Saturday, June 19

Virtual events came of age in 2020, but the future is hybrid


“I really believe in the laziness of the human species — given a chance, we will optimize for the shortest path from A to B,” Lightspeed Venture’s Hemant Mohapatra told VentureBeat in an interview.

He was responding to a question about how the pandemic has shaped expectations of what is possible with virtual events and whether it will create a permanent shift in the global psyche.

Mohapatra is an India-based partner for the VC firm and previously plied his trade at tech companies like Google and AMD. Lightspeed, which is based in Menlo Park, has backed a number of notable startups, including Snap, Grubhub, AppDynamics, and Mulesoft, and this year it invested in Hubilo, a startup that pivoted from physical to virtual events — and thrived.

Hubilo’s story was a familiar one in 2020. A number of fledgling virtual events startups went to market just before the COVID-19 crisis struck, prescient moves that led to rapid adoption and massive growth trajectories. Other startup founders saw the writing on the wall and were able to maneuver in a do-or-die pivot that transformed their fortunes in weeks.

Israeli event-tech startup Bizzabo was forced to transition its model to support online events and went on to secure $138 million in a round of funding led by Insight Partners. Elsewhere, a fledgling startup called Welcome hastily changed direction from restaurant software after having just emerged from a Y Combinator program and decided to focus on providing high-quality virtual events. Welcome secured $12 million in funding from notable investors that include Kleiner Perkins.

A quick glance across the startup landscape reveals a similar story of investors clambering to get a piece of the action. In November, Hopin raised a whopping $125 million at a $2.1 billion valuation, following a $6.5 million seed round and a $40 million series A earlier in the year. Run The World raised $10.8 million after a $4.3 million seed raise in February. Meanwhile, Airmeet raised $12 million, and Wonder raised $11 million. Collectively, these startups attracted the attention of high-profile investors such as Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, Sequoia, Accel, IVP, and Tiger Global.

While virtual events are not unique to 2020, it’s clear the movement was accelerated by the business world’s need to replicate meetings, events, and similar functions online. But according to Mohapatra, this shift was bound to happen at some point, evidenced by changes other industries have seen during the past couple of decades.

“Over the years, we’ve seen most things move online that people thought not possible just 10 to 20 years ago. So it’s just a matter of offering the same benefit but at a lower effort,” he told VentureBeat. “When I was a young engineer at AMD, I used to see my colleagues in business and sales fly from Austin to San Francisco and New York City to close deals and shake hands over ink. Recently, Reliance JIO closed funding rounds of $30 billion to $40 billion, purely online. We thought love and relationships would always stay in the real world, and we have a dozen platforms to find partners online. Similar things are happening to other businesses, like education, where teacher and student relationships are moving effectively online.”

Above: Hemant Mohapatra from Lightspeed Venture Partners in India

The global pandemic upended many businesses in 2020, and the trillion-dollar global events industry was certainly one of them, with major conferences like MWC and E3 forced to cancel as countries entered lockdown. As the world regained its composure in the weeks that followed, virtual events slowly emerged as the “new normal,” with small and big businesses moving online.

But what does the future for events hold? Will things revert back to how they were, or has the global pandemic left an indelible mark? Here, VentureBeat talks to some of the founders and investors leading the charge about how things evolved in 2020 and why the future is hybrid.

Remote everything

There were already plenty of signs that the working world was ready to embrace remote events and meetings at scale. Many cloud-based communication collaboration tools had gained enough traction before COVID-19 to have signaled an impending shift elsewhere. Zoom had already reached at least $15 billion in worth since its 2019 IPO, a substantial figure for a video-networking tool. But that figure exploded to more than $160 billion at its peak during the lockdown, valuing the company at more than oil and gas giant Exxon.

Transitioning massive annual conferences to the internet is an obvious move for big events faced with little alternative. But all those other real-life gatherings — spanning investor pitches, startup accelerators, all-hands company meetings, hackathons, and customer engagements — had to follow suit. COVID-19 accelerated everything, for everyone.

“We had started to deep dive into all forms of remote collaboration and remote work tools quite a while ago and had a thesis built out,” Mohapatra said. “However, virtual conferences and events as a core tool of engaging with customers, employees, and communities wasn’t something we had expected to grow as fast as it did.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella perhaps summed things up best during the company’s quarterly earnings call in April, when he referred to the new “remote everything,” adding that his company had seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months. “From remote teamwork and learning to sales and customer service to critical cloud infrastructure and security — we are working alongside customers every day to help them adapt and stay open for business in a world of remote everything,” Nadella said.

