Event technology is here to stay. The latest EN Roundtable focused on the topic with 12 event professionals sharing their views. The session took place on 6 June at Grange Holborn Hotel, in London.
Panellists for this session include:
- Sophie Ahmed, event director, Informa Exhibitions
- Hellen Beveridge, head of strategic insight, Circdata
- Stefan Bonczoszek, Symposia, managing director
- Simon Burton, managing director, Ingo
- Kevin Jackson, director of ideas and innovation, The Experience Is The Marketing
- Waleed Jahangir, CEO, Algebra Consulting
- Dom Millar, chief executive, Completely Group
- Katy Roberts, event director, Media 10
- Hannah Todd, senior event technology consultant, Noodle Live
- Jamie Vaughan, senior director, Glisser
Defining event tech
Katy Roberts: When I think about event tech I immediately think of things like apps and iBeacons; things which are more revolutionary in terms of how they are already starting to change the experience for those different sets of people. However, I often have question marks as to how valuable it can be to me. For example, I run a consumer event and when I look at my budget I question whether I need an app.
Waleed Jahangir: I think with technology in the events sector it depends on how the technology is being used; whether it’s being used for visitor engagement, client management or for everyday running or marketing. I agree with Katy; there’s a big question mark with regards to consumer events. I think the first question is, is there a budget and is there an actual need for the consumers for this app? You don’t want visitors to walk around your event on their phone. The face-to-face element has to stay there.
Sophie Ahmed: I would segment it into pre-event and onsite technology; you have to think about what the customer wants, that drives the event strategy and drives what you need technology-wise. For pre-event, there’s two things: one, to get revenue from it and two to increase visitors, and then you have to have set KPIs about how you measure it to make sure you want to spend that budget, and if you’re going to spend more next time then how do you justify it?
Kevin Jackson: I’ve got some real issues with even the phrase ‘event tech’, because I think it’s just tech. All tech is just tech. We’re making it event tech because we presume that there’s a huge demand for tech that’s specific to events, but it’s just tech that has been adapted to events.
Jamie Vaughan: You go to an event and have the audience looking at their phones because they’re checking their email. that’s not event tech, but it’s tech. It’s behavioural tech and it’s what they do now. It’s about embracing that.
KJ: I do think we’re overplaying that. Technology is part of everyone’s live, and it’s a great part of everyone’s life, but what are we trying to do with it? What is the point of it? What are we trying to do with the audience? What do they want? We need to find the tech that solves that need. There is tech that can solve problems, it may not necessarily be event tech but it is tech. What we’ve got to do is broaden our horizons and think about the audience. They have lives outside of the event industry, so what do they do, what do they like, what do they not like, what are we going to do to engage them at our event? How can we support them with technology?
Stefan Bonczoszek: I think a key thing too is how you market the technology. I think there’s quite prevalent ideology that if you build it people will come – and download it and get value from it – but they won’t necessarily do that.
JV: There’s an elephant in the room already. ROI – do I get value? I sold mobile apps for two years and we sold apps that were incredibly expensive, but they had every user’s personal itinerary; their flights, what room they stayed in. It was like your personal PA. Every single person downloaded the app and lived off the app. It was ridiculously expensive so it can’t roll out mainstream, but it’s a great example of how technology can support and will probably edge towards those component parts in mainstream. They’re just not there yet. There a disparity sometimes between what people want and what they get. But it’s evolving.
Simon Burton: Event tech is a term created by people who wanted to sell event organisers technology. It is largely meaningless, but simultaneously we all kind of understand what it means. Tech is frequently created by people who have identified a non-existent problem and have then applied technology and their skills to solving a problem that didn’t exist, and they are pitching without an understanding of the market or how events work. Either that or they have the idea that all events are created equal, which they are not. Every event is different and has a different dynamic.
Hellen Beveridge: Techies build tech and event marketers build marketing programs, event marketing programs are cyclical and other tech builders don’t necessarily build something that understands the rise and fall. They’re priced in a way that expects them to be used 365, but you may only use them for a very short period of time.
JV: This is where feedback is really important; for the industry to say, ‘this is what we’re asking for’.
The magic bullet
James Ormiston: When I was younger I used to work for a marketing director, he was a very experienced bloke, who said to me once, ‘you are always market-driven, not product-driven’. You always have to look for a gap in the market and fill that gap, don’t develop a product and look for a market. Whenever you do anything you have to think, ‘are we doing this for the sake of it or are we trying to justify that we’ve got some bright ideas?’ I do think that with a lot of people you do see it in the event tech world, that people have these great ideas and try to create a market for it.
KJ: Is there a gap in the market that we can serve? But also is there a market in the gap? The problem is that they invent something that isn’t needed.
SA: If we are led by customers then event tech should be too.
