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The Crystal Interactive blog brings you industry insight and advice on the latest tools, technologies and techniques for live and virtual events.

Is free WiFi in our best interests?

There is been an evolution in thinking about Wi-Fi access in venues over the last few years. As the need for connectivity increased, event organisers came to see this as a priority. And progressively, venue-bookers began to stipulate that Wi-Fi should be provided at no cost as part of the deal. Some went as far as to say that if free WiFi wasn’t included when responding to an RFP, that proposal wouldn’t be considered. My own thinking at that time was: “Absolutely right. The future has got to be “free WiFi for all.”

But more recently it has begun to dawn on me that while the best things in life may be free, when it comes to WiFi, ‘free’ may not be the best or wisest solution for large group events.

Going back a step or two, let’s first look at the way many venues sell WiFi and see if there’s scope for improvement there. We have found it to be incredibly tedious – almost designed to frustrate and discourage. First step: turn on computer and attempt WiFi connection. A window opens instructing you to collect the magic code from reception. Next step: wait for lift, descend to reception and stand in queue behind the couple checking-in, the man who’s lost his key and the woman asking directions to the restaurant. Step three: return to computer, key-in 16 digit code and finally get online. Only to have to repeat the whole process all over again the next morning. When you think that you can buy all your Christmas presents on Amazon from the comfort of your armchair in just a few clicks, at midnight, you have to wonder why the massed brains of the hotel industry couldn’t come up with a more efficient process for their business (and indeed leisure) customers to purchase WiFi.

So let’s make the provision of Wi-Fi more streamlined, but let’s also have a think about whether it’s in our individual and collective best interests to get it provided absolutely free.

A few scenarios will help you decide on your WiFi charging priorities:

Imagine you are managing a conference and it emerges early on in the proceedings that a technical problem at the venue results in WiFi being unavailable until the next day. Are you a) severely inconvenienced because the delegates are likely to give poor feedback at the disrupted communication, or b) not particularly worried because WiFi access wasn’t required as part of the programme?

Are your delegates using WiFi for a): uploading event content to the web, and receiving important details about the event, its agenda, sponsors and speakers? Or b): purely personal use outside of the event programme?

What will your WiFi consumption look like? a) delegates using three or more devices each to connect to the internet, or b) delegates using one or fewer devices throughout the event?

Are you expecting your delegates to be accessing WiFi a) throughout the venue? Or b) only in designated areas, such as the lobby? In terms of volume access, do you envisage a) 100% of your delegates needing to connect to the internet all the time, or b) fewer than 50% of delegates connecting for less than half of the time?

Is it probable that a) there will be lots of groups at the venue all having to share the venue’s WiFi resource or b) the venue will be providing a dedicated resource exclusively for your delegates?

You can see where I’m going with this… anybody who answered a) to the above questions is going to need ample WiFi resource with no risk of downtime. In which case it’s much too important a component of the event to ‘hope for the best’ – and clearly a reasonable budget will need to be allocated to ensure sufficient and unbroken access. Based on my own experience, I can confidently say that it’s highly unlikely that a venue could satisfy 100% of its users 100% of the time with free WiFi. Of course, if your answers were mainly b)s you can sleep easy in the knowledge that the free WiFi provision will meet your needs.

Realistically, the future is likely to see increasing demand for WiFi, and the smart solution is to have a conversation with your venue early on in the planning stage, to discover firstly how much capacity is available and secondly what it would cost to meet your WiFi requirements. Many venues still work on the assumption that only a few delegates will need internet access, and certainly not all of them at the same time, which would constitute pretty heavy usage. Based on the outcome of that conversation your options may be to upgrade the venue’s Wi-Fi provision; to change the agenda so that it relies less on WiFi; or to consider moving the event to a better-resourced venue.

It’s quite possible that a third party provider could meet the venue’s WiFi shortfall – but issues of this kind really should be addressed at the planning stage – if you leave it until the last minute your options are severely restricted and you are likely to be obliged to pay through the nose to solve the problem.

As you can imagine, internet connectivity has been high on Crystal’s own list of priorities for many years, and we suffered the pains of patchy WiFi long enough to take this issue very seriously. To us, the inclusion of sufficient Wi-Fi resource should sit right at the top of the meeting planner’s check-list, alongside other key priorities such as car parking, easy airport access and natural daylight meeting space.

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