Longtime independent event planner Anh Nguyen, CMP, recently became the head of community engagement at event-technology startup Twine. That career jump was unplanned. In fact, when she launched the #EventProfsBreakShit group last year, her intentions absolutely did not involve going to work for a tech company; event technology was precisely the, um, shit that she was out to break.
“I was really quite fed up with how event technology companies were selling to us right at the beginning of the pandemic,” she explains, “and #EventProfsBreakShit was all about harnessing the community and power of event planners.”
The tireless Nguyen was running her own firm, the Calgary, Canada-based Spark Event Management, and was deeply immersed in industry advocacy via meetings associations and her own high-profile social media presence. As the pandemic thwarted travel and cancelled meetings, event-tech suppliers transformed themselves quickly to accommodate the urgent demand for virtual tools — and many brought untested, half-developed platforms to the table as a result. In a sense, that’s what the situation required. But like many planners, Nguyen was extremely frustrated by the develop-on-the-fly approach to technology. She wanted to give planners more of a voice in how the technology was tuned, and to ensure what was being pitched to them would actually meet their needs before committing to buy.
The cheeky #EventProfsBreakShit group offered to do just that — to put new and evolving tech platforms to the test and then report back to suppliers how the tech could be improved.
“I saw a problem that the industry was facing, and I’ve always believed how powerful we are as a collective industry,” she says. “And that’s been proven because now there are people lining up through the door to test their platforms” with the group.
While Nguyen recognized the need for such an initiative, she didn’t bank on just how attractive her own planning expertise would become to tech suppliers, who began throwing job offers at her. She decided to accept the offer from Twine because the team’s mission — to help foster deep, meaningful connections based on serendipitous conversations — aligned with her own. Even so, the career jump did not come easy. She announced the transition on LinkedIn, in a post titled, “Why I Joined ‘The Dark Side,’” that began with the words, “So… I feel like a traitor.”
Tech as the Enemy
Nguyen’s LinkedIn defense was solid — that she believes Twine is solving a problem and that Twine believes in the #EventProfs community — and she maintains that she couldn’t have made the move without the autonomy she’s been promised. But the fact she felt compelled to announce her new job with a defense, however amusing, speaks volumes to the chasm that has existed between tech suppliers and planners.
Nguyen says she’s now learned more about the fundamental differences between the two sides: “Technology providers tend to think like, ‘Let's put together a minimum viable product and get it out. And we know that there's going to be bugs, and we're going to iterate on it and be agile and constantly evolve it.’ And that kind of thinking breaks an event planner’s brain. An event planner is thinking, ‘I would like steps one to 1,000 perfectly laid out, with a solid plan. I'm not going to put anything out until it's perfect.’
Last year the worlds of event planners and tech collided harder than ever before because technology became an essential requirement just to host meeting. But a conflict between the sides has existed for years — as have efforts to bridge the gap with industry expertise.
Kevin Iwamoto, now chief strategy officer at meetings-technology platform Bizly, made the transition to tech back in 2008, when he left his post as senior global travel commodity manager at Hewlett-Packard to become vice president of enterprise strategy at StarCite (whose technology is now part of Cvent). At HP, Iwamoto managed suppliers across the travel ecosystem, including for the company’s meetings program, and had become an industry thought leader by way of his practices as well as his stint as president and CEO of the Global Business Travel Association.
“Yes, I felt like a traitor,” he recounts. “And it was a really tough decision because I’d done so much on the corporate side and made a name for myself in that context. It felt like starting all over again. But the CEO of StarCite convinced me that I could do more good on the other side of the fence. And the thing that resonated the most with me is that I would have the freedom to do what I love doing, which is educating, advocating, going beyond the coloring lines with innovative ideas. On the supplier side I’d be able to impact the industry, not just the company. That really appealed to me. And they hired me because they really wanted to have a practitioner perspective on things.”
More than a decade later, many tech companies are still lacking that perspective. But among the crop of event talent that’s currently migrating to tech jobs, there’s a different sense about what’s happening. The two sides came more closely together during the pandemic out of desperation, but there’s an expectation now that out of the devastation will come more significant change — that the event professional’s relationship to technology can never go back to its prepandemic state.
