Re-envisage event technology to significantly improve your events

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Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies—it happens when society adopts new behaviors.
—Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

I feel irritated when I see so many event professionals focusing on “new” event technology while ignoring existing technology that, in many cases, could greatly improve their events at a fraction of the cost.

There, I said it.

Every year there are plenty of conferences where you can go and see the latest and greatest mobile and gamification apps, attendee tracking systems, registrant analytics, mobile networking, video streaming platforms, etc. Vendors are happy to sponsor these events. They use them to showcase their wares and, hopefully, convince attendees that their new technology is worth buying.

Let me be clear—I have nothing against new technology per se. (If I was I’d be a hypocrite, given that I spent twenty-three profitable years as an information technology consultant.) What’s sad is that too much of event professionals’ limited continuing-education time is spent investigating shiny new toys and apps while overlooking inexpensive and proven ways to provide effective learning, connection, engagement, and community building at their events.

Why does this happen? Here are two reasons:

We fixate on the new

“Technology is anything that was invented after you were born.”
Alan Kay, from a Hong Kong press conference in the late 1980s

We are enveloped by so much rapidly changing technology that we fixate on what is new. What was new quickly becomes taken for granted and largely invisible. As David Weinberger remarks“Technology sinks below our consciousness like the eye blinks our brain filters out.” Although technology in the form of human tools has existed for over three million years and we’ve had books for over half a millennium, the first history of technology wasn’t written until 1954. Flip charts, 5×8 cards, comfortable seating, room sets, healthy food and beverage, and hand voting have been around for a long time. They are old-fashioned technology to event professionals, so we don’t pay them much attention (unless they can be reframed in a sexy way, e.g. “brain food”). But that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Far from it.

Technology isn’t just manufactured goods and software
Our definition of what is and isn’t “technology” is far too narrow. We tend to think of technology in terms of products and embedded implementations (e.g. software). But this is an incredibly restrictive viewpoint. Kevin Kelly, in his thought-provoking book What Technology Wants, lists three of the most important human technologies:

  • Language: A technology that “shifted the burden of evolution in humans away from genetic inheritance…[allowing] our language and culture to carry our species’ aggregate learning as well.”
  • Writing: A technology that “changed the speed of learning in humans by easing the transmission of ideas across territories and across time.”
  • Science: “The invention that enables greater invention.”

Once we start thinking about technology with a wider lens like this, all kinds of possibilities arise.

Re-examining process—the key to re-envisaging event technology
Language, writing, and science are outside our conventional, narrow-scope technology. The conventional technology we use to instantiate the sounds, symbols, etc. that they use is secondary. Language, writing, and science are primarily about human process.

When we expand our perspective on event technology to include process, many unexamined aspects of our events come into view. A few examples:

  • Why do we open conferences with a keynote?
  • Why do so few people speak during conference sessions?
  • How do we know if the sessions we’re providing are what attendees actually want?
  • Why do we provide entertainment during socials?
  • Are socials the best way to meet other attendees?
  • Why do we close conferences with a keynote or dinner?

When you start honestly investigating issues like these, instead of simply repeating things the same “safe” way you’ve previously experienced at conferences you’ll discover all kinds of human process technology that can fundamentally improve your event in ways that a new gizmo or app cannot.

So I urge every event professional to re-envisage event technology to include the process used during your events. Concentrate less on improving logistical processes: registration, decor, A/V, F&B, and so on. These are secondary processes, and we know how to do them well. Instead, focus on improving the human process you use throughout the event venue and duration—how you structure and script its flow, how you maximize useful connection between attendees, how the content and form of sessions are determined—this is the event technology that counts.

Photo attribution: Flickr user pierre-francois

My 14 favorite WordPress plugins for a small business website

These days when considering a web presence for your small business, it’s hard to not be impressed with the flexibility and power available from a self-hosted WordPress site. Although WordPress’ roots are in the blog creation world, it’s pretty easy to build a WordPress site where the blog is just another tab in the menu hierarchy. (Example? This site!) And with over 17,000 plugins available that can extend the functionality of your website, you’ll almost certainly be able to add just the special features you want. Perhaps the biggest problem is that there are so many plugins that you could use, and, for performance reasons, you don’t want to have more of them activated than you need.

I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last person to write a post like this, but I hope you’ll find some gems in the following list. Here, in alphabetical order, are my favorite 14 WordPress plugins.

