Is the meeting and events space on the cusp of a distribution revolution? There's still a ton of work to be done, but signs are promising if hotel chains become more engaged.
Event technology has helped revolutionize the process of planning a meeting along with the experience for attendees.
The space is crowded with competing products and platforms, however, adding an additional layer of complexity for planners.
In our new Event Tech Evolution Interview Series, we’re talking to leaders at the companies defining the future of the event technology space with an eye on the trends and disruptions to come. You can read all of the articles in the series here.
As event technology has become more complicated, it’s also simplified many established practices for meeting planners.
“People are looking to you to be the expert in something and then they want to use other experts in other areas,” said Ron Shah, founder and CEO of event technology platform Bizly. “I’m not going to say Bizly is going to be expert of every single thing in meetings. We are really, really good at booking meetings, sourcing venues, and helping with other aspects so we want to create a provider network that allows you to plug into other things you love using.”
Bizly lets meeting planners avoid the annoyances of the traditional request for proposal process with a digital platform that allows them to price and book event space for small meetings online. As many different platforms compete for marketshare, planners will likely look to combine their favorite services as they design and plan an event.
Skift interviewed Shah for the first entry in our Event Tech Evolution Interview Series. Skift spoke to Shah about complexity in the event technology space and how the proliferation of options from planners is leading to a more flexible, and connected, future.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Skift: A big part of the headache of planning a meeting is finding the right space at the right price, but the goals of a hotel don’t always match up with the needs of an event. How are event tech companies trying to fix this problem?
Ron Shah: How are the hotel brands looking at the world? I think that they all recognize that some change is needed.
What the industry suffers from is that there’s not a global distribution system for the event space. There’s no way to plug into something and know when space is available and what the price is. The reason is simple: the hotels need to maximize revenue because every meeting has guest rooms attached to it. They don’t want to make it visible because if they sell it to someone first, then they might lose out on revenue. They have to kind of play this game. In the future algorithms and data will be able to give them much more accurate forecasting for when to say yes.
You could algorithmically give your sales team at your hotel a tool that says, “Hey, this event fits all the boxes. We know what the seasonal demand is for this week in Denver and so we should definitely say yes to this.” The system will tell you to say yes.
I know that Marriott and others have some kind of rudimentary systems but they’re not very good because they’re not linked to what other hotels are seeing and what other restaurants are seeing. I think that the future of that sort of volume, sourcing side of the world is really to have much more intelligent systems [analyzing] demand and pricing.
Skift: What about the role of technology in the actual event experience?
Shah: Social media gives you a sense of connectivity to people who you don’t know. But now when you go to a big event, you don’t want the same kind of feeling because you actually have people in front of you. I think bridging that gap on the large events side is an interesting thing; where and how can technology help bring us closer when we’re in person, face-to-face, instead of feeling like I’m still on Twitter when I’m at an event because they just copy the same thing on their on app.
I think chatbots are an interesting thing because you can just text an instruction or get guidance for how to meet people. There’s a lot of technology that’s helping with audience engagement like Feathr and things like that, cool applications for getting people to engage with content in new ways.
But ultimately, the biggest trend I’m seeing personally is that companies are trading in the big, huge event for smaller, more intimate events because of this phenomenon. You don’t want to go to Javits Center and say, “Oh, I actually didn’t even talk to anybody here,” right?
Skift: I am at CES in Las Vegas as we speak, and it’s impossible to walk around the show floor and have meaningful exchanges if you don’t set up meetings ahead of time. It kind of defeats the point of the whole thing from an attendee’s perspective.
Shah: Yeah, exactly. I mean look, I don’t think the CES kind of shows are going to go anywhere because they’re such an institution at this point. But I think that CES would be smart to do programming with smaller events throughout the year that would have so much more impact. If CES did 20 smaller, little more niche shows, imagine how impactful that would be.
I think that’s the directional trend that would yield the highest return on investment for the attendees, as well as the organizers. If you had to go to an event today and there were 300 people there, you’re going to get so much more out of it. You’re going to actually have meaningful interactions. But then again, CES is helpful, too, because it’s hard for you to showcase everything, everywhere in one place.
Skift: Small meetings are growing in popularity, yet its hard for a big company to devote resources to a constant stream of meetings throughout the year.
Shah: I think it’s probably the fastest growing segment in corporate travel because of the change in workforce dynamics. Now, when you look at a company like any Fortune 500 company, you’re seeing that almost 80 percent of their meeting and events spend is now small meetings.
The problem to solve is that these companies have no way to manage this spend. They’ve never had tools to help their employees book this stuff. So, admin assistants or employees are basically on Google doing all this manual stuff or they’re using Cvent and not getting a good response back. It’s really inefficient.
