Event businesses have been among the hardest hit by Covid-19. But organisers’ ability to innovate and keep the show running has demonstrated the best of entrepreneurialism in extremely challenging circumstances. Most of us are now familiar with the ‘virtual event’: panel sessions conducted over Zoom, one-on-one networking sessions, and so on.
There is a lot to love about this format for event organisers who can get it right. The costs are lower, attendees can tune in from all over the world and speaker quality is often higher due to the smaller time commitment required. Those who have embraced fully online experiences are finding it easier to understand customer interactions, reactions and actions.
But what comes next? As investors, we’re interested in posing the questions that will help us find the event tech titan of the future.
Let’s think about the pre-covid world. Salesforce’s annual conference Dreamforce all but shuts down the city of San Francisco. Last year, 200,000 people attended. It’s one of the biggest tech conferences globally, and a key event for those of us in software. Why? Because it does three things phenomenally well: content, expos and networking. This is what, to date, people have gathered at events for. We want to hear great stuff, see exciting new products and services in action, and experience those social collisions that only happen in these orchestrated environments.
When we think about companies that are going to innovate in this space, or even define a new category, we should assume they could operate with or without a global pandemic — in other words, you’d choose to attend digitally, even if a physical alternative existed. We’ve already got an idea of what this can look like — after all, immensely popular conferences like WWDC and E3 were doing digital events well pre-pandemic, streaming keynotes for those who couldn’t get tickets.
Clear winners are already emerging. This week, Hopin has announced a $125m raise at a more than $2bn valuation — a company whose meteoric rise is owed largely to the pandemic. Hopin does well what you’d expect it to do: it provides a virtual main space, break-out rooms and speed dating-style meetings. But the very fact the company is doing so well indicates just how much opportunity there is.
What areas might the next wave of innovators focus on?
The sell on content isn’t difficult. We are all comfortable with consuming content from the comfort of our own homes. Presentations, video, audio… already, education, the media and the web itself engage us all virtually; offering online alternatives to historically offline conference content is already established.
The added bonus is that this can become two-sided: attendees get to consume content, while event organisers can track and discover intent. Startups already innovating in this space are finding clear paths for collecting and sharing data: “what content was most engaging?”; “how many people viewed your stand?”. The metrics and insights for participants will be far greater, with higher visibility of engagement.
The data piece becomes even more pronounced with expos, which offer an even greater opportunity to innovative founders: events in a physical space are designed to force people to flow through a space where exhibitors can flaunt their wares — and people avoid expo halls because they don’t want to be sold to. Instead of trying to replicate this online, there is an opportunity to think of a new, better way of doing this, and asking how important in-expo selling is — and why — to different sectors.
Then there’s the social interactions — the incidental bumping-intos, the congregating of groups of people who only see each other at conferences, but for whom there is significant value-add to doing so. How do you replicate going to dinner or for a drink with someone, or a group of people, who live halfway around the world? How do you do it when we’re all Zoomed out anyway? You might as well just call them. Will the event tech titan of the future mimic or reinvent that experience?
There are some interesting parallels to be drawn here with esports and the gaming world: industries that have, for years, done an excellent job of producing high-quality, high-production virtual events, where engagement and interaction is driven by real-time chat, and in-stream commenting and polling. And there are the apps that thrived during covid-19 lockdowns, and continue to do so, like Clubhouse, Discord and Houseparty, which lean on social innovation, rather than trying to digitise the physical world.
In time, the world may move towards various hybrid models, with parallel virtual events that dig into content, with product demos and pitches, and the opportunity for the event tech firms of the future to produce soft and hardware that augments physical venues. Physical elements will likely focus on networking and the spontaneity enabled by face-to-face interactions. Crucially, a hybrid world means that companies are not tied to having to do all of the above: this is a market that can boom with both end-to-end solutions for any sector, while, at the same time, verticalising.
Here is a key opportunity. On content, remote wins — it can be more polished and consumed at leisure. And the digital progression from expos can win, too — putting leads, rather than tiresome opportunism at the heart of interactions. And then data will transform social engagement and networking: if you know about your participants — their work history, what content they consume, what they’re doing at a given moment in time — the sky’s the limit. We’re already on the way to being really good at offering bespoke introductions to millions of people. For founders in this space, the opportunity to build a category-definer, an entirely new way of interacting, has never been greater.