For Hubilo, a dizzying 20-day “Hail Mary” pivot in March saved its bacon, allowing it to grow from 30 employees to more than 100 by the end of the year and hit its original two-year revenue target in a matter of months.

“Satya’s prediction was actually bang on for Hubilo,” Mohapatra said.

The “forced embrace” of virtual events shone a spotlight on their core benefits, chief among them the ease with which they can scale to levels that would require far more resources in a purely offline setting.

“A huge number of people have been attending big events, as [they are] more accessible and less expensive,” Hubilo cofounder and CEO Vaibhav Jain said. “That’s a scale that event organizers, sponsors, and exhibitors cannot afford to ignore. An army of people was needed to pull off a physical event, but now it takes just a couple of people, one tech platform, and marketing to pull off a virtual event.”

According to Jain, every company will have a virtual event strategy moving forward, regardless of what happens with physical events. This is in part due to scalability, but it’s also because of the wealth of measurable data — spanning engagement, sales leads, networking, and more — online events generate compared to their offline counterparts.

“2020 was the year when a lot of physical events went online due to the pandemic,” Jain said. “2021 will be the year when a lot of new virtual events are going to pop up for the first time. Large events will have both the options — physical and virtual — making them hybrid in nature.”

Hubilo is already putting on a range of hybrid events for some of its clients. Jain said ticket prices tend to be lower for virtual events, and the general setup of online and offline gatherings differs. For example, digital events usually have more sponsors and use more prerecorded content than their physical counterparts.

Online events can also introduce features and functionality that would be much more difficult to include offline. For example, attendees can gain points by completing “engagement” actions within Hubilo, such as watching a session, visiting a virtual booth, or messaging a fellow delegate, and those who engage most can win prizes. This gamification encourages participation and, according to Jain, is among Hubilo’s most-used features.

Hubilo: A leaderboard mockup

Above: Hubilo leaderboard

Hubilo illustrates the role data will play in winning over events organizers — everything becomes more measurable and trackable. This also opens the door for any number of new features and value-added tools that bridge the online/offline divide.

“We are building an intelligence layer on top of the engagement layer that will allow organizers to draw up intelligence from the physical events and push it to our dashboard, ensuring that there is a single source of truth for physical, virtual, and hybrid events,” Jain said.

Right place, right time

One feature Hopin claims sets it apart is a dedicated networking area where attendees are matched in timed one-on-one encounters, a little like speed dating. Hopin CEO Johnny Boufarhat told VentureBeat last month that some people refer to this as “chat roulette,” and it allows users to exchange ‘virtual business cards’ as they make the rounds.

One-on-one networking

Above: Hopin: One-on-one networking, or “chat roulette”

Paul Murphy is a general partner at London-based VC firm Northzone, which invested in Hopin across three separate rounds of funding (seed, series A, and series B) in 2020, a clear vote of confidence. Between Hopin’s seed and series B rounds, the company grew from eight employees and 5,000 users to 200 employees and 3.5 million users over an eight-month pandemic period. “That is an astounding leap to me, and [Hopin is] not going away anytime soon,” Murphy said.

It seems Hopin was in the right place at the right time, with the right product.

“For years, event organizers have recognized that their future needs to be fit for a digital-first world,” Murphy added. “Naturally, the global health pandemic accelerated that interest, but the journey of hybrid event formats had already started. One-sided and passive webinars were quickly falling out of favor, while many of the physical industry events were starting to lose their original appeal. The most successful up-and-coming platforms supersede traditional video tools by having a laser focus on engagement and user interaction.”

Quality control

Ilya Fushman, who led Kleiner Perkins’ recent series A investment in Welcome, said that prior to 2020 there was no sense of urgency around making events more inclusive for a remote audience.

“When the pandemic hit, with it came pressure to host virtual events with the same production quality and opportunities for interaction as an in-person event,” he said. “As we settled into our remote reality, our social experiences became virtual, and two things became clear: First, the world will become more remote and distributed forever, and second, this new world needs high-quality virtual experiences to keep us connected. It might have taken a pandemic to accelerate virtual event attendees’ preferences into expectations, but this would have happened over time. The way we work was already increasingly becoming remote.”

