Cvent CMO on the Outlook for the Event Industry

Despite a surge in prosperity across the event tech sector owing to an industry relegated to virtual event formats, even event tech giants like Cvent and Eventbrite were unable to escape an initial impact that affected  their organizations.

The pandemic proved to be one of the few situations in which a company’s massive girth was not necessarily to its advantage. Pipelines filled with live events emptied and large tech companies had to cut losses — and staff — while smaller, more nimble tech companies could sometimes pivot more quickly.

Nevertheless, Cvent is no stranger to adversity. Sitting down with EventMB shortly after their own pivot to virtual last fall, Cvent CEO Reggie Aggarwal expressed his optimism for the future of the event industry and predicted an ongoing reliance on hybrid events and virtual event technology.

Now, nearly one year after Covid started to ravage the industry (and with no immediate return to large-scale live events in sight), EventMB sat down with Cvent once again — this time with CMO Patrick Smith — to see how much those earlier predictions held true. The product is some fascinating thoughts and valuable advice for event professionals across the industry (edited below for legibility and concision).

EventMB (Julius Solaris):  I had a chat a little while ago with Reggie Aggarwal, CEO of Cvent, and he was laying the path for what was coming ahead. But before we get to that, I want to ask you what 2020 has been like for Cvent?

Patrick Smith: It was an unprecedented year in many respects. For us, it was a year of focusing on the fundamentals, specifically our customers and employees. When the pandemic started really hitting in March, we were doing all we could to help our customers out in a time of financial need. We wanted to give them the industry skills and Cvent training that they needed to navigate through this new world of events. It was also about helping our employees navigate through the pandemic professionally and personally.

I’d also say it was a year of grit, and of pivoting and reacting quickly to what was going on around us. It was a year of transformation, as we quickly launched a full virtual platform and created the largest, fastest growing segment of our business in our history. We launched our product at our Cvent CONNECT event in August, which became  the largest gathering of meetings and event professionals in history. Lots of change happened in 2020, and we have a lot of momentum heading into 2021.

2021 is starting with a lot of uncertainty about what to expect. Cvent is extremely well positioned to understand the dynamics of the market because your product portfolio is very diverse. What can you tell us about what we’re facing?

I think 2021 is going to be defined by how much progress we make with a vaccine and the pandemic. I don’t think anyone knows how fast things are going to be rolled out, or when everyone’s going to feel comfortable going back to in-person meetings. The good news is we have a light at the end of the tunnel: organizations are much better equipped to put on virtual events now. They will remain — especially in the first half of this year — the primary way to meet.

It’s also very important that people understand safe meetings. How do I put on a safe meeting? How do I lay out my space so I have proper social distancing? Rethinking meals and all those sorts of things. And then, how do I pull off a hybrid event? There will be more questions in 2021, but hopefully with a light at the end of the tunnel, with better experiences behind us, and also with an eye to when in-person comes back.

Event technology is undergoing massive change in terms of venture capital investments, but also in terms of mergers and acquisitions (M&A). Cvent was probably the most active in terms of acquiring new companies before the pandemic. How has the pandemic changed that strategy?

We’ve been very acquisitive over the years, as you pointed out, and it will still be a core part of our strategy to add additional talent and capabilities. But during the pandemic, as I mentioned, it was all about the fundamentals: hunkering down, really helping our customers, employees, and the industry navigate the uncertainty. Our immediate focus was elsewhere, but with the outlook improving and the need to meet more important and needed than ever, I’d expect that M&A momentum will pick up on our side.

We tend to talk a lot about meeting planners and their needs, but the impact on venues has been massive. Some are even trying to reinvent themselves by turning into hybrid studios. What is the data telling you in terms of a potential comeback?

We’ve been tracking that closely. With the Cvent Supplier Network, we power the connection of marketers and planners to venues and hoteliers and drive that sourcing process, so we see a ton of sourcing data.

With the surge in coronavirus cases across the Americas and Europe, we’re seeing sourcing numbers that are fairly consistent, even today, with what we saw in the second and third quarters of 2020. We did see some upticks, but lots of uncertainty remains.

Sourcing is obviously down from pre-COVID levels, but interestingly, even at much lower levels than before, the numbers in Q2 and Q3 added up to a few billion dollars, so we continue to talk about big numbers.

