The events sector, much like the world at large, is increasingly tied to technology.
We are living in an interactive age of event apps, drone shows and augmented reality, where cutting-edge tech is used to wow audiences and keep them engaged with an event – even beyond the handful of days they might spend camping in a field.
Some impressive tech stories have passed through the pages of Access in recent months, like the opening ceremony of the 2018 League of Legends World Championships, which used AR to combine real and holographic singers on a 2000sqm stage covered in screens.
We’ve seen Boomtown making use of cutting-edge display tech to create an immersive post-apocalyptic narrative, which festival-goers were invited to explore.
And we’ve seen a number of companies racing to capitalise on cashless and blockchain technology, particularly in ticketing – a sector which has undergone a massive upheaval in the last year alone.
But how do companies break into this thriving and creative area of business? The event tech sector can sometimes feel like it is dominated by a few big players, while those entering it for the first time fight amongst each other for recognition.
To investigate, Access spoke to a selection of event tech companies of varying sizes, to hear how they got started, what did and didn’t work, and what advice they would give to others.
The SME: Venue Search London
The first company we spoke to was Venue Search London, which offers a venue-finding service in the Greater London area for parties, conferences, exhibitions, product launches, dinners and more.
VSL was launched in January 2014 by Dominique Gill, Sam Gill and Sarah Kay, as a start-up with five employees. Now, it has 26 full-time employees working from its Central London headquarters.
When asked if the event tech sector is a difficult one to break into for start-ups, Dominique Gill (pictured left) says: “As with any industry-specific B2B technology, the barriers to entry are far smaller than in B2C. A great idea that is well-funded from the outset has a good chance of success, as long as the funding includes a launch budget that is sufficient to fully test the market.”
For VSL, that money came from a £150,000 fundraise using a Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS). SEIS is intended for very early-stage companies, allowing individuals to invest small annual amounts, and receiving a 50% tax break in return.
That early money funded the initial development of the VSL website, which is its main portal to business, as well as marketing and salary costs during the launch phase.
Gill says: “Smaller companies, especially those that are owner-managed like our own, are better incubators of new ideas since they can move faster, and private owners generally have a more entrepreneurial approach to risk.”
“This, combined with an increasingly open business funding market keen to invest in good new ideas, means that small businesses have great opportunities to introduce new technology to the events industry.”
For Gill and VSL, then, the key for an event tech start-up is to ensure that enough planning goes into those first few steps, to ensure that initial funding can fully test a product in the marketplace, and then launch it to a target audience.
“It is only by doing both sides well,” says Gill, “that you will know if [your] idea or platform has a future in the events marketplace.
On the rise: DBpixelhouse
DBpixelhouse is an event tech company straddling the line between the smaller start-ups and the big corporates. It supplies tech production services to events, from interactive apps to LED walls, event analytics and Wi-Fi networks.
The company’s website proudly proclaims that DBpixelhouse “combine the energy and ambition of a start-up with the reassurance of a well-established business”. Access asked DBpixelhouse’s marketing manager Matt Rakowski how being a mid-sized company can give them an edge.
“It is an advantage for us. Being one of the largest tech suppliers in Europe gives us the ability to deliver on all sizes and scales. However, our entrepreneurial streak allows us to identify new opportunities and deliver them to market, whilst working intimately with clients to exceed their marketing objectives.”
DBpixelhouse is currently in the midst of an expansion phase, as it grows out of its UK home and into North America.
The company was present at Event Tech Live in Las Vegas last November, and since then has opened a North American division of the company, working with several clients across the Atlantic.
Rakowski says: “The events sector is an international market, which largely takes place outside of the UK. Having offices in different countries around the world allows us to provide a premier level of customer service to our clients.
“I think it would be naïve to solely focus our efforts in domestic markets. We have worked in many events in North America in the past, so having a permanent base there makes sense, and it was easy enough for us to implement given our current American-based relationships.
When asked what advice he would offer to burgeoning companies entering the event tech sector, Rakowski says: “If you have the right idea, a passion for what you do and a good business model, you can make it work.
“The app and content world is built on good ideas, and it only takes one to make you a success.”
The major player: Cvent
Venue Search London are an example of a company putting its best foot forward in a relatively early stage of its history, and DBpixelhouse are on the verge of becoming a bigger industry player, as they look to expand internationally.
But both seem like small fish when placed alongside Cvent, which has been a market leader in event tech for some time now. The company is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2019, having undergone a long and perilous journey to success.
What began as a two-person start-up between Reggie Aggarwal and Chuck Ghoorah (pictured below) grew to a larger size through venture capital funding. The company almost went out of business during the dot com crash that occurred at the end of the 90s, before finding a second wind in the last decade.
In 2016, the company was taken private for $1.65bn. It currently employs 3,700 people.
Ghoorah explains how Cvent survived during the difficult years of the dot com crash: “Rather than be distracted with raising more venture capital, we focused entirely on our customers, and delivering the service and products that they needed most.
“Cvent started as an online event registration point solution. Now, we offer comprehensive platforms that help hoteliers and event professionals manage every aspect of an event’s lifecycle. We are at the centre of the event ecosystem.”
“Our customers didn’t want to juggle three to ten different solutions – they wanted one platform to pull off a well-executed event.”
In order to offer the kind of integrated platform Ghoorah is talking about, Cvent has embarked on an ambitious series of acquisitions.
He explains: “In 2018, we acquired three event tech companies (Social Tables, Kapow and QuickMobile) that were delivering exceptional solutions. We are constantly on the lookout for start-ups that are offering a unique value proposition.”
There are few companies large enough to sustain a business model like Cvent’s, which actively searches for start-ups that it can fold back in to its existing tech platforms.
But the key to Cvent’s success is not the business model or the acquisitions themselves – rather, it is the adaptability and resilience, even through difficult periods of business, that has allowed them to reach this critical mass.
When asked what advice he would give to emerging event tech start-ups, Ghoorah says: “Find a pain point that no one else addresses and solve it. Or, be better at solving that pain point than anyone else in the marketplace.
“There an oft-repeated business truism here at Cvent – be the aspirin, not the vitamin. Essentially, be the must have, not the nice to have solution.”
High risk, high reward?
For those willing to take the plunge into the event tech sector, the rewards can be huge. A recent study by Oxford Economics found that the business events industry has more than a £1 trillion impact on the global economy.
But Hoorah points out that there are also more than 1,000 event technology companies out there, all of which are hungry for a piece of the pie.
Venue Search London, DBpixelhouse and Cvent all provide very different case studies about how to succeed in the event tech sector. They highlight the importance of planning and funding, an ambitious business model, and mapping out a strategy for expansion as the business grows.
If companies can manage all that, while bringing an innovative new idea or approach to market, they can harness the power of our interactive age and find success in the event tech market.
NB- in the original print version, Cvent’s Aggarwal’s name was spelt incorrectly.
You can find Venue Search London online here.