In a crowded field, Welcome is betting big on the enterprise, chasing annual contracts rather than charging on a per-event or attendee basis. It wants commitment and frequency, meaning that it’s hoping businesses will use it for everything — conferences, round tables, town halls, and the works. To achieve this, Welcome is positioning itself as more of an HD broadcast studio in the browser, underpinned by white-glove support. The company wants to allow anyone to “throw an experience that feels like an Apple keynote.”

“From the control room, customers can manage every aspect of the event experience, from layering beautiful overlays on the screen to interweaving prerecorded content,” Welcome CEO Roberto Ortiz said. “Customers are producing high-end experiences that feel like an interactive television show, bringing up real-time audience polls and questions, all from one place, without an A/V team or production crew backstage.”

A Welcome Green Room

Above: A Welcome Green Room

As with other companies operating in the virtual events space, Ortiz said the feedback he has been getting from customers that have gone fully virtual with their events in 2020 is that they are “keeping physical events in their back pockets.”

“Overwhelmingly, we’re hearing our customers say they’re defaulting to hybrid events moving forward,” he said. “Going virtual has allowed them to reach larger audiences, track stronger engagement analytics, and ultimately better serve their customers post-event. COVID-19 has also proven that virtual and hybrid events deliver a ton more ROI, at a sliver of the cost it takes to produce physical events.”

Going virtual

As a fully remote company from its inception, DevOps powerhouse GitLab is no stranger to virtual communications, but it has also hosted annual events and meetups like GitLab Commit in physical venues. In 2020, GitLab partnered with MediaOps to produce Commit 2020 online, and it also has an ongoing license with Hopin.

GitLab corporate events manager Emily Kyle said there are many advantages to running events of its scale virtually.

“On the upside, in running our first-ever virtual user conference this year, it felt like we were able to live up to our mission of ‘everyone can contribute,’” Kyle said. “We were able to bring together attendees from over 130 countries and a wider range of attendee profiles. We were able to include people who we might have never connected with before, and that felt amazing, to create more inclusivity and belonging with the virtual and free format of the event. The virtual event shift has also allowed a pause to look at a more sustainable approach to how events are run and the possibility to create safer and more inclusive environments.”

Parents, particularly those with childcare considerations, may have previously struggled to attend in-person events, due to time and travel commitments. Moreover, in an industry that has yet to achieve gender balance, online events may be more appealing to women.

“It can sometimes feel problematic to attend tech events as a woman in fields dominated by men,” Kyle said. “The virtual environments have helped to mitigate some of those pain points. Overall, we’ve been seeing a leveling of the playing field, with lower costs and barriers to entry globally.”

The shift to online events may also have far-reaching budgetary effects — in terms of how much is allocated and where it’s spent — and broaden the available speaker pool.

“Virtual events are so much cheaper or have allowed companies to find new avenues to put their marketing dollars toward,” Kyle said. “We can get speakers we might have never had access to before due to travel [constraints]. And we spend less on venues and more in production, so we’re investing in more lasting content assets for the organization.”

On the downside, Kyle notes that online-only events can feel more isolating, and it’s a little easier to “tune out.” Ultimately, the transition has been a big learning curve for delegates and organizers alike, something companies should be able to address and adapt to over time.

“Not being in-person means networking is different and designating your audience’s attention is harder than when someone travels to an event and blocks their calendar for it,” Kyle said. “With this, we find leads are not converting in the same ways they used to, so we’ve had to adjust. There’s also more that can be done from the platform and quality side of virtual events. There are so many options of how to host an online event that people have to be retrained on capabilities every time, particularly as technology rapidly evolves. Communications and training should be invested in heavily to give the end user an optimal experience.”

There’s more than enough evidence that companies are ready to embrace a hybrid model in 2021 and beyond. Leading European technology conference Web Summit confirmed it will be going with a hybrid model next year, using an events platform it developed entirely in-house. Reuters also revealed it would be adopting a hybrid events model that combines local networking meetups with online incarnations, after enjoying success with this approach during the pandemic.

What hybrid events offer is flexibility, an elastic approach that enables companies to dedicate resources as they see fit. This structure also brings down many of the barriers to running successful events, from time and distance to accessibility and budgets.

The events of 2020 have forced businesses to stop and think about what they’re doing, and whether the status quo makes sense.

“Before we go back to anything in-person, we want to address how we can move forward more strategically and efficiently so our events are not wasteful or simply about consumption,” Kyle said. “We’ll likely dip our toe back into in-person events before diving headfirst, primarily due to the success we’ve found with virtual events.”

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