have a basic meeting of minds via conference calls and webinars. As work teams become globally distributed and people have more choice about where they want to work, face-to-face meetings will be reserved for the most valuable personal interactions and experiences. I think the overall number of physical meetings will stay about the same, but the value (and cost) per person is going to grow in order to deliver this higher level of quality.

Question 6. How do you see the APEX initiative entering planners’ everyday lives?

I've spoken about APEX repeatedly, and I see it being the plumbing that makes the water flow. Meeting planners won't know what APEX really is until they see the technologies that come out of its implementation - the elimination of "Changes Reports" (because planners and hotels will keep their systems in synch electronically and automatically), an electronic marketplace of events and services (see Question 2), and event resumes stored as "e-books" on your PDA instead of 3-ring binders. When these things become commonplace, event planners will appreciate that the water is indeed flowing, even though most still won't care about the plumbing that got us there. And then, of course, after a few years they'll just expect that the water always flowed when you turned the faucet handle.

Question 7. What are the "next big things" coming for meetings technology?

  • "One system for all meetings" - big conferences, small meetings, all different event types will be managed within a single system

  • Integration - behind the scenes your "single system", which works seamlessly for you, will be tightly integrated with many other systems both inside and outside of your organization

  • Simplicity - technology will just work, or you won't use it (we'll see...)

  • Migration from RFPs to "Shop & Transact" - at least for some products and services

  • "Web 2.0" - technology will customize your events to you

  • Social Networking - computers will aid person-to-person interactions and introductions, allowing you to collaborate locally and globally in an online community that is an extension of your physical one

Thursday, April 19, 2007

APEX TAC Monthly Meeting Minutes - April 2007

The APEX TAC held it's monthly Virtual Meeting on April 19, 2007. Here's what we did.

APEX TAC Monthly Virtual Meeting

Host: Rick Borry (Certain)
Meeting number: 484 326 154
Start Time: Thursday, April 19, 2007 07:56:04 PM(GMT 00:00)
End Time: Thursday, April 19, 2007 08:43:47 PM(GMT 00:00)
Meeting URL:

Attendee List:
Rick Borry (Certain)
Sujal Shah (Starcite) - NEW
Jeremy Keller (SiteVisit)
Buck Downs (Columbia?) - NEW
Jane Melville, Julie Graff & Marshalle King (Hilton) – NEW, replacing Bob Horn
Scott Rudberg & Andrea Campbell (Passkey)
David Collins (Syllogy Design) - NEW
Kyle Bricker (Lenos) - NEW
Rob Wilson (Meeting Sites Resources)
Ali Tabatabai (Avectra) - NEW
Rooji Sugathan (Ungerboeck)



    1. Meeting calendar available at:

    2. May 17th virtual 3rd Thursday at (4:00pm EST to 5:00pm)
      MEETING NUMBER: 484360851
      PASSWORD: APEX051707
      *** Please sign in with your name as “First Last (Company)” so that it’s easier to take attendance.

    3. The next face to face follows HITEC in Orlando. The TAC meeting will be held on June 27th and 28th. We have a room block of 5 for $149.99 each at Embassy Suites Orlando - Lake Buena Vista, 8100 Lake Ave., Orlando, Florida 32836. Attendees can call the main number 407-239-1144 and ask for the Reservations Dept. (Mon-Fri, 8-4pm). Please have mention "CIC/APEX".

  2. STRATEGY REVIEW (from the Ft. Lauderdale meeting last month)

    1. See


  4. Take inventory of where the 4 groups are: ESG, FSO, Rooming List, RFP.

    1. OTA_HotelRFP_MeetingRQ.xsd

    2. Jeremy (LEADER) ~90% complete (need to merge Rob’s files and review)
      Rob, Junior
      Julie, Marshalle, Jane (Hilton)

    3. OTA_HotelRoomListRQ.xsd

    4. Michael (LEADER) - (Dave - Mike seems to be the best owner) ~70% complete?
      Dave, Scott, Andrea

    5. OTA_HotelEventRQ.xsd – ESG

    6. Rooji (LEADER) ~40% complete

    7. OTA_HotelEventRQ.xsd – FSO

    8. Jessica (LEADER)
      Chip, Bob (phasing out, to be replaced by new Hilton members after RFP is completed)

    9. Volunteers - David Collins (will join a group but wants to look at them first)


    1. The leader for each group should coordinate with EJ to schedule working meetings (~2h webex and conference call) with their team in order to complete the XSLTs before our next meeting (May 18th)

    2. Rich Mattes (Newmarket) can coordinate scheduling of working meetings if you need to use their Webex

    3. We need to drive these to completion by May so that we can try to get pilot implementation in someone’s database by the June meeting.

