RFID vs. Beacons: which is better?

Michael O' Sullivan
April 18, 2024
6 min read

Tracking people at a trade show is a useful with a variety of uses. The most common are for session tracking, exhibit hall metrics and CEU and accreditation, but event planners can also use this data for food and beverage audits, planning for next year’s event and gathering data on attendee behavior. There are several technologies available for tracking people, but two of the most commonly used are RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) and beacon technology.

In this article paper, we will look at and compare these two approaches and seen which of those two is the better option and under what circumstances.


RFID is a technology that uses radio waves to communicate between a device (called an RFID tag) and a reader. RFID tags can be attached to objects or individuals, and they can transmit data wirelessly to the reader. The RFID tags tend to be low cost and low profile, typically come in a self-adhesive form.

An RFID reader energizes and reads the unique ID number from nearby tags. They typically have a range of a few inches to a few feet, depending on the frequency and type of tag used. RFID tags can be attached to badges using a variety of methods, such as adhesive backing, lanyards, or clips and are usually considered disposable with a minimal environmental footprint as they don’t require batteries.


Beacon devices are small, portable devices that can be placed in a fixed location. They typically have a range of a tens of feet, and often use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signals to communicate with nearby devices. Beacon devices can be attached to badges using a variety of methods, such as adhesive backing, lanyards, or clips. They are physically much larger than RFID tags, typically around an inch in diameter by about a quarter inch thick and are battery powered.

As beacons are battery powered, they have a much longer range than RFID tags and the readers are much smaller and simpler as they do not need to energize the tag in the same way RFID readers do. The economic and environmental cost of beacons, however, is much higher.

In both cases, the badges with RFID tags or beacon devices attached can be worn by attendees at a trade show, allowing them to be tracked as they move around the event.

Encoding and application

RFID tags can be applied manually at the time of registration, or they can be automatically encoded when the attendee badge is printed by using specialized printers and badge stock. This makes the process both seamless and flexible.

Beacons, being much larger, typically need to be attached to the lanyard or badge holder at the time of printing and manually associated with the attendee using a specialized piece of equipment or suitable smartphone-type device. This process is done at the time of printing, whether ahead of time or at the registration desk.

Use cases

Expotools offers solutions using both RFID and beacon technology as each has its application. Broadly speaking, RFID is better at tracking entrances, whereas beacons are better at tracking areas.

This makes RFID the preferred approach for tracking entry or exit to a defined space, such as session rooms, exhibit halls and presentation rooms. Beacons are better suited for applications with less demanding accuracy but where behavioural movement data is of interest. Examples of this are wide, open areas, such as lounges or the exhibit floor itself. While RFID can be used for this kind of application, the deployments can become impractical in the context of tradeshows or events.


RFID deployments are typically easy to determine using just the schedule and floorplan for the event, as the approach is to place readers at the tracked entrances. The equipment itself is visible to attendees, but this offers a unique branding opportunity that can be used to offset the cost of the equipment. As attendees pass by these station-like readers, they are recorded as enteing or exiting. Installation times are usually around 3 to 5 minutes per door.

Beacon readers are much smaller and discrete, but their deployment is far more labour intensive and harder to plan outright as the area to be covered must be blanketed to a certain extent. This has the advantage of not being noticeable, but loses the opportunity for sponsorships and the like.


Both systems offer robust reporting options, but with a different purpose. RFID report focus on providing attendance data for sessions, receptions and the like. As mentioned, this is ideal for accreditation, certification and exhibit hall audits. It also provides the most reliable food and beverage audit for verifying venue charges.

Beacon reports tend to be less of the pure attendance-type as the coverage and range is less predictable. The data from these deployments are geared more towards the heat-map and foot-traffic variety. Attendance data can be gleaned from this, but it lacks the accuracy of RFID systems and is not suitable for the most demanding professional accreditation type applications.


Both RFID and beacon systems can help show organizers meet the challenges they face. RFID offers unparalleled accuracy for attendance data at a lower cost and negligible environmental footprint, while beacons provide better behavioural movement data with less obtrusive installation.

Event success is in the details – from RFID precision to beacon insights, technology elevates engagement.

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