A wide range of providers have emerged over the last 18 months to serve increasingly complex virtual and hybrid events, and if there’s one thing that separates the veterans from the rookies, it’s support. Will new players find the right balance of price and service level?
The event industry tends to be slow to adopt new technology, and while event tech proficiency is improving, the increasing complexity of event formats and the rapid introduction of new technology over the course of the pandemic has produced a steep need for stellar support.
Many tech providers are responding to this need by simultaneously marketing themselves as both the best-supported solution and so easy to use that you don’t need a technical background — and in many cases, neither promise seems to hold up.
Is there a disconnect between the support event professionals need and the support actually on offer? Are planners looking for an out-of-the-box ‘do it yourself’ solution? And in the context of a complex B2B event, is that a realistic expectation?
Early Development of Event Tech Support
Ten years ago, registration software was already common and event apps were beginning to gain some traction, but many planners’ project management systems and supplier databases still lived in massive three-ring binders. Decision makers were themselves just getting used to smartphones, and the highest tech alternative to lining up behind a mic to ask a question was to stick it in a nerf football and toss it around the room.
Tech providers — and event app providers specifically — were trying to sell a solution to a problem that many event professionals weren’t even aware of. Eliminating friction was absolutely crucial, and that meant investing in support. Wide-eyed founders leading small ragtag teams assigned Dale Carnegie and Delivering Happiness, Zappos’ customer service bible, as mandatory reading. What some industries considered ‘above and beyond’ support became a baseline standard for event tech.
But as the market matured, event professionals became more tech savvy and tech providers turned their attention from surviving to scaling. “There was a move to stratify and monetize support,” says Jim Sharpe, CEO of Aventri. This often took the form of tiered support at different price points.
For many providers, however, the move was neither popular nor practical. “There isn’t anybody who doesn’t need immediate support,” says Pierre Metrailler, CEO of SpotMe, “and given the volume, it was too much work to triage it.”
In 2020, the pandemic forced providers to once again return to market with new, untested solutions and formats — and while the industry was forced to embrace virtual and hybrid events, many planners still struggle to see the value of using virtual event tech, let alone learning a whole new set of skills to support it.
Tech providers will once again have to return to Zappos-level support to serve the market — a lesson that many new players are learning the hard way.
New Event Tech Providers Lag on Response Times
Former EventMB editor-in-chief Julius Solaris recently kicked off a debate on LinkedIn when he questioned how well providers were factoring support into their scaling strategy. A small chorus of event professionals chimed in with confirmations of a lack of industry understanding from tech providers.
“Even when I talk to the most tech-savvy planners, there is a level of support that is expected and needed that often is just not there,” says Liz Caruso, the CEO of Liz King Events and techsytalk.
That disconnect manifests in everything from user experience design to the way platforms market their solutions, says Caruso. “They think they know why an event planner needs their solution, but they’re kind of guessing at everything from the way planners want to apply it all the way through to the support.”
Metrailler attributes this to a fundamental failure on the part of new developer-founders to understand the time-sensitive nature of event stakeholders’ needs. Buzzwords like “agile” and “iterative” might make sense for some SaaS companies, but performance in events is attached to fixed, non-negotiable calendar dates. You either released a feature that you already sold in time for the event or you didn’t. There are no do-overs or iterations.
Support is the same: You either responded in time or you didn’t.
Caruso may have been willing to overlook slow response rates early last year as tech providers scrambled to develop solutions and struggled to scale their support offering at the pace of their unprecedented growth, but the excuse is wearing thin 18 months into the pandemic. “Even some major companies can take days to respond,” she says.
“You need the support resources to facilitate a time to first response of like 30 seconds,” says Metrailler, adding that most service-level agreements now explicitly require it. One mechanism for achieving this kind of instant response is live chat, but ironically the overuse of awkward chatbot canned responses has led to a general distaste for it.
Using chatbots to convey knowledge base articles in lieu of real human interaction is a frustrating way to over-promise and under-deliver. “[Tech providers] that leave their chat unmanned essentially render it an email interface,” notes Caruso.
Shouldn’t Platforms Just Be Easier to Use?
“Could an alternative just be building a software that requires less support?” writes Dylan Shinholster, who joined event tech platform ViewStub as their Chief Experience Officer at the outset of the pandemic last year.