    4. Discuss common issues teams are facing and decide how to resolve them on the Forums at:

    5. Sujal (Starcite) said that they previously tried to implement APEX internally, but were not successful due to several reasons:

      • The sheer size of the XML message
      • They weren't sure where to map their database fields in the XML standard
      • The standard included a large number of fields that weren't useful to them
      • We hope to address these issues with our current project of producing validation and translation standards.

  6. NEXT MEETING (Virtual May 17th)

    1. Powershop beta demonstration (Chip Meyer)

    2. XSLT Demonstrations by working groups

    Tuesday, April 03, 2007

    APEX Implementation Pilot - Q1 2007 Update

    On March 21-22, an intrepid group of pioneers met in Ft. Lauderdale to figure out how the meetings and group travel industry will use this APEX stuff. Like all explorers, we discovered that the path before us will be easier than we thought it was before we started, but harder than we had hoped for.

    Time to Test the "Exchange" part of APEX

    As the name (Accepted Practices Exchange) says, APEX is about exchanging data between trading partners in the meetings and group travel industry. As described previously, last year we developed three XML specifications within the Open Travel Alliance to help event planners exchange data related to:
    • Request for Proposals (RFP) - meetings in search of a facility
    • Hotel Rooming Lists - attendees who need rooms in a group block
    • Event Specification Guide (ESG) - meeting information for the planner to share with the hotel

    This year, our goal is to implement pilot programs with specific industry partners who will use these XML standards to electronically transfer data from one proprietary system to another.

    The Plan

    First, our group (the APEX Technology Advisory Committee) reviewed our options and selected a strategy. We decided that each trading partner (meeting planners, CVBs, and hotels) would be responsible for creating their own "translator", or software routine that converts data from their proprietary database format into the standard APEX XML.

    Notice that the APEX standards do not specify the infrastructure surrounding the XML exchange. Eventually, we expect to provide guidelines about this infrastructure, which may consist of SOAP web services or https GET/POST methods. We expect the data exchange methods will require an authentication layer, in order to make sure the other application should have access to the requested data, and a version control layer, since the OTA standards are published twice a year and will undoubtedly undergo changes as the community learns from experience.

    Next, we agreed that we want to offer a human-readable version of the (machine-readable) XML documents. This will make the XML useful in situations where only one trading partner adheres to the APEX standards, and it should help developers validate their XML translators.

    For now, we decided to not tackle the Exhibitor versions of the Event Specification Guide (ESG) or Functional Setup Order (FSO), and we decided not to produce an XSLT standard for the "page layout" of the Rooming List standard, since this is legacy report format leftover from the days before Excel and e-mail.

    The Preparation

    Before starting a software development project, you should define how you will validate that the result meets your expectation. For APEX, we agreed upon a validation method for trading partners to test their translator routines that produce XML documents:
    • The XML must be well-formed. Any XML editor (or browsers like Internet Explorer) will tell you if the resulting XML document is formed correctly according to the W3C standards.
    • The XML must validate against the OTA XML schema (XSD). Good editors like XML Spy will compare XML documents to an XSD standard and instantly identify areas of non-compliance, e.g. if an email address is not in the correct format.
    • The XML must have data in the correct fields. Developers will be required to download the sample XML documents from OTA, enter the data into their application database, and then produce XML using their export translator. The resulting document should match the sample that you started with, otherwise, for example, you may be putting a person's first name into the last name field and not notice the error during the first two tests.
    The Path

    After discussing our past experiences with XML data transformation and exchange, the team selected the Altova MissionKit Enterprise Edition for the implementation process. (The enterprise edition is required because the OTA schemas are complex "nested" xml schemas, which aren't supported by the professional edition.)
    • XMLSpy - OTA uses this editor to produce the XML standards, and it offers simple validation of XML documents against XSD schemas.
    • StyleVision - We used this editor to produce XSLT files that map "machine-readable" XML documents into "human-readable" HTML or PDF formats.
    • MapForce - This tool will allow each trading partner to map their proprietary database fields to the XML Schema standard fields, which is the first step to building a "translator" for the APEX standards.

    The Journey

    Well, if only you could imagine how excited this bunch of computer geeks were after producing a Plan, Preparation, and Path on the first day. After dinner and a couple of drinks at the Irish pub that night, we actually thought we might knock this thing out on the second day. Unfortunately, reality set in after about 2 hours of struggling with Stylevision, but we created enough transformation tools to confirm that we are on the right path.

    The journey continues - contact us know if you want to join it.