Skift Take

Convene CEO Ryan Simonetti thinks his new digital venture could morph into a $100 million-a-year business. His competitors may have something to say about that.

It’s not been an easy ride for meeting space provider Convene. With its mix of city center locations and hotel-style venues, it continues to be severely exposed to coronavirus.

There was some relief for its venues that offered co-working spaces, but the pandemic hit hard and the New-York based company laid off or furloughed 75 to 80 percent of its 850 staff in 2020.

Most of its locations across the U.S. remain closed. It was also gearing up for an initial public offering.

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It couldn’t have been worse, really.

“We were high-flying,” said CEO and co-founder Ryan Simonetti.

But nearly four months into a new year, Convene is reinventing itself for a digital future. The company launched a virtual and hybrid conferencing platform in June last year and it’s got Simonetti thinking there’s a way out.

“We’re really excited about the digital side of our business. We think the future is hybrid,” he said. “As a brand, we want to meet our customers wherever they are, and deliver them a great experience virtually.”

Time For Change?

However, among all the talk of hybrid meetings becoming the norm, part of the demand will be due to the pandemic forcing offices to close. The technology, and concept, have been around for a while.

Sabre, for example, launched a virtual meetings product for GetThere, its corporate booking tool online, 10 years ago. At the point of sale, when an employee searched to book a trip, it would automatically suggest a virtual meeting as an alternative, by displaying the company’s video conferencing offices.

“This was high-end, and tied in with all those companies spending a quarter of a million dollars on a Cisco TelePresence suite” said Barndello Consulting‘s Guy Snelgar, who previously worked on its launch.

“It never really took off. People want to travel, they want to get face to face. What it was great for was as an upgrade to a phone call, not so much as a downgrade for a face-to-face meeting,” he added. “And, practically, this is something people have be doing, unofficially, anyway.”

Convene at One Liberty Plaza is one of several properties it has in New York City.

There’s also the question of how much revenue digital experiences can deliver? In Convene’s case, its digital product has made $2.5 million in revenue since its launch, over 225 virtual meetings.

There’s $3.1 million in the pipeline for virtual meetings for the rest of 2021 and 2022, while it’s hired or rehired 41 employees to work on this venture, out of 200 staff recruited since the cuts were made last year.

Simonetti wants this virtual element to become a larger percentage of Convene’s  revenue mix, totaling $100 million a year by 2025.

This target is significantly higher than its current total, at a time when most companies have no option but to take the hybrid meetings route.

It’s ambitious, which explains the drive to partner with more companies — its latest collaboration is with meetings procurement and site selection company HelmsBriscoe. “We’re having more conversations with hotels at a brand level, and hotel management companies,” Simonetti said.

The problem is, it’s not the only one looking to ride the virtual meetings wave.

Chasing Digital Dollars

If you look at Marriott’s Connect with Confidence program, where the hotel group offers virtual meetings with different technology partners, Convene is included alongside Encore, Cvent, MeetingPlay and Hopin.

One advantage is that the company does at least have a history of working with hotels, which promote Convene locations as a meeting space add-on. Pre-pandemic, anyway. “Not only were we getting a lot of business, but in 2019, we pumped out 200,000 room nights,” Simonetti said.

But if the future is digital, Convene can’t ignore Hopin. It made headlines with its Series C round, raising an additional $400 million and bringing its total funding to $565 million. It’s reportedly now valued at $5.7 billion. Investors will want to see a return on their money, and Hopin will likely be one of the most aggressive meeting platform providers over the next couple of years.

Is Simonetti worried?

“Our goal isn’t to be Hopin. We want to focus on hybrid,” he said. “What they’re doing is incredible. I’ve been following their deployment of capital. It’s impossible to deploy that much capital organically, so it’s been interesting to see their merger and acquisition strategy.”

Those acquisitions include mobile app Topi in December, and streaming platform StreamYard for $250 million in January. “They’re going in deep on the video, audio and livestream side. I see them as a technology platform that will compete with the future Zooms and Teams.”

Convene’s recovery now rests on how much businesses will want premium meeting platform technology, with support, after the pandemic. The prime locations and hospitality services proved a liability in the face of coronavirus; can they become its biggest asset again?

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Tags: business events, convene, coronavirus, corporate travel, cvent, hopin, hybrid events, hybrid meetings, ipo, las vegas, marriott, meetings and events, microsoft, sabre, Zoom

Photo credit: Convene offers production support for virtual and hybrid meetings. Convene

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