New apps lighten paper load at conferences

Most bundle a scheduling tool, floor plan and maybe information about local restaurants or a social networking link on their apps. But a handful of organisers have begun to use apps to reduce or even replace the vast amounts of paper they once carried to events.

Without so much paper to produce for conferences, planners said they were saving time and money. Not only that, business travellers do not need to carry around cumbersome and often heavy printed copies.

While some producers have described their events as “paperless” for years—generally by distributing material via CD or directing attendees to download documents posted online —the growing popularity of tablets like Apple’s iPad and the increasing sophistication of app software make it possible for travellers to be truly unencumbered without sacrificing convenience.

David Holcombe, president and chief executive of an organisation for online education professionals called the eLearning Guild, said the group has eliminated almost all the paperwork at their three annual conferences.

“I’ve felt for some time we spent way too much money on materials, paper handouts, that sort of stuff,” said Holcombe, who estimated he would save $50,000 this year alone on printing costs.

He said he still offered a paper program to attendees but it had been trimmed to around a dozen pages from 50, with the remainder of the material going onto the app. He says he now brings two fewer staff members to each event, since the burden of distributing hard copies has been eliminated.

And his delegates have told him they love the convenience. “For us, it’s a really huge customer service thing,” he said. It helps that the attendees tend to be early technology adopters. Participants can use the app content to help them decide which seminars to attend, and they can keep a virtual eye on what else is going on at the event even while sequestered in a classroom because of the app’s real-time updates. “It stimulates     enga­g­­­­­­­­­­e- ment,” Holcombe said.

Apps can also work for medical conferences, where delegates are given large amounts of information. Catherine Foss, executive director of the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, said she loaded the equivalent of 183 pages of medical paper abstracts and other research documents onto an app for her biannual conference last year. The society still spent roughly $27,000 to print hard copies because attendees are in the habit of taking the books back to the office for reference, but Foss said she expected members to gradually make the transition to a digital format.

“The learning curve is like when people were learning PowerPoint,” she said. “We had to provide projectors for about five years. I think this is going to be the way of the future, where there won’t be program books anymore.”

Holcombe and Foss were all clients of Ativ Software, an app developer that specialiSes in events. The company’s chief executive and co-founder, Silke Fleischer, characterised demand for mobile event apps as “exploding” because of their convenience.  Other developers are also aiming at tablets as the next frontier, building functions that will support more content.

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