Akismet (free for personal use, $5/month for small business sites)
“Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam” sang the merry men of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (As a schoolboy, I watched the original episode with this song.) I knew that my blog posts were finally gaining traction when the volume of spam comments started to soar. Akismet uses the combined submissions of its users to automatically flag comment and trackback spam. On my site to date it has successfully rejected over 12,000 spam messages and only missed 40.

You can see the comments that Akismet flags as spam on an informative screen and quickly delete them, or—rarely needed—reclassify them.

If your blog is getting any kind of decent amount of traffic (this site has had a million page views in the last seven months) you need Akismet. It will save you significant time dealing with the spam comments and backlinks that will otherwise plague your posts.

BackupBuddy ($75 for two licenses + 1 year of updates. Discounts often available.)
You backup your computer files regularly, right? (If you haven’t yet learned that computers die and data disappears, you will, and it won’t be pleasant.) Imagine your pain if your painstakingly created website became corrupted or vanished one day, a victim of a glitch, a crashed host server, or an evil hacker.

I used to use my hosting company’s free backup service to make complete backups of my website, but they only let me do this once every 30 days! Not frequent enough, and I needed to run through multiple steps to get everything. Although I am still using the same hosting company if I ever decided to move I would have no idea how to transfer my backed up files onto a new service.

Enter BackupBuddy. This is an expensive plugin but for my peace of mind it’s worth it. Backups are one-click operations from your WordPress Dashboard, or you can schedule them to occur automatically. You can backup just your WordPress database or the entire site (including that massive media library you’ve uploaded). The plugin has the capability to painlessly recreate your site on another host, aka site migration, and comes with two licenses to let you do this.

Bad things happen to good websites and backup is essential. Whether you use BackupBuddy or another solution, backup your website regularly!

Broken Link Checker (free)
As I write this I have 1,501 outbound links scattered around the posts and pages of this website, and 2 of them are broken. How do I know this? Why, thanks to the invaluable Broken Link Checker, of course! Links are always going dark on the web, and some of them could be on your website. This fantastic plugin periodically checks that every link on your website still points to a valid page. Those that break can be easily reviewed and updated, or if they have disappeared for good, unlinked. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to install this plugin to keep a site reliable and broken-link free.

BulletProof Security (free)
Let me start by emphasizing that you need to keep your WordPress installation up to date. I learned this the hard way last year, when I started seeing ads for cheap drugs that appeared to be linked to pages on my website appearing in Google searches. I was still running an older vulnerable version of WordPress, and the subsequent cleaning of my site took a large amount of time. Trust me, you do not want this to happen to you. Despite being an IT consultant for 25 years, I am so glad these days I do not have to understand and protect against all the nefarious ways that hackers can subvert WordPress websites. That’s BulletProof Security’s job. The plugin guards your crucial WordPress configuration files against attack.

A warning is in order though; I don’t find this plugin particularly easy to set up. It conflicted with my webhost’s statistics reports and figuring out how to make them available again required some configuration changes that I had to get from the author of the program (who responded quickly and accurately I might add). There are many other security conflicts like this that you might run into, and they are documented at exhaustive length in the associated support forums. In addition, plugin updates can lose these custom changes unless you install them just so.

Nevertheless, this plugin supplies peace of mind, albeit in a complex package. This is one plugin you may want someone with technical expertise to install and maintain for you.

Conditional CAPTCHA for WordPress (free)
This neat little plugin piggybacks onto Akismet to further reduce comment spam. If Akismet identifies a comment as spam, Conditional CAPTCHA will ask the commenter to complete a simple CAPTCHA. If they fail, then the comment will be automatically discarded or trashed, while if they pass, it will be allowed into the spam queue (or approved, if you so choose).
Comments not flagged as spam by Akismet will appear on your site as usual.

I have seen a dramatic decrease in spam displayed in Akismet since adding this plugin. Recommended!

Contact Form 7 (uses Really Simple CAPTCHA, free)
Everyone needs a few user fillable forms on their website for one thing or another. There are several plugins that supply this functionality; Contact Form 7 is the one I use. Although it’s optional I strongly recommend you turn on the CAPTCHA option supplied by the free Really Simple CAPTCHA plugin to prevent bots from submitting spammy forms. This plugin has been 100% reliable and is easy to set up.

