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Founder of Event Manager Blog, Julius Solaris is considered one of the original industry thought leaders behind the rise of event technology, which helps meeting planners deliver better attendee engagement and event metrics.
He was also the catalyst behind the launch of the #IMEXpitch event startup competition at IMEX America and Frankfurt, two of the biggest annual meetings industry trade shows, which we covered last month.
When it launched in 2007, Event Manager Blog spurred a new meetings media vertical that has since blossomed. Event bloggers, event tech company blogs, and other digital platforms are now providing the wealth of knowledge around event tech, versus the traditional meetings trades.
Although, Solaris is wary of the quality of content coming from the event and event tech communities because he believes most of it is biased and lacks research.
Following is our conversation with Solaris about the wide-open opportunities for the meetings industry, lead by a surging field of event tech startups.
Skift: When did event startups become mainstream?
Solaris: Really in 2009 when we started to look at this emerging sub-culture of startups dedicating themselves to the event industry, outside of the big guys that had been around from the dot-com boom era like Cvent. We’ve seen the evolution. I’ve been following that, and I’ve been featuring them on the blog and making sure that they got the exposure.
Because I think that by attracting the interest of more developers that create great products and technology for the industry, it’s a way of making meetings better. There’s a lot of problems, unsolved problems, that the industry has that today’s technology can provide solutions for, outside of ticketing or mobile apps, which is mostly the two key drivers of technology now.
Skift: How were you involved in the development of the #IMEXpitch competition?
Solaris: I suggested to Miguel Neves, the content director at IMEX, “You know, why don’t we do a startup program during IMEX?” That was a great opportunity for those in startup culture, who are usually in tech culture more than events culture, to get to know more about the industry. There’s a lot of industry education that these people need when approaching the events industry, and IMEX is a perfect forum for that. Sometimes the startups completely miss out on he dynamics of events, or the meetings industry in general. They don’t know how it works.
Skift: What’s the benefit for startups who don’t win the competition, and for the industry in general?
Solaris: It’s a great opportunity for these people to come into the industry and learn more about how it works. And at the same time for investors and venture capitalists, it’s really about understanding the opportunities of the events industry, and investing in technology for the events industry. But despite being a huge money-generating industry, there’s not a lot of investment in terms of the technology compared to the potential, right?
The point is we want to raise that piece. Obviously, there are two types of meeting planners. There’s the early adopters who want to try new things. They are very, very up to date with new and cool things. They’re usually our readers, I guess. Then there’s the laggards of meeting planners who are sort of catching up, and then sort of joining in. It also depends on the type of events they work with. Sometimes that drives the adoption much faster.
Skift: You said there’s lots of unsolved problems in the events industry that tech can solve outside of registration and event apps. What are some of those problems you see?
Solaris: One of them that I see is content and how you select content at events. Up until now, the process is usually a planner picks speakers based on whatever — a speakers bureau or a recommendation — but I feel a lot of the most innovative events right now crowdsource a lot of that.
Crowdsourcing speakers and the content for a conference is really innovative, but there’s no platform that really facilitates that. If you look at South by Southwest, for example, and how they do the SXSW Panel Picker type of thing, they develop their own solution. For the rest of the industry, there’s no actual solution that helps people to vote for the session they would like to see at a specific event, for example. The crowdsourcing of speakers, in a sense, that’s still an unsolved issue. I know some people are working on it now but it’s still a problem there.
Skift: You also said earlier that there’s not enough investment in event tech in relationship to the opportunity, so what are one or two areas that are prime for investment?
Solaris: Obviously 2015 specifically has been the year of engagement. Live engagement during events is becoming probably one of the fastest growing themes in the industry. We have 1,200 startups database at Event Manager Blog, and we monitor whatever gets created every week. Every week we get 10 to 15 new startups submitting, essentially, to the database.
We look at what the tech providers are creating. The first wave was online registration. The second wave was mobile apps. The third wave now is engagement. By engagement, I mean live Q&A, live polls, social media walls, creative use of Bluetooth, or whatever works with stimulating engagement at events and creating engagement at events.
That’s becoming probably one of the hottest areas. That’s one of the quick wins, as I call it. All that type of technology should attract the interest of investors right now because that’s the fastest growing in the industry.