We do believe that once the headlines about vaccine distribution and coronavirus cases take a turn for the positive, there’s going to be a robust return to sourcing. We’re very much looking at sourcing levels, but also when it’s happening. We’re keeping an eye on when we might see a huge influx and expect it could happen for late this year and for 2022. The industry should get their sourcing plans ready because what we don’t want to do is have the industry all want to meet and have no capacity to do so.

Do you have any pointers right now as to a specific quarter that looks better than others?

It depends on so many things. I really do think that in the Q3/Q4 timeframe, you’re going to see a lot of people safely put on meetings. They might be different, they might be smaller, but I really think that’s going to happen.

Then in 2022, you’re going to see a big return to in-person. That’s not to say virtual is going to go away at all, but there’s going to be a backlog in driving the human connection — our basic desire to meet in-person. It all depends on the vaccine rollout, personal attitudes and willingness to attend, and also business travel. We think companies will allow people to travel if the business case is there. A compelling event experience constitutes a business case to justify jumping on a plane.

Obviously, Cvent is committed to virtual events. What do you see as the trends that are impacting virtual in terms of the experience and consumption of virtual events?

Everyone has to live with attending meetings each day from behind their screen, so it really comes down to the right content and being able to have an engaging experience. If you have an experience that is compelling, is interesting, teaches you new things, and allows you to meet other people and connect that way, then virtual events are going to be attended and demanded in the industry.

We’ve learned a lot about how to structure virtual events. Just because someone’s behind a computer screen doesn’t mean they don’t need breaks. We also recommend having high production values where possible and giving people compelling ways to showcase their content, and the production tools to allow their event to shine through a computer screen.

The key is threading virtual events into your total events program thoughtfully. The answer isn’t to go all virtual, or to go all in-person. The answer is to figure out your full event program, and to come up with the right event type to fit your needs and what you’re trying to accomplish.

An important part of that is having a technology platform that allows you to leverage all that data together and can power a total event program that includes in-person, hybrid, and virtual. Who attended your last two virtual events that you want to have attend your next event on site? That sort of intertwined information and visibility is what we think is really going to rule the day in the future.

So the state of virtual events in a nutshell? Still hot, will remain important, but aren’t going to take the place of in-person events forever.

It’s almost like we’re heading towards a redefinition of experience design that keeps virtual in mind as well and, therefore, probably a redefinition of the whole event experience in general.

Exactly. A lot of people think of a hybrid event as having one event with two experiences where you have the same people, at the same time, watching an event virtually and in-person. And that’s certainly a viable model, but having engaging digital elements before an event happens and after an event happens, even for your in-person audience, is also a form of hybrid that we think is also going to be important — meeting people ahead of time and consuming the right content, either before your event or after, or both.

There’s no question that what we saw over the last year and a half has been an acceleration of the digital transformation of events and  the understanding that events can be digitized. That’s the best thing to come out of this virtual event landscape. Using event data is going to be a best practice that people who haven’t leveraged it for in-person events will leverage in the future. It’s going to be a best practice to use technology to power your attendees’ experience and interactions, and to allow you to understand activity patterns and data, which we think is a great thing that adds value for all event types, including in-person.

Speaking about event tech, you have an incredible amount of tools available for planners to organize their in person and virtual events. What do planners want right now? How has that evolved between the start of this pandemic and now?

Planners have a mission to build or deepen a relationship with their audience. You do that by providing engaging content, building a community that each audience member can participate in and gain value from, and building a community that a sponsor wants to tap into as well so you can monetize your events.

What planners want are virtual platforms that are built around these factors and these needs. But I think the key thing is that event organizers have a great opportunity to use the digital data from virtual events to understand attendee interests. Seeing what they’re interested in can give you the information you need to follow up quickly and effectively, and also allows you to design your next event better with what you learned.

Leveraging data is a foundational element in our virtual platform, the Cvent Virtual Attendee Hub. You can capture a ton of unique attendee data that seamlessly rolls into our attendee engagement score. It’s really important that you think about a virtual platform — and any event tech platform — from a data perspective, and consider what insight it can give you that showcases attendee interests and how to build the next great event.