Over the past 12 months, the pandemic has forced a widespread use of virtual tools on the event industry, which has historically been slow to adopt event tech. This has led to an anomalous market in which planners’ need for and reliance on event tech have essentially gone from zero to 60 almost overnight.
In response, event tech providers (many of whom themselves took a big hit in the first and second quarters of 2020) were forced to quickly pivot and reinvent their offering in order to meet market demand without a clear roadmap of what lay ahead. The strategy paid off in 2020, with the event tech sector experiencing massive levels of growth and investment.
However, the next few months represent uncharted territory. According to a recent EventMB survey, 30 percent of planners are still struggling to make a profit with virtual events, and only 60 percent of respondents indicated that they plan to go virtual with their next event.
How will that impact the way things play out for tech providers in 2021?
We spoke with five event tech leaders to get their take on these unusual circumstances and how they view the future of the industry.
Virtual Has Changed the Market Forever
While each tech provider we spoke with agrees that there will be a return to in-person events in some form, they also note that conditions have been permanently changed due to the pandemic.
EventMobi CEO Bob Vaez points out that the industry — and society as a whole — will likely not return to normalcy as we knew it: “The general societal attitudes towards how we spend our time and how we consume content have changed forever.” For example, remote working used to be a distant fantasy for many office workers, but the shift to working from home en masse has proven that remote work is as valid and effective as any other. Whereas going into an office or going to an event used to be a given, it now constitutes an ask.
Joe Schwinger, founder of MeetingPlay, echoes this sentiment:
“The mindset of companies and planners will always be distorted by what has happened over the last 12 months — the norms of individuals across the spectrum have changed. The things that have been invented and come to market in the last 12 months, I haven’t seen in the 8 years that I’ve been running MeetingPlay.”
-Joe Schwinger, Founder, MeetingPlay
Vaez notes that, as a result, certain events such as user conferences may not have a large-scale return to in-person; online events allow companies to reach their entire user base, as opposed to the 5-10 percent that used to attend in person. “From a business standpoint, that could make more sense even though it’s not the same type of experience,” he says.
He predicts that a lot of businesses will be forced to assess whether it makes sense to organize in-person meetings given the lower attendance — whether due to Covid restrictions or attendee preferences, or both — along with the lower cost, shorter lead times, and higher reach provided by virtual.
SpotMe CEO Pierre Metrailler’s experience corroborates Vaez’s prediction: “Imagine you’re the CFO of a $60 billion company. For 20 years, you’ve spent 1 percent of your revenue on in-person events — a whopping $600 million annually. In 2020, you only spent $60 million on your [virtual] events, and your revenue grew by 5 percent. What we’re hearing from the C-suite is that they won’t spend that $600 million in the future.”
Virtual Has Left Its Mark
Overall, the event tech sector is confident that virtual will have a permanent place in future event strategies because planners and other stakeholders simply can’t go back now that they’ve experienced the marketing potential of online engagement.
Despite planners repeatedly indicating their struggle with virtual engagement and eagerness to go back to the way things were, tech providers are telling a different story.
“I don’t see that engagement problem,” says Metrailler. “Actually, virtual events are doing a great job at accurately measuring engagement, and our clients are telling us the numbers are great. In contrast, in-person events are extremely challenging to measure. Everyone feels there is engagement, but it’s hard to prove.”
EventMobi has been experiencing similar results. Vaez explains that around 90 percent of registrants to their events show up and are actively engaged. “The basic test for a software product is the user engagement, and the user engagement for online events was off the charts.”
Of the customers who pivoted to virtual last year, Vaez believes “the majority of them would agree that the remote audience would be a significant part of their success if they go hybrid.” He also shares that a lot of customers decided to wait things out and thus didn’t have any sort of online engagement, but “are now regretting not connecting with their customers.”
According to Jim Sharpe, CEO of Aventri, a recent Aventri survey found that 89 percent of event organizers feel that virtual won’t be going anywhere after the lockdowns are lifted, and our data concurs, with 70.8 percent of respondents to our State of the Event Industry Report research indicating that they plan to continue to employ a digital strategy once they return to physical events.
“We’ve learned that virtual has some tremendous benefits in terms of expanded audiences and new revenue forms, as well as ways to reduce risk and environmental footprint. The market for virtual is still evolving, but overall I do think that at this point everybody is convinced that virtual is an extremely important part of the event management stack going forward.”
– Jim Sharpe, CEO, Aventri
Data Will Dictate the Longevity of Digital Engagement
Furthermore, Cvent CMO Patrick Smith emphasizes the value that virtual learnings will bring to events as a whole:
“We believe the move to virtual is going to usher in a new era where events are going to be more numerous, impactful, and measurable than ever before. Digitizing an event provides massive attendee intelligence at scale, and that desire to understand what attendees want will also carry over to in-person and hybrid events.”
-Patrick Smith, CMO, Cvent
He explains that this type of data will be particularly interesting to marketing departments who are “seeing the power of all this information that they can get.” The key going forward, therefore, is figuring out how to build a total event program that maximizes the best of all of these worlds.
These and other insights are going to go a long way in ensuring the longevity of virtual event platforms despite whatever challenges or learning curves they might entail. Vaez points out that, while people may be eager to go back to in-person events and planners may be eager to go back to familiar formats, the decision makers will follow the data.
“Everyone has to offer two tickets now: in person and online,” says Vaez. “The numbers won’t lie — in 6 months or a year from now, when attendees have more of a choice, we’ll see what the ratio is, and at that point it will become very clear what people want.”
If virtual and hybrid events make sense from a business standpoint and are providing concrete, reliable metrics to measure ROI, they’re going to continue to be pushed for by internal stakeholders, whether it be the marketing department or the CFO.
Preparing for the Return to In-Person
Beyond their continued investment in virtual, event tech platforms are beginning to tackle the new market demands that are arising from the slow return of in-person and hybrid events.
“We believe hybrid needs to be simple,” explains Sharpe. “We’re investing in technology that makes the hybrid experience easy to launch and manage, easy to attend and navigate, easy to network within that setting of both live and virtual components, and easy to determine ROI.”
He also notes that Aventri is seeing “tremendous pent-up demand” and expects a strong return in the third and fourth quarter 2021, while acknowledging an inevitable adjustment while Covid restrictions are in place and there is continued need for health and safety guidelines onsite.
MeetingPlay has also been “doubling down on investment in R&D” and developing tools for onsite attendees. “What you’re going to see is an evolution of some of the things that we’re doing smaller, but blowing them up to a larger capacity,” explains Schwinger. “Our seat selector is our long-term strategy, but a little flavor of it.”
Other features in development include timed entry through boarding groups as well as proximity sensing to tell attendees what table is open for them to get their name badge. Most importantly, planners and providers will need to ensure that neither the in-person nor the virtual experience will take precedence over another.
Sharpe notes that this is top of mind for Aventri as they invest in the onsite experience, and that none of the safety or tech features being implemented are meant to depersonalize the onsite event. Instead, the tech will help to empower the onsite experience and will provide valuable recommendation engines and personalization capabilities that will allow the in-person attendees “to make the most of the fact that they’re engaging in a digital way when onsite.”
The past year has had a massive impact on the events industry, the full extent of which still remains to be seen. Overall, tech providers are optimistic about the future of the market and are continuing to invest in both virtual and hybrid offerings, as well as tools to ensure a safe return to onsite events.
Ultimately, it will be up to attendees to decide which format they prefer and are willing to devote their time to, which will inevitably impact future business decisions and tech adoption.