Disqus Comment System (free)
I used the default WordPress comment system for a long time but switched to Disqus about a year ago. (In case you were wondering, it has the capability to import all your existing WordPress comments.) Disqus has more features than the WordPress comment system and I have found it to be reliable. It’s also prettier. One great feature of Disqus is that it is available on many blogging platforms, allowing you to see your own comments across multiple sites.

Events (free)
I maintain an event list on my website that contains information about upcoming peer conferences I’ve been told about and conferences I’m facilitating or at which I’m presenting. The Events plugin allows you to display this list in a sidebar and/or on a page, and includes the capability to display separate lists of historic or future events. The plugin has fields for the all the usual information you’d want to share about an event and is highly customizable. This plugin does exactly what I want.

Quotes Collection (free)
You’d probably like to display a collection of testimonials from happy customers about your wonderful products and services wouldn’t you? The Quotes Collection plugin does just that via a simple interface. You can choose whether the quotes include an author and/or a source, how and when they get refreshed, etc. I display a random testimonial in my sidebar; I now have quite a collection! Don’t miss this easy way to add a little interest and customer-supplied positive sales message to an appropriate place on your website.

Tweet Old Post (free)
Currently I have 180+ blog posts on my website. Some of them, cough cough, are quite good and still relevant, even if they were written a couple of years ago. How can I expose these old-but-good posts to an internet world that thrives on the new?

Using Tweet Old Post, that’s how.

Although I’m not a fan of excessive automated tweeting, I use Tweet Old Post to tweet two to three randomly chosen old posts every day. As the author explains: “This plugin helps you to keeps your old posts alive by tweeting about them and driving more traffic to them from twitter. It also helps you to promote your content. You can set time and no of tweets to post to drive more traffic.” I’ll add that you can exclude posts individually (e.g. if they refer to out of date information or one time events) and/or by WordPress Category, and you can supply the hashtags to be added to each tweet. The plugin only supports a single twitter account, so if you have more than one you’ll need to decide which account to use.

Since I started using Tweet Old Post, I’ve seen a measurable increase in visitors to my blog. Use it once you’ve built up a respectable volume of posts—but don’t overdo it!

WordPress File Monitor (free)
After my frustrating experience with my website being hacked (see the BulletProof plugin above) I decided to implement a belt-and-suspenders strategy to site security. So, besides BulletProof I also run this plugin, which simply supplies a warning message when any files in my WordPress directories are added, deleted, or changed. This means that I get warnings when I upload media for posts or install new versions of plugins, which is a little distracting, but I like the knowledge that if something slips past Bulletproof this plugin should catch the attempt to install new stuff on my server. File Monitor can be set to skip user-chosen directories so that backups, captchas, caching, site maps, and other routine processes won’t constantly trigger it.

I sleep a little better each night with this plugin installed.

WordPress Popular Posts (free)
As you might expect from the name, Popular Posts is a sidebar widget that displays your most popular blog posts. A wide range of options allows you to customize how the posts appear, and the plugin adds a Dashboard panel that shows blog post statistics. Nice! This is a great way to showcase what visitors like on your blog and lure them in to exploring your content further.

WP-Optimize (free)
Every blog post you write and every revision you save while writing it is stored in WordPress’s SQL database. Over time this database gets bloated with old post revisions, deleted drafts, spam comments—all kinds of what technical folks call cruft. WP-Optimize allows you to easily slim down your WordPress database back to the core content. This can improve the responsiveness of your website and make it a little quicker to backup. A few clicks to a svelter site, and a satisfying display of the space freed up. What’s not to like?

WP Super Cache (free)
OK, I admit it, I’m a bit of a cheapskate. The Conferences That Work website uses inexpensive shared hosting, where multiple websites are crammed onto a single server. As a result, my site used to often take over a second to return a webpage from a click (use a free service like to monitor the responsiveness of your site—the results may surprise you). Earlier this year, hosting provider issues that I won’t go into here led me to investigate caching my website using the WP Super Cache plugin. The results were drastic—my average response time is now 1/5 of a second, a very significant and welcome improvement.

Setting up WP Super Cache appears a first sight to be a bit overwhelming, though the process is easier than the installation instructions imply as the plugin includes a number of checks that everything is configured correctly and will tell you what to do if it isn’t. Enough people (over three million downloads!) use this plugin to reassure me that it’s solid, and I can’t argue with the 5x speedup in site performance. Recommended!

Final thoughts
Most of these plugins are donationware. Send the author some money if they make your life easier.

Check that any plugin you install is compatible with the version of WordPress you’re running. Check compatibility before you upgrade WordPress too!

