The PDA's Broken Promise

February 15, 2006, 1:32 PM EST

Some conference and trade show organizers are using wireless technology to deliver downloadable show guides, maps, and exhibitor lists to attendees' PDAs.

Once upon a time, PDAs, or personal digital assistants, were going to revolutionize conferences and trade shows. Event planners were supposed to streamline their work and slash costs by converting paper to digital documents. Attendees looked forward to cruising show floors, wirelessly bouncing data between colleagues and booths.

In recent years, however, the PDA has lost its way. While wildly successful in a few market niches, PDAs and the software they run have yet to gain widespread acceptance as marketing tools.“We're not early adopters,” says Corbin Ball, president of Corbin Ball Associates, and one of the country's leading experts in event technology. “But we are coming on strong.”

Some pioneering planners have succeeded by providing PDA-friendly content to tech-savvy audiences. Experts say PDAs have nearly become must-haves for some events in technology, medicine, and education. But overall sales of these diminutive devices have dipped recently, along with the demand for them in the events sector.

“The trade show business is down and planners just don't have the money to invest in these new technologies. They're trying to put bodies on the floor,” says Tim Scannell, president of Shoreline Research, a Boston-based technology consulting firm. “It's not happening now and probably not in six months, but maybe in a year or two. Today too many PDAs are just personal digital assistants, not collaborative tools.”

James Fisher founded San Francisco-based Bluefish Wireless in 1999 to deliver software and content to handheld devices. Since then he's worked with events such as eBay Live! and Comdex Canada to produce downloadable show guides, maps, exhibitor and attendee lists, and other materials.“There were half a dozen companies serving this space three years ago, ” he says. “Now there are maybe three.” HandEvent, NearSpace, and WideRay are among his chief competitors.

Bluefish's solution was a hit at the recent American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) conference in New Orleans, Fisher claims, where roughly 5,000 of the 28,000 attendees downloaded event information, including a fully searchable show guide, to their PDAs from some 30 wireless access points. Fisher also helped Alexandria, Virginia-based ASCO design a Web portal that enables attendees to synchronize news updates to their PDAs on a daily basis after the conference. “Most of these doctors don't have five minutes to visit a Web site,” he explains. “It's much easier for them to get [information] on their PDAs. And this way [ASCO] can generate a brand on a person's Palm all the time.”

Fisher adds that Bluefish's fees range from $10,000 for a small event to $25,000 for a turnkey solution for a large conference. Some of his competitors, he claims, are giving away technology to spark new opportunities. “Nobody's cutting each other's throats over this business,” he says.

While a few fortunate event planners have budgets sufficient to give PDAs to attendees—Fisher worked with a conference that purchased 3,000 palmOne devices—the majority is challenged to find room for this technology. “This is completely new. This is a whole new budget category,” Ball says. “E-show guides are not replacing real guides yet. It's an add-on, so there is resistance.”

Not from Donella Evoniuk. The director of the National Educational Computer Conference (NECC), the world's largest educational technology show, is targeting attendee needs with her PDA strategy. “We are dealing with teachers, so we are looking for three things: solutions that are environmentally friendly, that engage them with their own technologies, and that showcase products that can be useful in schools,” she says.

Eugene, Oregon-based Evoniuk notes that many of the 20,000 attendees at this year's NECC downloaded their program, exhibit guide, maps, and newsletters onto their PDAs from 25 Bluefish wireless access points. One hitch in her solution, she admits, is that Bluefish provided only Palm-based access points; Microsoft PocketPC users were forced to beam their guides from an on-site PocketPC. “There aren't many solutions for PocketPC, and that's getting to be a problem,” Evoniuk says.

While she hasn't tied PDA practices to increased revenue—just as most event planners haven't, experts suggest—Evoniuk is committed to continuing her PDA practices in the future.“People like it this way,” Evoniuk says. “I, for one, don't use a paper booklet anymore.”

Matt Purdue

Your email inquiry will be sent to 3 venue