Or, they’re calling their travel management company or business travel agency that doesn’t have the tools to help and they’re not motivated to help either. It’s a huge conundrum for large companies for how to get their arms around to spend and how to make it easier and better because their employees need it and that’s the big picture thing that we’re here to solve.
Skift: There are so many solutions in the event tech space, from huge companies and upstarts. How does a smaller company like Bizly build something to solve the problems that most of the others don’t?
Shah: What we realize when you look at Cvent or Groupify or others, like eTouches, they all have a very similar sort of approach, which is bookends. What I mean by that is you can go on them and try to find a space on their sourcing network. You can do a request for proposal and get back some responses. But then basically, everything after that happens offline.
So, you have to go to email and do contracts and do payments and show up with your credit card and fax this and there’s all this manual work. Then at the end of that process, after you booked your meeting, you can go back to Cvent and upload your invoices.
What you end up with is a really fragmented process and inconsistent, unreliable data. We’re the only company in the industry that has decided to take the entire event transaction and events services online; contracts, the documents you sign, and payments are all through the platform. If you need travel management company-style service, we provide that through our chat and through our concierge. Now, you have a completely digital platform to make it easier.
Skift: Bizly has evolved over time. What has that process looked like?
Shah: We started with instant booking more of a business-to-consumer flavored product and what we determined was that it wasn’t enough for corporate needs. Corporates, when they do meetings, need to have capabilities to book sleeping rooms. They need to be able to use their pre-negotiated contracts and their preferred venues and there’s a lot more complexity to it.
We didn’t understand all this complexity when we first started. But we quickly learned through trial and error and investigation. As a result, what we’ve done is definitely super ambitious. It’s hard, it’s not easy. This is why a lot of people haven’t done it because it took us a long time to build everything that is needed and make it all online.
Skift: You’ve also targeted bigger companies as clients. A trap travel startups often fall into is that going after small- or medium-size clients doesn’t generate enough revenue or users to build a sustainable business.
Shah: Well, that’s one problem. The other problem is I look at companies that are really interesting to me that are not in meetings but trying to disrupt corporate travel, companies like TripActions or TravelBank. My concern is that when you are focused on selling to startups and selling to medium-sized companies, there’s a huge barrier to getting over to Fortune 500s.
If you look at what TripActions and others are doing, they’re also doing similar things. I think we are in a corporate travel 3.0 zone today, which is exciting and the real thing that has changed is that you have these remarkable change agents within the Fortune 500. If you were to ask me, which companies are the ones that want to jump into [using digital tools for meetings] first, I couldn’t tell you it’s pharma or it’s tech or it’s whatever. It’s really about the person.
It’s about the change agent, usually that sits in procurement or sits in meetings that wants to spearhead innovation for their firm and that’s what we’re focused on finding. Those are the kind of clients that we end up getting every single time.
Skift: So you’ve created this platform for sourcing. What other sorts of products are you looking to create for planners?
Shah: As far as the platform and the technology, there’s two things that we’re really working on. One is to do a lot more on the planning side. We are building out planning features to help people design their event because what we found was that, it’s not just about searching for a venue. It’s really about helping people from the ground up. If I’ve never booked a meeting before, I just got hired at IBM and I need to put together this event, make my team feel happy this quarter. I want to be able to do that and really design an event. None of these sourcing space sites actually help you design an event, right?
We’re doing this beautiful launch in a few months around designing an event and the venue becomes part of that registration. Ideally, our goal is to create a marketplace for providers. For example, aside from the venue you can select other providers, which you’ve always been able to do, plugging into registration sites like Cvent or Eventbrite or others, having really a full marketplace of providers. You’ve seen this kind of thing with Slack and you’ve seen this kind of thing with Salesforce and others, where you have other vendors that interlock. That’s really a big goal of ours.
Skift: Is there a wider shift going on in event tech towards this kind of interoperability, as opposed to platforms always being closed off from each other?
Shah: What is changing is the way people think about software. Back in the day Cvent came and really started the foundation of this industry. But in those days, it was Microsoft style, where you basically try to be the end all, be all and try to do everything end-to-end.
Today, that’s changed. People are looking to you to be the expert in something and then they want to use other experts in other areas. I’m not going to say Bizly is going to be expert of every single thing in meetings. We are really, really good at booking meetings, sourcing venues, and helping with other aspects so we want to create a provider network that allows you to plug into other things you love using.
If you love using DoubleDutch for your event apps, why not be able to leverage your DoubleDutch relationship? That’s just one example. You have so many other providers that we would link into to make it a comprehensive opportunity for our clients.
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Photo credit: Bizly CEO Ron Shah. New platforms are popping up that make it easier to plan small meetings, but the proliferation of different options can make things confusing for planners. Bizly