Stefan: As a supplier in that area I do think there is a tendency with event marketeers to look for that shiny new thing, because it’s a very creative industry and it has to be evolving. There is a natural desire to find that feature, that one magic bullet that’s going to be this great solution.
JV: We have many corporates who would come to us post-event and say, ‘that was great, we’re now planning next year, what’s new?’ They have to stand up in front of all their Fortune 500 competitors and say they’re delivering the latest tech. We’re absolutely required to invent stuff to make it new and fresh and sexy.
KJ: There isn’t a brief I see now from a corporate client that doesn’t say ‘we want the latest X piece of technology’. Everyone is under pressure to find that thing, but the reality is that thing doesn’t exist.
Finding your niche
WJ: I’ve had companies come to me and offer one software for everything. Which obviously sounds great as an event organiser.
Stefan: That’s why suppliers need to be open to partnership. One thing we learnt very early on was don’t try and build the new N200|GES; stick to core competency and make it open platform. You’ve got to provide a solution and make it easy to work with other tech providers.
JV: Valid point, but confusing for organisers. You get these guys who are an amalgam of different pieces that have been brought together, and who are still massively acquisitive. The niche players are better, but do a very small part of the solution.
KR: Everyone is so time poor. I get all these calls from tech companies. I really just need to know the elevator pitch: what does the product do, and how can it benefit me? 99 per cent of the time I don’t understand what they’re talking about.
KJ: I don’t think they know.
JV: The niche players sometimes don’t have the funds to bring in a sales team, and regional sales teams and bespoke solution sales people so you get a tech response, which is sometimes confusing. Stefan: It’s sometimes a one feature driven thing. You almost feel as if saying, ‘we do all the core technology really well’ isn’t exciting enough, when everything else is being so inflated. You feel like you shouldn’t be selling it if it’s not the next big thing.
Back to basics
KB: One of my biggest problems at the event I’ve just run – which is so basic – is Wi-Fi in a venue. You can talk about apps and virtual reality, but I can’t give a customer adequate Wi-Fi, let alone understand what the venue is trying to explain to me about the Wi-Fi requirements that I need. That is the kind of basic thing; I would love a tech company to come to me and say ‘here is a solution for your vendors at a consumer show to be able to sell their products to a customer’.
SA: We’re all reliant on venue Wi-Fi. No one’s got perfect Wi-Fi, especially if there are multiple people using it.
JO: It’s like mobile phones, we’re now moving towards 5G, but a lot of people in the world would be happy to get 1G. For us, as a registration company, intermittent Wi-Fi is the biggest issue that we face at every venue, because we reply on it to do certain things. We take our own; we’ve got the Wi-Fi network that no one else has.
JV: There are some excellent venues that offer incredible Wi-Fi. And it’s up to organisers to ask about these things first.
Simon: We want internet connectivity because, it seems to me, people want to use it for the basics. They want internet and their emails and perhaps social media. Basic tech tools that people expect as an essential.
WJ: Whether live streaming works depends how you use the technology. We adopted live streaming around three to four events ago and it started primarily when Facebook started doing Facebook Live. What we’ve found with social media is that it’s more effective pre- event, because post-event you’re only getting PR out of it, and you have to wait a year before you get any potential ROI.
JV: We’ve been debating hybrid events and online events for years now, but there’s been a massive fear factor. We put on our own event in London. It was a small thing; we had about 60 people turn up. We pushed real time slides and Q&A online along with a live stream of the event. We didn’t really promote it, but 150 watched it online. Watching something we did as a bit of an afterthought. So more than double online than face to face. And it wasn’t an ‘instead of’, it was an ‘as well as’. It was a truly hybrid event.
Simon: Technology is hardwired into people’s lives. They don’t make a distinction between their experience at a show and what they’re doing every other day. Every time we, as the self-appointed experts, try to add a little nuance or layer we push ourselves further away from the consumers. Someone doesn’t go to a show and film it on Facebook Live and think, ‘I’ve just created a hybrid event’.
JV: The terms are largely for the organisers. Because, with all due respect, I don’t think they get it. They think it’s about face-to-face only.
Simon: I still wonder if using terminology like that pushes us further away, because all the organisers are using this technology in their everyday lives.
HB: The terminology has made people defensive. Rather than thinking ‘I’ll adopt that’, we’re putting labels on things and making them think ‘I’m cannibalising my audience’. There is some very clever technology out there, but the label becomes very off- putting.
Dom Millar: As an organiser we’re quite unique, because we started with the tech. We launched a website, and then there was a demand for the event so we did that. The industry meet virtually, but to actually make deals they want to get together. And we make it very easy and very cost effective for them to do that.
KJ: I’ve done events for eBay because the sellers want to meet each other, they don’t want to live online. Yes they work online but eBay events are those sellers coming together to do a real thing in real time. Live events will never disappear, and we’ve got to be braver about that.