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Chatbots: The Key to Year-Round Attendee Engagement

By David Haas and Cori Prasifka


  • Chatbots use artificial intelligence to generate smart responses.
  • These digital tools can help show managers elevate the attendee experience.
  • Virtual assistants capture potentially game-changing event data.
Chatbots have quickly become a familiar part of everyday life.

A visitor to a website might see a pop-up window with the friendly greeting, “Hi, is there anything I can help you with today?” Or, a parent making dinner might call out, “Alexa, what’s the forecast for tomorrow?”

People from all 195 countries working at companies of every size, sector, and nearly every industry use online chat to start conversations on business websites, according to Drift’s The 2018 State of Chatbots report.

The potential of chatbots for attendee engagement at events, however, has gone largely unrealized by show managers.

As it turns out, chatbots present an enormous opportunity to increase attendee engagement, not only at the event but throughout the entire year.

Bill Charles, Chief Information Officer, Emerald Expositions

“We’re seeing significant operational efficiencies leveraging chatbot technology at events, like NY NOW. The technology provides our attendees and exhibitors with instant answers to their questions and enables our staff to focus on building the best events possible.”

What are chatbots?

Chatbots are digital tools that simulate human conversations. At the core of these devices is a program that relies on artificial intelligence (AI) to interpret how to respond appropriately to these interactions. When the chatbot is developed, the program is fed data on typical questions or statements and the program’s AI “learns” the appropriate responses. After the chatbot is launched, the program continues to improve with experience and can eventually understand more complex and contextual questions.

A chatbot can be used in several formats.

On a website or an app, the chatbot may be a pop-up window with an avatar that asks the user if it can help. Chatbots can also take the form of digital assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant, where the program is capable of everything from telling jokes to controlling a home’s lighting upon request.

For show managers, chatbots can be leveraged in multiple ways:

  • Before an event, a chatbot pop-up window on the event website can answer questions about the event and guide users to specific content, such as event registration forms or hotel information.
  • Deployed well, a chatbot can cut down on the amount of text needed on the website, increasing visitor focus on critical information and the main call-to-action: registration.
  • During the event, a digital assistant onsite can provide attendees with helpful information to improve the overall experience, such as where to get coffee, where the restrooms are located, or at what time the keynote will begin.
  • Post-event, show managers can send flash briefings to attendees through their own digital assistants (like Siri or Alexa) or via chatbot notifications on the event app.
How chatbots benefit show managers

While every event is different, there are certain universal challenges for show managers that chatbots can help solve.

Engagement: Typically, show managers communicate with attendees via email, with varying open rates and engagement levels. Chatbots communicate with attendees through multiple mediums including the show website, the app, and even the attendees’ own digital assistants. This turns what was formerly a one-way conversation into an ongoing dialogue that provides an excellent attendee experience not only during the show but throughout the year.

Revenue: Chatbots provide a plum opportunity to sponsors. Not only can show-site digital assistants be sponsored, but the chatbot can present sponsorship options pre- and post-show as well. For example, an industry association’s flash briefing delivered via digital assistant can easily be sponsored. (For example, “Here is the latest industry news, brought to you by Acme Supply.”)

Efficiency: Imagine the time and resources gained by being able to offload routine questions to a chatbot. One Freeman client did just that: A chatbot placed on the event website fielded over 10,000 questions and answered about 85 percent of the questions directly. This freed up massive amounts of staff time and enabled the team to focus their resources on more strategic efforts.

Impact on deeper insights

Just like live conversations with customers can be used to plan a strategy, make improvements to events, and uncover trouble spots, so can chatbots — but with an important difference: these digital tools carry on thousands of conversations with attendees throughout the show cycle.

And because these conversations are all digital, show managers now have a mechanism for capturing potentially game-changing feedback. Anything that a person types in or says to the chatbot could potentially be captured and categorized.

When these thousands and thousands of individual utterances are aggregated, show managers can uncover useful and vital trends about their event. For example, if a large number of people are asking about a particular speaker or exhibitor, the show manager can plan ways to bring those groups together at other points during the year. Or, if attendees continually ask where the restrooms are, signage may need attention.

It's important to note that in most cases the information captured is anonymous — after all, an in-show digital assistant chatbot has no way of knowing who asked the questions. But most attendees today will understand that talking with a digital mechanism means their interaction could be archived and utilized in some way.

Chatbots can make the entire show process easier, more pleasant, and more relevant for attendees — whether it’s during pre-event by quickly answering routine questions or post-event by providing data that show managers can use to improve the show.
Optimizing chatbots for maximum ROI

Because a chatbot is an investment of both time and resources, it’s vital for show managers to ensure the chatbot is well executed. Here are some expert tips:

  • Allot enough time, not just for planning and developing the chatbot program but also for machine learning. The chatbot will need time for its AI to mature and become accurate.
  • The more testing, the better. As many people as possible should test the chatbot, so it can learn to recognize the same question asked hundreds of ways. This is particularly important for international shows, where attendees may use different lingo for certain questions and will invariably have different accents that the chatbot needs to learn to recognize. Pro tip: it takes at least 500 to 600 queries before good accuracy is reached.
  • Consider the environment in which the chatbot will be used. An on-site digital assistant tucked away in a quiet corner may be completely overlooked by attendees. Or if the chatbot is placed in a noisy area, it may struggle to hear questions. A highly visible but reasonably quiet location is generally best. And of course, a mobile version of the chatbot on the show’s app can be a lifesaver during noisy and busy times (such as right before a keynote).
  • It may seem elementary, but a digital assistant is only as good as the internet to which it’s connected. If the digital assistant is not connected via LAN and is relying on Wi-Fi, run multiple tests at varying points during the day to ensure reliability.
  • Promoting the chatbot can go a long way for engagement. At one major show, the chatbot was featured during the opening general session, where the president of the organization interacted with an Amazon Echo onstage and showed attendees how and where it could be used.

Many show managers may feel a little unsure about chatbots initially, but the benefits and ROI can make these devices one of the smartest event upgrades available today.

Interested in using a chatbot at your next event?
Our teams can help!
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