I don’t claim that this list is definitive—in fact I won’t be surprised to learn of better choices for the functions these plugins supply. That’s one of the best reasons for writing posts like these; I’ll learn new stuff! But I hope this list of my 14 favorite WordPress plugins is useful to you too. Let me know in the comments!

Resources for using Pinterest for events

Image attribution: CVENT Pinterest page

Stimulated by the March 13 #eventprofs Twitter chat on Pinterest and events, here are some relevant resources to get you started or learn more about using this suddenly-popular tool in the events profession.

Learning about Pinterest
Pinterest entry on Wikipedia
Pinterest: A Beginner’s Guide to the Hot New Social Network on Mashable
56 Ways to Market Your Business on Pinterest via copyblogger
Complete Pinterest Guide | SEO and Traffic Generation With Pinterest from onlineincomestar
Pinterest Marketing Tips and Strategies on Authority Hacker

Pinterest and events
How To  Effectively Use Pinterest for Events by Tuvel Communications
Pinterest and event marketing: Good companions? by Michael Heipel
Pinterest for Events by Daphne Bousquet
Why You Should Consider Pinterest as Part of Your Event Checklist by Arwin Adriano

Other articles about Pinterest
Why you shouldn’t worry about Pinterest terms of service from the always informative TechDirt
Conference & Event Showcasing via Online Pinboards (LinkedIn group)

I’m probably missing plenty of other good resources. Share them in your comments!

Hybrid event architecture ideas sparked by Event Camp Twin Cities 2011

I expect much will be written about the problems encountered with communications with the remote pods at Event Camp Twin Cities 2011 last week. Rather than concentrate on what went wrong, I thought I’d share some ideas on hybrid event architecture that grew from my on-site experience and a long conversation with Brandt Krueger, who produced the event, the following morning. Without Brandt’s explanations I wouldn’t have been able to write this post, but any errors or omissions are mine and mine alone. I am not a production professional, so I write this post in the spirit of provoking discussion and input from those who have far more experience in this area.

Let’s start with a brief description of the set-up at Event Camp Twin Cities. As with many hybrid events, there were three audiences:

  • The local on-site attendees in Minneapolis
  • Seven “pods” (small groups of people that gathered in Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Silicon Valley and two corporate headquarters)
  • Individual remote audience members

Both the pods and the individual remote audience members viewed the activities in Minneapolis via Sonic Foundry’s Mediasite platform. This product provides, via a browser-embedded player, A/V from the event (e.g. a presenter speaking) alongside additional media feeds (e.g. presenter slides). The flexibility of this technology, however, comes with a cost that may have contributed to the problems encountered at Event Camp Twin Cities: namely that the “real-time” feed delivered to remote attendees was delayed approximately twenty seconds.

During Event Camp Twin Cities 2011, individual remote audience members viewed the Mediasite feed and interacted with the proceedings via Twitter as a backchannel, ably assisted by remote audience host (aka virtual emceeEmilie Barta. From the accounts I’ve heard, this channel worked well.

The pods also viewed the Mediasite feed and could interact via Twitter. To provide additional interactivity for the pods, Event Camp Twin Cities set up live Skype calls to the pods, with several pods clustered on one Skype call. When the local participants wanted to have a real-time conversation, the plan was to switch to Skype, turning off the Mediasite feed, very much in the same way that a caller to a radio show is asked to turn off their time-delayed broadcast radio once they’re on the phone.

For reasons that are not clear to me, this switchover process did not work well at Event Camp Twin Cities. Again, rather than concentrate on what happened and why, I’d like to suggest another architectural approach for the pods’ experience that may prevent similar problems in the future.

Instead of switching between delayed and real-time channels for the pods, I think that pod <—> local communications should be set up only via real-time channels. One reason that the (delayed) Mediasite feed was used for the pods at Event Camp Twin Cities is that it provided a convenient aggregation of the two broadcast sources needed for any event these days—A/V of what is going on at the venue plus a channel for slides or other supporting materials. That works for the individual remote audience, which only interacts with the event via Twitter. But when you want to have significant real-time, two-way communication between pods and the main event, you have to handle the complexity involved in switching between delayed and real-time channels on the fly.

Here’s how my approach would work. All the pods would receive a single real-time broadcast channel for supporting materials (slides, movies etc.) created at the event. This can easily be done using one of the “screen-sharing” solutions in wide use today; the A/V from a “master” computer would be broadcast to each pod. And then each pod would be linked to the event via its own two-way channel. This could be a Skype or other videoconference call, or perhaps a product like Google+ Hangouts could be used.

