MEETING EXPECTATIONS

There are signs the event tech goldrush is already over. How quickly organisers harness the potential of online meetings will determine the size of any future returns…

Event technology companies have waved the good times goodbye. Buoyed by the asset bubble and the pandemic-driven jump to digital, the industry now faces something of a reckoning as life, and meetings and events, returns to something like ‘normal’.

From the outbreak of COVID in December 2019 to January 2021, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that $13 trillion was injected into the global economy by governments. Much of that was via quantitative easing, which effectively allowed banks and companies to exchange assets (including bad ones) for cash. Never has the global economy seen so much ‘hot money’, and the destination in a world of low interest rates was shares and start-ups. In January 2018, the S&P 500, the index that tracks the performance of 500 of the largest listed companies in the United States, sat below 3000 points.

"Virtual event platforms sparked innovation and investor interest in a world dealing with a pandemic where no one could meet physically."

By the end of 2021, as the world slowly exited a pandemic, the index was at a historic high of 4725. Information technology companies accounted for around 28 per cent of the 500 companies. Only a month earlier, the Nasdaq home to Cvent Holdings, On24, and Zoom Technologies reached its highest ever point at just over 16,000 points. In the first year of the pandemic, American venture capitalists made a record $130 billion worth of investments. If it was a boom time for a few event platforms, it was in an environment of supercharged assets.

Virtual event platforms sparked innovation and investor interest in a world dealing with a pandemic where no one could meet physically. Over several months, hundreds of platforms either pivoted or entered the market. In March 2019, the problem for an event organiser was finding a platform that could host a virtual event. Fast forward 18 months, and the challenge was differentiating the offer from hundreds of providers. A market that scarcely existed pre-pandemic blossomed.

As Tamar Beck, CEO of marketing tech platform Gleanin, suggested, ‘a big bubble focusing on a tiny part of the overall event tech market was created’. Pierre Metrailler, CEO of SpotMe, noticed a ‘pop’ around October 2021. “At that time, I was answering two or three inquiries a week for investment or interest in acquisition,” he says, “but owing to the flat performances of the public companies, private interest has dropped since then.” Pierre’s gut feeling about that final quarter of 2021 is backed up by the market dips in the share prices of the big public three event/meeting technologies.

Zoom Technologies peaked in November, at almost three times the value in early March 2022. Cvent’s highest figure was in December and it is now down over 30 per cent while October was the peak for On24, now down a third on that value.

Jordan Walsh, Delegate Connect's co-founder puts the investment activity down to the absence of a clear industry leader in a sector which, he says, has enormous potential.

“I think the funds that are backing some of the platforms are hoping they will become the Slack of communications or the Zoom of video meetings; they are backing what they hope will be the industry leader. Because the leader in the category is still up for grabs.”

But the leader in what? Event technology suffers from the exact catch-all definition as the events industry as a whole - pulling up a whole host of different experiences and placing them in the same basket. Are we talking about the leading virtual event platform? The top exhibition platform? The best hybrid platform? Or the leading event technology provider?

"As the world started to return to physical events in 2021, virtual event platforms started trying to persuade attendees and organisers that hybrid was the answer to all their problems."

In fact, are we even talking about the events industry? Lalit Mangal, co-founder and CEO of Airmeet, offers a new perspective: “A lens that I would like to use to look at the market is the 1 billion knowledge professionals. Let’s allocate $1000 value for synchronous engagement per annum, that’s a $1 trillion events or experience industry out there.”

Mangal believes that this potential is behind the interest in event technology, along with the slow realisation that the impact of a warming planet is becoming the most critical driver to people engaging virtually.

If hybrid is the answer, what is the question?

What undeniably underpinned the interest and the investment in event technology during the pandemic was the somewhat vague idea of a hybrid event in a hybrid world.

The downward trend in investment interest in virtual event platforms has shown that there is little current desire from attendees and event professionals for the hybrid world that event tech companies have been pushing for over a year. This issue has challenged the event technology industry for more than a decade: how to get their technology adopted.

As the world started to return to physical events in 2021, virtual event platforms started trying to persuade attendees and organisers that hybrid was the answer to all their problems. But it isn’t, in fact, the answer to anything. Event planners who can provide an unmatched virtual and a physical experience will excel, and many planners can do this without platforms that unnecessarily blend audiences. Hybrid is only the answer if the question is: how do virtual event tech investors get their money back? The pandemic indeed showed us that there is a continuing place for technology within our events, but it proved something more critical; it highlighted the issues organisers were having with physical meetings.

A jump to digital events proved that we could all run shorter, smarter, and snappier events, and it created space for meeting design. And painfully, it highlighted how poor our content was. This realisation has crystallised the focus for event planners to improve the quality of the product, ensuring that they look way past the technology towards the more fundamental aspect of their events. Event organisers are once again becoming content creators, pushing content out via publications, websites, and social. Event companies are becoming membership organisations, finally achieving the 365 engagement that has remained elusive to an industry desperate to add more value.

This has accelerated interest in membership and community engagement software, marketing platforms, content creation and editing software, and project management tools. And there is a danger that the “virtual event platform” is left behind. Covid-19 has pushed the events industry from a product to a service industry, and many of the virtual event platforms that pulled in investment still sit at the centre of this pre Covid transactional world. A thriving event technology sector will be built on offering attendees the choice of how to engage with content and make connections.

It will be built on helping attendees find and enjoy the content and the connections most relevant to them. It will be marketing-led, helping planners, attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors to find the right events, amongst the noise. And the events technology sector has the potential to be bigger. Much bigger. In a digital world, organisers have tentatively started to move past the idea that an event is something that people drop into once or a few times a year and think more about a space where people exist. If that trend continues, the valuations of companies and the value event planners provide will explode.