EventMB put the question to Jim Sharpe, CEO of Aventri, who offered a simple yet diplomatic explanation:
“There’s no more important movement in the industry than trying to create tools that are easy to use. Tools should be easy to buy, easy to use, and tough to leave. [But] there can be hundreds if not thousands of decisions going into [the technical implementation of] a high-stakes event, and those responsible for navigating all those decisions take comfort in knowing that support is on hand as an insurance policy in case something goes wrong.”
– Jim Sharpe, CEO of Aventri
This reality about supporting the event industry is underscored by the fact that the role of the event planner is itself becoming more demanding. “Event professionals have become more tech savvy,” says Sharpe, “but the planner role is getting much more complex with new formats, fewer resources, and rapidly evolving technology.”
“Event professionals run the gamut,” notes MeetingPlay founder Joe Schwinger. “You’ll never be able to solve for the person who doesn’t know how to use a computer, so while you obviously want to make the platform as intuitive as possible, some planners are always going to need a high level of support.”
“A lot of tech providers launch full-blown services that almost replace the planner because it’s easier to have someone who really knows their product to execute against it. But if that’s a service they think clients would find useful, why would they think that any other planner wouldn’t need a pretty high level of support?”
– Liz Caruso, CEO, Liz King Events and techsytalk
This increased role complexity has changed the nature of the support needs as well. Metrailler explains that about half of SpotMe’s support tickets are the standard technical ‘how to’ requests, but half are design-oriented conversations about how to strategically implement the technology to accomplish higher level goals as event professionals “get to grips with virtual and hybrid event planning.”
Complex Events Require Advanced Support
The consensus from all the veteran event platforms EventMB interviewed is that seasoned event organizers who plan complex business events require complex solutions, and there tends to be an inverse relationship between event complexity and how ‘DIY’ or ‘out of the box’ you can make an event tech solution.
This fundamental understanding is essential for supporting ‘tier 1’ enterprise events, says MeetingPlay founder Joe Schwinger. “There was a gold rush to take advantage of the market,” says Schwinger, but new providers that came into the market with half-baked support infrastructure “will have a tough time breaking into tier 1 contracts.” Basic offerings relegate you to “tier 3 (and maybe some tier 2) business.”
Caruso notes that those platforms that haven’t scaled their customer-facing services are no longer going to cut it. “Buyers in the industry have enough experience at this point to be more discerning,” she says, “and planners are saying the only way to differentiate yourself at this point is to provide that support.”
This is evident in the increased due diligence on the part of enterprise clients to conduct extensive support SOC2 audits, says Metrailler: “What is your response time? What are your escalation routes for various types of issues? They want to see how everything is done.”
These requirements may even extend to the location of the support team in order to comply with GDPR and other region-specific data management requirements.
Support vs. Service: How Are Tech Providers Closing the Gap?
MeetingPlay has built its offering around bespoke solutions and until recently has managed the implementation of their tech on behalf of their clients. “Providers should be an extension of the planners’ teams,” says Schwinger, who adds that there is a stronger case for full-service implementations now that “many clients have been hard hit by cancelled events, staff furloughs, lost business, and shrinking departments.”
This raises another important question: With much of the industry in recovery and under construction, are planners willing to pay for the extra support they need?
Metrailler agrees that platforms should be prepared to offer full-service event builds, but emphasizes the distinction between support and service, where doing work for planners is a service with a value.
This approach makes higher level support available as needed, but encourages users to learn the platform and become self-sufficient. One way to accomplish this is to pair timely and instructive ‘microtasks’ with on-the-spot upsells. Planners who need support can either subscribe to a ‘teach a planner to fish’ philosophy by learning how to do something within the platform, or can purchase access to SpotMe Forge, SpotMe’s event building service, to have the task completed for them.
The reality is that, while many experienced event professionals would likely agree that platforms shouldn’t be confusing and should be well-designed, they may not be wholly sold on full-service solutions or the promise of ‘DIY’ empowerment.
Upwardly mobile, strategy-oriented event professionals aiming for higher level positions would benefit from platforms closing the complexity gap, but don’t want themselves to be extricated from the process.
“Some planners would rather not use [full service],” says Caruso. “They think the value they’re offering their client is their perspective on the event design, and they need support to implement their vision — especially if that entails deviating from the platform’s potentially narrow use case.”