With this architecture, the pods would not receive a delayed feed (i.e. no Mediasite feed), so no switching between delayed and live would be necessary. (Individual remote audience members would continue to receive the delayed feed, as before.) The main event site would need to produce the audio feed, so that sound from the pods would not be distracting, but the complexities of switching between two channels on the fly would be eliminated using this approach.

I think that this approach might be an improvement over the design used at Event Camp Twin Cities 2011, as it would allow easier spontaneous real-time interaction with the pods while eliminating one potential source of problems during the event. I await with interest any comments by those who understand the issues better than I.

Hybrid event production professionals, hybrid event attendees, in fact all event professionals: what do you think?

Thanks Ruud Janssen for the photo of the production studio at Event Camp Twin Cities 2011!

How to recognize someone for their service to an organization when they can’t be present in person

How do you recognize a retiring founder who can’t attend your annual conference?

I faced this problem recently, and thought it would be useful to share how I handled it.

I’ve often mentioned edACCESS, the non-profit for information technology staff at small schools, on this blog, because the organization’s annual conference has been a long-suffering test-bed for my peer conference ideas and experiments. Nancy, Mike & I started edACCESS back in 1991, and although Mike soon left for other pursuits, Nancy & I have been running the edACCESS conference for twenty years.

So I felt sad when Nancy called earlier this year to tell me she was retiring as Director of Administrative Computing of her school this fall, and would be retiring from edACCESS too. We had worked to create a wonderful community together, and now she was leaving us. At least, I thought, we’ll be able to thank her at this year’s conference for her twenty years of service. And then I remembered that she wasn’t going to be able to attend. What were we going to do?

Here’s what we did to recognize Nancy’s contributions to edACCESS, even though she couldn’t be with us in person:

  • I arranged with Nancy to Skype her from her office at the start of the “morning meeting” group session on the last day of the conference. This was a time when all attendees would be together.
  • A week before the event, Nancy and I set up a test call with me calling from the laptop I would be using at the conference. It was good we did this, because it took a while to get Nancy’s camera working. We arranged for her to start Skype when she arrived at work, thirty minutes before we would start the recognition ceremony.
  • An hour before we were due to start, we set up arcs of chairs facing the large screen at the front of the room. I set up my laptop video to project onto the screen, and patched the laptop audio and the feeds from my wireless lavalier mike and audience mike into the room’s sound system. Then I positioned my laptop so that when the screen was upright, the webcam would show the audience. Finally, I angled the lid of my laptop backwards so that its webcam would only show me when I stood in front of it.
  • About twenty minutes before the call, Nancy was not showing up as connected on Skype. I called her from my cell and she assured me Skype was running. I restarted Skype on my machine & this time she appeared. Phew! During the next few minutes, I muted our audio while the audience assembled.
  • Showtime! With the audience quiet I welcomed Nancy, and recounted her contributions to edACCESS. Then I asked her to share her recollections of how the organization had started, twenty years earlier. The two of us spent a few minutes putting together our memories of the early days, which we had not done publicly before.
  • I emphasized that edACCESS would not have existed had it not been for Nancy’s contributions, and removed from a gift bag the present we were giving her: a Kindle (a great gift for someone who’s moving and may not appreciate receiving a bulky plaque). Then I asked the attendees to acknowledge Nancy, simultaneously adjusting the webcam so that she could see the assembled audience for the first time. The attendees rose to their feet and clapped and cheered. Nancy beamed, and when the applause finally died down, talked about the pleasure she’d received seeing edACCESS prosper, and thanked everyone who made it possible.
  • I thanked Nancy one more time, and we brought our Skype ceremony to a close.

Have you used videoconferencing to thank someone for his or her service to your organization? If so, how did it work out? Do you have any tips to share?

How to archive Twitter chats

With the recent demise of the wthashtag service, it has become increasingly difficult to create a text archive of Twitter chats. As the organizer of the popular twice-weekly #eventprofs chats, I have been looking for a replacement. Tweetreports offers a free pdf report, but other output formats cost $9+/month.

So here are step-by-step instructions for using the two-year old TwapperKeeper service, together with a copy of Excel, to create a text archive of your Twitter chat.