Skift: There’s been a lot of buzz around that, but it’s been a couple of years now since companies like Sli.do, Conferences.io, FreemanXP and others launched that engagement technology. It seems like the technology is already there.
Solaris: Yeah, it seems like it’s there, but once again the plethora of problems to solve is still quite huge. Implementing a Q&A tool, for example, that’s something super straightforward. It doesn’t really require a lot of effort, but at the same time, to do it properly and to actually stimulate engagement, getting people to use it, that’s still a challenge. There’s not a lot of companies that actually achieve that. The ones you mentioned probably are the ones that are doing better. They are experiencing incredible growth, as far as I’m aware. They are growing. It is happening.
Now, is it mature in terms of the market? Absolutely not. There’s a lot of things that can be done. If you take iBeacons and Bluetooth technology, as well as audio beacons, the opportunities there to create very immersive experiences are huge. The audio beacons, which are beacons essentially but without the Bluetooth, are exciting. LISNR, for example, just received a huge funding round.
The possibilities are endless, and the current technology available is by no means taken advantage of. Most of the technology that you mentioned out there, there’s still apps that you need to download or you’d have to go to a website. Still that’s becoming quickly part of the past. We’re looking at pushing content to the mobile phone, obviously if there’s consent to that. The potential there is huge.
Skift: You broached the million-dollar question. How do planners and event tech people stimulate people to engage with event tech?
Solaris: I believe if there’s a true value in using technology at events with the audience, you don’t have to force it. It should be natural, organic, and part of the process. We don’t have to feel the pressure of jumping on tech and using it because it’s cool, or because our competitors are doing it. Does it actually delivers value for our audience? That’s the first question I would ask, and in some instances it doesn’t. There’s no point in having an app for an audience that doesn’t care about pulling out their mobile phone.
Obviously, once you define that, it’s important to stimulate the use. The reasons that some events succeed is based on a few things. People engage with event tech at events that really incorporate the use of tech. It’s also based on how they design the sessions, and how they design their event, and how they communicate the presence of technology at an event. Most of the failures are due to the fact that the technology has been put in place, but there’s no communication plan to support it. So attendees are not aware of the fact that there’s a technology there that can help them, and that it’s easy to use.
Skift: How can the industry do a better job of educating planners on the value of tech in terms of the business outcomes?
Solaris: Content is really important, I feel, but our commitment as people that write on these topics is to really give the most researched and independent information as possible. The trend in content marketing among the tech industry is not helping because there’s a lot of content out there that’s coming from tech providers themselves. And as much as I appreciate the fact they try to be cool and engaging, it’s not unbiased. It carries an intrinsic sort of biased perspective.
I’m a big believer of researched content. Whenever we put out our reports, they’re thoroughly researched. Our responsibility is to publish content that event professionals can rely on, not just because it’s cool or the fashion of the moment. Getting good quality content it’s something that event professionals should think about. Education-wise and delivering value, there’s no substitution. There’s no magic trick there and there’s a lot of research that needs to be done.
Skift: It seems like there needs to be a clearer examination of event tech and its direct business impact. What are you thoughts about that>
Solaris: It’s funny to me because when it gets to things like venues, for example, event professionals are not in the business of making sloppy decisions. They research it very well. They do very detailed RFPs (request for proposals) because they know they are making a huge investment in venues, and they know the investment has to deliver.
When it gets to technology, all of this gets forgotten for some magic type of paradigm that I don’t understand.
We have to keep in mind that we are making a business decision whenever we go and get into technology, and it has to go through the same process as our other business decisions. We shouldn’t make any shortcuts because Twitter is cool or Facebook is cool, and everybody is using it. These shortcuts, we cannot do that for venues. I can’t say, “Okay, let’s go to that venue because it’s a cool venue.” It has to make sense for my business, for my event, for my audience. I can’t suddenly discount all of that.
The same approach has to stand true for technology. We have to have the same type of analytical approach, and really ask ourselves, “Can I have value using this technology? Does it make sense to make an investment?” Technology has to deliver on a meeting planner’s objectives, because an event is a small mini-business, and we have to deliver on business objectives. Technology is an enabler of that process. It helps us to get to our objectives better, faster, and more effectively if well selected.