By IAEE Board Director Brian Scott, President and CIO of ClearTone Consulting
I’d like to bring up a topic that is near and dear to me – change and the current environment for event organizations. There is so much material and content being produced weekly discussing changes in our world encompassing technology, financial, economic, investment, health, security, risk, human resources – the list goes on and on. In fact, in many cases, there are fairly dire messages being sent regarding the critical need for organizations to prioritize building improved “Change Cultures,” or face certain obsolescence or irrelevance. Digital transformation is a vibrant and maturing process that commercial enterprises have embraced for several years now, and there is solid data supporting the supposition that focus in this area results in success while disregard results in issues.
Yet with all that, I understand the significant challenges being faced by many event organizations and associations. Budgets are stretched tight, resources even tighter, and most are entering back into the face-to-face world with increased challenges and consequences. So many organizations I speak to are simply “heads down” trying to get through their upcoming return to physical events, and have no time to look at the horizon and begin to evolve a new strategic plan to address the world’s changes.
So the questions I would like to pose to you are simple: Is this need for change and addressing the dynamics of the world around us – such as technology changes and worker demographic changes – real and immediate, or are those dynamics sensationalized to some extent and we’re much more likely to return closer to the “way we’ve done business” before? Is your organization talking about this topic or is it something that can be left to the future?
In a recent discussion with colleagues on the subject, Carolyn Bradfield, CEO of Convey Services, shared the following insight that is both thoughtful and a very apt example of these considerations:
Interesting question that you pose – is the change that we are experiencing because of the media hype or will we return to the same plan and processes we had before the pandemic? Before I answer, let me share that I have a built-in bias because I run a technology company and we focus on virtual and hybrid events. But let me give you an analogy that is very appropriate for the day I’m writing this – September 11.
Back then, I owned a conference calling company and when all air flights were grounded for a while, we got phone calls from every customer we had requesting that we set up conferencing accounts for members of their company because they were banning travel for a month. Our business grew by an astounding 40%. We expected that the companies would go back to the way things were before once air travel resumed, but industry-wide, people kept their conferencing accounts because they had discovered the convenience of managing a remote workforce, conducting a virtual sales call and just not having to jump on a plane to do business.
Now, let me relate that to the event industry. I think that there is a strong desire to see people face-to-face, but there is also a strong desire to become more efficient in how people get certifications and training, explore new product offerings, connect with a wider group of people and do so because they are now used to technology to make that happen. Zoom started that trend, but it has permeated every aspect of the event industry.
My prediction is that trade shows, conferences and events will evolve with some live components, maybe on a smaller scale and other components in the cloud and on-demand. I think people expect convenience, want to preserve their budget, and some are going to be genuinely afraid of larger crowds for years to come.
Again, there is built-in bias to my answer because I’ve been a technologist all of my career, but I think everyone needs to figure out what technologies work well and use them and what technologies are less effective and bypass them.
I concur with Carolyn that this major shift in how we communicate and work – both internally within our own companies and externally with customers and partners – will inevitably change the expectations for how we seek, experience, and keep the connections that were once only generated in face-to-face.
It seems to me that this will significantly raise the expectation of the event industry’s customer base in regard to the quality of digital experiences in all event tech platforms. There will be less patience with poorly designed or implemented interfaces, work flows, and integrations. The bar will be raised for all event tech companies, and the tech companies once traditionally outside the event tech industry will see opportunities in displacing incumbents who are laggards to this expectation. If the event tech suppliers think it’s already been a disruptive 18 months, how disruptive will it be when the likes of LinkedIn, Zoom, or Google really start pumping money into more meeting or event tech?
Carolyn noted that we are already seeing a shakeup in the event technology industry. She pointed out that a number of companies rushed platforms to market when the pandemic hit and didn’t have the time to add the appropriate features and functionality. We are also seeing communications companies such as Cisco purchase the webinar or video platform company (i.e. Webex) and add on the event management technology (i.e. Socio).
She does not believe that the LinkedIn’s of the world will start offering event management technology because it’s so far outside the scope of what they do and that the same would be true for Google. They have “hang outs” that are meant for consumer or casual business users, but not for the event world. She also stressed that Zoom is in process of building a platform, but again, they are very late to the event management market and because of their valuation don’t really need to be in the business of surrounding themselves with event management technology. They just acquired Five 9, a contact center platform which indicates they want to wrap their video technology into that marketplace.
Carolyn explained that from her company’s perspective, they are lucky to have had a head start in technology development because they had already been in the webinar industry, so they understood it and had a pretty sophisticated content management system coupled with brand promotion in the telecommunications and cloud channel. Having said that, they had to “up” their game and add elements to their platform to promote attendee engagement, provide exhibitors more ways to promote themselves, and expand their session management strategy.
They surmise that the events industry will now stratify in terms of what it wants from a technology provider. The enterprise (large accounts) will want platforms that connect to their internal systems, use their preferred video platforms, offer a GDPR compliant global footprint, and operate year-round vs. event to event. They also think that smaller organizations with budget constraints will want a more self-serve option to manage costs and to become more independent. They believe these customers will move to go beyond offering simple webinars or streaming events, and wrap functionality around them to make it more interesting and engaging for people to participate.
She summarized that the bar has been raised and as a technology provider, they are listening to their customer base and streamlining processes, making their platform as user-friendly as possible, and adjusting their pricing strategy to meet the self-serve marketplace.
I completely agree with Carolyn’s assessment regarding what will be desired from large accounts and small accounts and that yes, year-round will definitely be king. To clarify, I am not specifically stating that I believe LinkedIn, Google, or Zoom will be entering the event tech marketplace directly, rather I use them as examples of mega-rich companies that could turn their investment eyes in any direction they see fit. When event tech companies started receiving investment amounts over $100M, it became an entirely new experience for our industry and brought a great deal of attention to what may have been rather unknown before. If companies like Hopin continue to behold the incredible valuations they have, it will definitely bring other interests to the industry. The bottom line being that the competition is only going to get tougher for all service vendors.
I’d love to hear from those in the event trenches as to whether the sense of urgency that is written about so often is a reality within your organizations. Feel free to keep this conversation going!