Note: Please don’t use TwapperKeeper excessively. Twitter’s Terms Of Service and rate limiting can affect their ability to offer their service for free. Such issues caused wthashtag to shut down. Let’s not inflict the same fate on TwapperKeeper.

To create a #hashtag archive before your first chat (one-time only)

  1. Go to TwapperKeeper. Sign in with Twitter.
  2. Click on the “search for an archive” button to see if there’s already an archive for your chat. (Enter the hashtag for your chat without the hashmark.) If there isn’t, click on the “create #hashtag archive” button to create one.
  3. Once you’ve created a #hashtag archive for your chat, TwapperKeeper will maintain the archive for future use. Bookmark the link for future reference: here’s the link for the #eventprofs archive.

To obtain a text transcript of your Twitter chat

  1. Go to TwapperKeeper. Sign in with Twitter.
  2. Go to the archive link bookmark you created above (it will have the form “” where “xxxxxxxx” is the hashtag for your archive).
  3. You’ll need to enter the start and end time for your chat in Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). You can use TimeZone Converter to convert the local start and finish times for your chat into GMT.  Enter start & end date and times, change the “View Limit” to a number larger than the number of tweets in your chat, and click on “query”.
  4. Select all of the report that is relevant to the chat, then copy (Ctrl + C).
  5. Open a blank spreadsheet in Excel, with the A1 cell selected.
  6. Choose Paste Special… from the Edit menu and select “Text”. Click OK.
  7. Select all the cells in Column A that contain data. You should be looking at something like this:
  8. Note the first few characters of the rows containing the dates (in the above example, they would be “Thu “).
  9. Now we’re going to delete any rows that contain “tweet details”, the date of the tweet, or blanks by using Excel’s filter command. First, select Filter from the Data menu and then AutoFilter. A checkmark will appear next to AutoFilter in the menu, and you’ll see a small double-arrow scrollbar appear in the A1 cell, like this:
  10. Click on the double arrows and choose (Custom filter…). From the first drop down, choose “begins with” and type “tweet details” into the text box, like this:
  11. Click OK. Now select all the rows shown that start with “tweet details”. Make sure row 1 is not selected. Choose Delete Row from the Edit menu.
  12. Click on the double arrows again and choose (Custom filter…). From the first drop down, choose “begins with” and type the first few characters of the date you noted in step 8 into the text box. Click OK.
  13. Select all the rows that start with the date. Make sure row 1 is not selected. Choose Delete Row from the Edit menu.
  14. Click on the double arrows and choose (Custom filter…). From the first drop down, choose “does not contain” and type a “?” into the text box. Click OK.
  15. Select all the highlighted empty rows. Make sure row 1 is not selected. Choose Delete Row from the Edit menu.
  16. Finally, click on the double arrows for the last time and choose (Show All). Success! Each row contains one tweet from the chat.
  17. If you wish, scan the rows and delete any that contain non-chat tweets.
  18. Select the remaining rows and copy (Ctrl + C).
  19. Congratulations! A text archive of your Twitter chat is now stored on your Clipboard, ready to be pasted into the web page or document of your choice. (Final tip: You may need to use Paste Special to transfer the information so it formats correctly.)

Is there a better way of archiving Twitter chats? Please let us know when you find one—but test it first to make sure that it 1) reliably includes all the tweets and 2) can produce text output.

My new favorite site visit tool

Bosch DLR130K Digital Measurer

I am surprised by the number of conference venues that do not provide floor plans with room measurements for meeting planners. On a recent round of site visits, only one of seven facilities visited had this information readily available. Four of the venues had floor plans, but supplemented them with infuriating capacity charts showing the number of seats available for classroom, theater, banquet, boardroom, hollow square etc. sets. (Please, venue sales managers, read Paul Radde’s refreshing book “Seating Matters” and realize that these room sets are not optimum for most circumstances.)

For event designs such as Conferences That Work, where room sets include large circles, horseshoes, table-less small group rounds and other configurations, I must have the basic room dimensions in order to plan what can happen where.

As a result a twenty-five foot tape measure has been part of my site-visit kit for many years. This tool, while cheap, is awkward to use.  Ideally, it requires two people, holding each end, stretching out the tape, and moving multiple times to measure a large room.

So I was delighted, a few months ago, to discover a modern tool that’s ideally suited to rapidly measure room dimensions, the Bosch DLR130K Distance Measurer, as shown above [Update May 6, 2017: The DLR130 model has been discontinued; the newer Bosch GLM 35 looks great too!]. The unit uses a laser to measure distance and is called the DLR130; the DLR130K is a kit that includes the unit, a belt pouch, and four AAA batteries.

