Does this sound familiar? Your company is holding its national sales meeting and a presenter announces a 15-minute break. Immediately, there is something resembling a human tidal wave moving towards the door as sales reps bolt to the cyber cafés or run up to their rooms to connect to the Internet and check their email. Not only is their transit time wasted, but the whole endeavor racks up enormous costs – a 10-station cyber café, for example, easily can run $10,000 for the link and computers, says Corbin Ball, president of Bellingham, WA-based Corbin Ball Associates, a meetings technology speaking and consulting firm. Don’t have a cyber café? You’re probably going to pay about $9.95 per room per day for high-speed Internet access. Multiply that number by the number of reps and the number of meeting days and you’ve suddenly got a significant line item on your expense sheet.
The good news is that wireless technology is about to change all that. “Wireless technology is going to have a huge impact on the meetings market,” says Ball. “Wireless access is going to be ubiquitous in the next few years, so the whole cost of setting up message centers and cyber cafés is really going to change.” In fact, Wi-Fi, a wireless communication standard that is about seven times faster than a T-1 line and has a range of 100 to 300 feet, is where much of the action will be, says Ball. Today companies can hire an Internet firm to go in and Wi-Fi enable a meeting space, he says, but in the next couple of years that’s going to be one of the services hotels and meeting centers will offer. Already, some airports, hotels, convention centers and even Starbucks are beginning to provide Wi-Fi access, and some meeting planners are starting to Wi-Fi enable their events at a lower cost and with less hassle than with a wired network.
While the cost savings of a wireless versus wired connection will be significant, what’s even more significant are some of the meeting capabilities enabled by wireless access. Ball predicts that audience members with Wi-Fi will no longer be passive listeners. Instead, using their laptop computers or PDAs, “they can ask the speaker questions or make comments about the presentation that can be shared real time with others in the audience or out on the Internet,” he says. Wi-Fi also will allow meeting attendees to vote anonymously or give feedback to speakers via audience polling and response systems. There are endless possibilities, and they will all be available in the next few years as Wi-Fi becomes available everywhere.