Extreme Events Industry Innovation
“Up until now, the gap between how slowly events were innovating and how quickly the rest of the world was innovating just kept getting wider and wider,” says industry veteran Tony Lorenz, who in March became global head of event solutions and senior vice president of strategy at collaboration-technology provider Intrado. But the pandemic narrowed that gap. “Because everything stopped, we now have this unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to innovate to a point where it's a completely converged ecosystem” — where marketing communications tools and digital event platforms complement one another as part of a cohesive strategy.
Lorenz isn’t so sure we could have reached this degree of change without something as disruptive as a global pandemic. “I honestly believe that if this hadn’t happened, I might not have seen in my career in the industry evolve to where it is now, in terms of the structural changes to the events model and adoption of technology,” he says. And while he acknowledges the extreme hardship so many have felt over the past year, he believes the changes might in the end help to save the industry — and that he’s very much working on the tech side for the benefit of the face-to-face meetings industry, not to its detriment.
Without the changes we’re now seeing, “events would likely have been marginalized to some degree,” he posits, “because in the absence of strong data and strong measurement — which obviously digital events deliver — we would have a bigger and bigger hill to climb to justify meetings spend, in corporate especially. Now, we need to embrace the digital aspects and make it part of our industry because if we don’t, those aspects will go to marketing — and the events industry will get a lot smaller. But if we embrace digital? Our industry gets materially bigger than it ever was before.”
What event audiences eventually choose to embrace, however, is still unknown, points out EventMB founder Julius Solaris. Solaris recently left the site he founded to become head of engagement for event-technology platform Swapcard. “Once we go back to meeting regularly in person, people may just not be interested in virtual anymore,” he says. “Or, it may be that people got so used to meeting virtually that they won’t be bothered to travel for three days when they can just stay home and watch. With so many unanswered questions like these, there’s going to be increased pressure on everyone to engage the audience in a different way.”
Ultimately, he adds, that should result in better events of all types. On top of that, virtual-event platforms will be required to keep innovating.
“There’s a lot of people betting on this new category of virtual events,” he says. “People have invested a lot, at a pace that’s never been seen in any type of company before. Expectations are very high. It’s not like these investors are going to say, ‘Oh, we’re going back to in-person events so you become an event app now.’ They didn’t invest in that. They’re investing in virtual events becoming their own category that’s part of an event mix.”
For the Greater Good of Events
Both Lorenz and Nguyen echo the sentiments of Bizly's Iwamoto — that they’ve taken positions through which they feel they can influence the health and growth of the events industry. Nguyen adds that she will continue to identify as an #EventProf and a planner, even if her badges at industry events now read “supplier.”
And Solaris believes he’s essentially doing the same thing he’s done for years, but instead of developing content to market for hundreds of event companies, he’s now focused on one. As long as the industry community continues to pay attention, he says, his job hasn’t dramatically changed.
Twine co-founder Lawrence Coburn — who previously founded and led event-app provider DoubleDutch — considers Twine’s early hire of Nguyen to be an essential step in building a unified community.
“We wanted someone who can start to make us ‘as one’ with our target buying community,” says Coburn, “and just help us make better decisions about how we sell and how we build our product. Nguyen is not tasked with driving sales for us; she’s tasked with helping us become part of the larger #EventProf community. The idea is that the better we understand the persona of the #EventProf, the better we are going to be able to serve that industry.”
Looking back, Coburn says, it was a mistake to not take that approach at DoubleDutch. “We were outsiders, we were software people who thought we knew better, but we didn't,” he recalls. “We didn't know the workflows as well as we should have, and we would have built a better product if we had.”
Looking to the Future
Another industry influencer turned tech employee, Nick Borelli has a similarly positive outlook. The long-respected consultant on topics related to event marketing and strategy took a job earlier this year as director of marketing growth with AllSeated, a digital collaboration platform that provides 3D conference and meeting environments. He continues to collaborate actively with the #EventProfs community to drive positive change, he says, though his marketing is more focused on his company’s platform.
That technology is meant to be a niche part of a larger strategy, he says, and to have a net positive effect on an overall events program — and the industry as a whole.
“I believe in live events,” he says. “I believe in all my friends who work in live events, and I want them all to succeed — but in a real way.” That’s going to come in time, he says, as our industry naturally finds the right balance between in-person and digital gatherings — and it’s likely to involve some “short-term pain” for some suppliers as that balance is sought.
“I want great virtual events to crush the bad face-to-face events, and I want the really bad virtual events to go away and get smashed by great live events,” says Borelli. “There won’t be any question about why an event is happening either as face-to-face or as digital," he says. "It will be obvious.”