This little gem is smaller and lighter than my 25′ tape measure. In about a second, it measures distances up to 130′ [40 m.] within 1/16″, not that I need anything that accurate. By standing in the middle of a really large room and measuring the distances to the opposite walls, you can handle room dimensions up to 260′. The unit will calculate area and volume too if, for some reason, you need to. The batteries are claimed to last for 30,000 measurements.

The DLR130K costs around $90 [Update May 6, 2017: The newer GLM 35 sells for $70 without a case]. A high-quality 25′ tape measure costs around $20, so this is a more expensive tool. I think it’s worth it.

Perhaps one day, every venue sales manager will supply room dimensions (I can dream). Until then, I’m bringing my DLR130 with me on every site visit.

A better tool for conference calls: Maestro Conference

Visual Recording of NCDD Confab. Note Conferences That Work at upper left!
Visual Recording of NCDD Confab. Conferences That Work included at upper left!

Graphic created by Teresa Bidlake, of Concepts Captured

Taking part in a traditional conference call is rarely much fun. Here are some irritations that you’ve probably experienced:

  • Poor call quality. Some callers are faint and/or there’s noise on the line. Any noise at any caller’s location, like someone yelling in the background or answering another call, is picked up and broadcast to everyone on the call.
  • There’s no way to know when someone is about to speak; awkwardness abounds as people start to talk simultaneously.
  • Only one person can speak at a time, and they have to address the whole group.
  • There’s no way to know who wants to speak, to ask or answer questions.

So my expectations were not high a couple of days ago, when I joined 77 people (!) on an “NCDD confab” on online engagement. NCDD is the nonprofit National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, a network of over 1,200 members working on conflict resolution and public engagement practice.

What a contrast! Instead of the usual conference call hell you’d expect on a call with nearly 80 people, our two hours together were surprisingly enjoyable, in large part because we used Maestro, a conference call / online tool that combines traditional conference call features with the ability to create small group conversations amongst the participants on the same call.

Here’s why using the Maestro Conference system worked so well for this large group:

  • The Maestro system allows the call organizers to easily create small breakout groups at any time during the call. During our call, we were twice split into small groups of 3-5 people to introduce ourselves and discuss a given question. Chimes and messages informed us when were halfway through our allotted time, and when we had a minute left to go. When the small group discussion was finished, we were smoothly reunited with the entire group. In addition, organizers can join any small group and ask or answer questions at any time.
  • Individual telephones can be selectively muted by the Maestro system, so we heard no distracting sounds from participants’ phones. When the event organizers were speaking, all phones except theirs were muted. If they asked someone to speak, just that phone would be un-muted. The resulting call quality was excellent. In addition, the system’s call quality was uniformly high throughout our two-hour call. I heard no pops, hissing, or other annoying noises.
  • Maestro includes a simple but effective backchannel method for call participants to signal conference organizers, by pressing numbers on their phone keypad. (There’s no annoying sound heard when people do this.) This can be used to quickly poll participants, to ask the organizers for help, to opt-in or out of a topic or choice, or to indicate that the participant has something to say to the whole group. We used all these options during our call, including: answering a four yes/no question poll of the entire group in a minute; queuing up individual participants to speak about their experiences; and opting in or out of having our emails made available to other group members.

Here’s a short video from Maestro Conference that illustrates these points:

From the organizers’ perspective, Maestro Connect uses a web interface, which seems to offer an easy way to control the abilities I’ve described.

Pricing seems reasonable; and a free 30-day trial is available, as well as discounts for non-profit and solo practitioners.If you’re into such things, Maestro Conference has an affiliate program, (and I am not an affiliate).

During the call, I spoke to the entire group once, met and conversed with people in two small discussion groups, World Café style, and voted on questions that were asked. Sandy Heierbacher of NCDD and Amy Lenzo of World Café expertly facilitated the call, with a couple of assistants helping out as needed. The time flew by, very enjoyably.

In conclusion, this service, when appropriately used, can turn the normal broadcast-mode experience of a conference call into a much-more participatory and interactive time for callers. I don’t have experience of managing a Maestro Conference, but, as a participant, it seemed to be a straightforward process with no glitches. If you have a need for a superior kind of conference call, this service is well worth checking out.