Event Tech Hit by the Perfect Storm

Skift Take

Event tech has slumped lower than investors predicted. The delight of returning to in-person events is laden with a backlash towards virtual events. Nevertheless, event tech is here to stay and there are plenty of reasons to anticipate a recovery.

It’s tough to work in event tech right now, especially compared to the all-time highs of 2020 and 2021. At the peak of virtual events some experts predicted a shift towards and permanently overtaking in-person events. At the same time, venues, destinations and in-person event service providers were struggling to see any path ahead.

Today, the narrative around event tech has changed. In-person events are now common again. The same venues struggling to find a way forward a year ago, are booked solid. They would be even busier if staff shortages were not such an issue.

Event tech is still relevant in many ways, but planners are simply not interested. Talk to any planner or attendee, and they will tell you how happy and relieved they are to be meeting in person again. They don’t want to talk about technology and would be happy never to see another virtual event platform again. 

Short-sighted? Perhaps, and definitely if you ask any event tech CEO, but this is where we are.

Event tech leaders have publicly shared their frustration at the current market conditions. As a digital event provider, we are suffering right now,” said meetyoo CEO Tony Kula in a candid LinkedIn post. Kula explored the feeling behind this post in detail on a recent episode of the Event Manager Podcast.

This is a complex issue. Most event tech companies also serve in-person events, yet the appetite for these products is nowhere near the virtual event platform gold rush of 2020.This will not be the last economic downturn we will see,” said InEvent CEO Pedro Góes in another LinkedIn post that details the ups and downs of the company.

What the Numbers Say

Event tech investors may or may not have seen this coming, but the stocks don’t lie. Zoom stock is trading just above pre-Covid pandemic values of $90, now hovering around $120; down from a high of $599 in October. Cvent, event tech’s largest player, went public for a second time in November 2021 with its shares priced at $10. Now, it’s trading under $5. ON24 is a company that supported virtual events long before the Covid pandemic. It announced an initial public offering in February 2021 with shares priced at $50 — they are now worth less than $12.

But the bubble has not just burst in event tech; it has burst all across tech, including other industries. The chances of a recession hitting in 2022 are odds-on. Investors that have enjoyed a “13-year bull run” are advising clients and partners to plan for the worst

The writing was on the wall earlier this year. In February, Hopin laid off around 12 percent of its workforce. This came less than 12 months after being recognized as Europe’s fastest-growing startup of all time and raising over $1 billion at a $7.75 billion valuation. Layoffs were also reported at companies like Cameo and Mural that are indirectly linked to events.

While the bubble lasted, plenty of bullish investors were in the space. However, it’s hard to find credible data on actual real market size for event and virtual event tech specifically. Unreliable reports bordering on scams are easy to come by. 

In hindsight there was clearly a misplaced feeling that virtual events were here to stay and markets would grow exponentially. A lack of reliable market data is not uncommon in new industries, but the combination of rapid growth and building on top of a largely unstandardized and unregulated industry that cuts through economic sectors may have made it harder to predict a downturn.

It’s Not All Bad News

Despite the obvious market softening, investments are still being announced, albeit for more modest amounts. In most cases, financial details are not made public. EventsAir’s March private equity investment is estimated to have been close to $100 million. Financial details were not disclosed around MeetingPlay’s merger with Aventri and subsequent acquisition of event registration company Eventcore. As impressive as the examples are, they pale in comparison to Hopin raising $400 million and later $450 million in 2021.

Event tech companies that secured funding in 2020 and 2021 remain cash positive but are now looking to spend wisely; boards and investors will be counting every penny. Some investors are focusing on specific verticals. Healthcare content firm BroadcastMed’s acquisition of legacy event tech provider Digitell is perhaps the best example of this.

On the flip side, event tech providers that did not pivot to virtual can now breathe again. Companies that were able to lay dormant throughout the pandemic and are now reveling in the return to in-person events. 

Despite the halving of its stock price, Cvent had a strong business model built before the Covid pandemic and is confident of a strong future performance. In a twist of fate, it is benefiting from a relatively unsuccessful pivot to virtual. The company’s virtual event platform was only used by 10 percent of its user base in June 2021. Although this number may have since grown, Cvent leadership will gladly refocus the company’s efforts away from virtual events.

How We Got Here

The current economic downturn is undoubtedly a result of the Covid pandemic, the Ukraine war, and other external factors. Specifically looking at virtual event tech, there are compounding factors that make the “storm” it is battling even more extreme. 

Throughout 2020 and 2021, the production of virtual events was primarily led by people with ample experience in in-person events. This was a stressful time, even for those who navigated the pivot to virtual with success. Still, the business model around virtual events is very different from in-person events, particularly around commission-based revenue streams. Without a large spend on venue hire and hotel rooms commissions are not enough to support many third party planners.

Hybrid events have been promoted as viable solution, but there is no denying that they can be complex and expensive. Synchronous hybrid events where virtual and in-person audiences interact live never really took off. Simpler versions of hybrid events are becoming mainstream. The most common format is a “live+virtual” where in-person events have a virtual component that features selected sessions. Here, audience interactivity is kept minimal to keep the complexity and costs manageable.

The rise of a hybrid workforce is also a factor. In-person events stand to benefit from the need to unite remote teams with formal events. The dust is yet to settle on workforce issues, and the evolution of business travel practices will also have an impact.

The Dust Is Yet to Settle

While things are looking down, it’s important to remember that the event tech market is still larger than it was pre-Covid pandemic. “Our Q1/2022 was still 10x!!! compared to Q1/2020,” said Kula in his LinkedIn post. 

Across all business sectors, there is much wider recognition of virtual event platforms and other forms of event tech. 

We may not have cracked virtual events, but there has clearly been a dramatic evolution. The full-blown virtual productions of 2022 are very distant from the basic webinars of early 2020. Webinars continue to rank highly as a communications tool and are particularly strong in generating leads for B2B sales.

In-person events may be back, but attendance for most business events is stuck at two-thirds of 2019 levels or lower

Hybrid events have a bad reputation, but we’ve only just started experimenting with them on a large scale. After emerging as far back as 2008 the event industry largely ignored the format’s potential.

Should Covid related restrictions on in-person events, we are in a much better position to deploy virtual and hybrid solutions. As companies race to reduce their carbon emissions, virtual and hybrid events need to be part of the solution. 

All signs point to this being a low point for event tech, but there is no evidence that events will shy away from technology in the long run.