Event Wifi Essentials: Everything You Don’t Know

On June 7 in 2010: Steve Jobs stands in front of a crowd of journalists, bloggers and Apple employees to demonstrate the newest features of one of the most dramatic reincarnations of the iPhone yet – the iPhone 4. He frustratedly looks at a message on a giant screen prompting him to connect to the cellular data network due to the lack of event wifi. It’s easy to imagine a small army of frantic underlings and network engineers racing to restore connectivity. It was everyone’s event wifi nightmare come to life.

Event wifi fail

You may or may not be running an event or meeting with the stakes of an Apple product release. Regardless, connectivity issues at your event can create palpable frustrations among both attendees and event organizers alike. But short of being a network engineer yourself, most event organizers are left confusedly scratching their heads (or dramatically adjusting their budgets) when it comes to providing better event wifi.

“Our attendees complain every year that the wifi is awful in the convention centers. We also have several speakers that request event wifi but it’s not always 100% reliable,” says Becky Walker Sobeck, Conference & CEU Manager for Athletic Business Conference & Expo. When both attendees and presenters have expectations about your event wifi but the solutions are elusive, what considerations do you need to make as an event organizer? And just where exactly do you start when it comes to making choices about your event wifi?

1. Who’s using my event wifi and for what?

It may seem like a no-brainer, but the best place to begin when evaluating your wireless options is with the users themselves. Who is trying to connect at your event?

The Attendees

In most instances – especially when it comes to association events or trade shows – the people that will be looking to connect to event wifi are your attendees and exhibitors. Often times, however, the focus of these events is to turn a profit. If you’re running a cost-conscious event, a dedicated wireless solution probably isn’t for you. In this case, you’ll want to know more about the venue’s in-house internet service provider and network, or simply rely on the attendees’ cellular data networks. It keeps costs low but could also keep tensions high for those dropping signal or struggling with slow speeds.

Executives and Presenters

Ian Framson is the Co-founder and CEO of Trade Show Internet, a company that provides dedicated network solutions for events. He says, “For corporate meetings – especially private corporate meetings – where it’s a sales or vendor conference, the meeting is focused around productivity. If you don’t have reliable connectivity, your productivity goes out the window.” In this instance, event wifi may be mission-critical, and an organizer might want to consider a third-party dedicated network solution.  “The cost of event wifi becomes a productivity cost and it’s not measured against ROI,” says Framson.

2. Who’s going to pick up the cost of my event wifi?

Depending on whether it’s just attendees using the internet, or you have a more critical productivity-based need, the cost of event wifi is going fall with either you, your attendees or somewhere in between.

Providing Event Wifi
The Attendees

Most of the time, it’s not going to be practical to supply event wifi for your attendees. While they may see maintaining a snappy connection to their social networks and personal blogs as a must, factoring those conveniences into your event’s bottom line may not be the most sensible choice. In this case, you’ll be relying on the personal data plans they’ve purchased for their own devices – the most cost-effective and simplest solution by far.

The Venue

Most venues will offer some sort of in-house connectivity, and the cost is likely to be shared between you and your attendees. Whether it’s being subsidized in the price of their hotel rooms, or it’s been factored into the cost of the venue itself – you’ll be at the mercy of the venue’s network infrastructure and internet service provider. Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into in this situation. If you’re going to be relying on an in-house solution for your event wifi, it’s important to know the right questions to ask of the venue. (More on this later.)

The Organizer

If you’re looking to put a price on connectivity, Ian Framson of Trade Show Internet encourages event organizers to ask themselves “What is the business purpose?” If your “business purpose” is the main event, you might find yourself considering a dedicated custom event wifi solution. At this point it’s best to bake it into your budget as early as possible. It may be the most expensive solution, but it’s hard to beat the peace of mind a service like an on-site network engineer can afford at crucial meeting moments

3. What event wifi questions should I be asking?

If you’ll be relying on the venue for event wifi, you’re going to want to be as informed as possible about the connectivity’s scope and limitations. Framson suggests the following essential questions for the venue’s IT Manager:

  • Do you have a distributed antenna system (DAS)?
    • A note on DAS: Cell phone signals are at the mercy of a variety of environmental factors. If you’ve ever had a great cell connectivity experience in a big building or underground, it was likely the result of a DAS. A DAS is like an in-building cell tower and, when properly installed, can boost data connectivity for users by amplifying carriers’ signals. If you’re lucky enough to have a venue with a DAS, make sure to find out what areas are covered and which carriers are participating. A DAS that only supports Verizon event wifi at a venue where most of the devices will be connected to AT&T won’t do you or your attendees much good.
  • Is there wifi in the meeting space? If so, what is the capacity of the wifi network?
  • How many devices can be online at the same time before the system crashes?
  • How much bandwidth will be dedicated to our meeting?
  • What sort of guarantees can you offer?
  • What is the backup plan if the primary provider goes down?

Framson says it’s best to get the answers to these questions in writing, with an added financial penalty if anything goes wrong. “This aligns everyone’s incentives and shows them you mean business – that you’re going to hold them accountable for what they’re promising you.”

Knowing how your attendees will behave at your event can also help to provide the correct type of connectivity. While communicating when leading up to the event, consider taking a survey of how many devices each attendee plans on using and which carriers they will use to connect.

Understanding event wifi essentials can help mitigate any frustrations you may have with venues’ offerings. Like many event organizers, Becky Walker Sobeck is hoping for more from her venues. “We are looking forward to the future when convention centers have better options and price points for dedicated event wifi for our attendees.”

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