How the Austin Convention Center saved $50,000 by deploying iPads and Filemaker Go

January 26, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO – Until April of 2011, each of the Austin Convention Center’s 170+ events, which includes the high-profile South by Southwest show, required the creation and maintenance of a massive, menacing three-ring binder known as a “Blue Folder”. The problem with the Blue Folder is that, typically, by Day 1, most of the paperwork was obsolete.

“It wasn’t the most efficient process,” City of Austin Database Administrator Jeff Moore admitted. So he and the city’s Convention Center management team set about changing this.

In a MacIT Conference session here entitled "Quick iPad Apps Developed with Innovative Software Tools", Moore explained in granular detail how his team used FileMaker Pro and iPads to streamline project management and execution of the Austin Convention Center's events. (Jeff Moore will also be speaking at TabTimes' own TABLET STRATEGY event on April 27, 2012 in New York City.)

This wasn’t the team’s first attempt at mobilizing convention management. “I’ve only worked here for three years,” Moore told the assembled crowd, “And we’ve been constantly trying to find ways to make our processes more mobile and to get the right information out to people working the show floor.”

In previous iterations, the organization attempted to use Windows-based tablets by Motion Computing and Samsung’s Q1 device. Both proved too cumbersome. A second attempt at mobilization using Dell’s Windows Mobile Axim Pocket PC also fell apart. “There were too many steps involved in turning on the device and using it,” Moore explained.

The release of the iPad solved all of his group’s concerns, particularly around security and management.

But the organization’s IT group had to grunt its way through the initial deployment of iPads, manually installing and uninstalling apps, and using iTunes gift cards and helpdesk requests to allow employees to request app purchases.

Towards the end of 2011, however, IT administrators saw the light and have already begun to switch to AirWatch’s enterprise mobile device management solution, which enables remote iPad set-up, provisioning, and app deployment.

Employees who received tablets were asked to agree to and sign Acceptable Use Policies that dictated they only use iPads for business purposes.

FileMaker Pro, with a few network-side modifications

Because the Austin Convention Center was already a FileMaker shop, developing custom apps for the iPad using FileMaker Go was a no-brainer. In a matter of months, Moore and his team were able to rapidly develop and debug a suite of apps that easily integrated with the organization’s FileMaker database.

An added bonus of FileMaker Go, according to Moore, is that it retains much of the familiar look and feel of iOS, including annotation, hand-drawn diagrams, pinch-zooms, swiping, and other gestures.

Given the speed and flexibility of app development within the FileMaker and FileMaker Go environments, Moore and his team decided to build four distinct mobile apps with a single point of access. The four apps are:

  • Event documents
  • Utility workorders
  • Technical workorders
  • Floor Audits

Connectivity options for syncing and maintaining data posed a few challenges. While the Austin Convention Center has a Wi-Fi network, this network is not hooked into the city’s internal network and internal FileMaker database.

The development team considered a VPN solution, but concerns around sleep-disconnects with VPN ultimately led them down a different path. Moore’s group set up a discrete FileMaker server on the Convention Center’s network, and then used an automated robot script to sync data between this server and the internal FileMaker Utility Services Manager server every five minutes.

“Now each event services employee has up-to-the-minute access to workorders, floor diagrams, trouble tickets, email, and other information,” Moore stated.

He estimates that the ROI on this project was 200%, with annual savings of $50,000 in 2011. “And we didn’t deploy it until April of last year,” he said.

Beyond the pure time-cost savings, this project also had some other key benefits. Event management has witnessed a dramatic reduction in errors. And, more tangibly, it has increased customer satisfaction, which is something that some Convention Center employees receive cash bonuses for.

Finally, Moore anecdotally cites an increased “swagger factor” on the part of employees, who exhibit pride in being able to use such high-tech devices.

What’s next?

Moore said in 2012 his group will be extending its tablet strategy to focus on the following:

  • Add 100 more iPads by Q4, so that 90% of event staff has them
  • Complete switch to AirWatch MDM
  • Develop four more apps, including room configuration lists, security incident reports, purchase manager receiving, and credit card transactions for on-the-spot orders. 

(Come and meet Jeff Moore and other tablet project leaders at the TabTimes TABLET STRATEGY conference in New York on April 27.)

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