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Why Event Tech Companies Should 'Be More Like Netflix and Less Like Blockbuster'

In this guest column, CEO of MeetingPlay Joe Schwinger shares his team's experience and lessons learned powering through the pandemic.

'My message to those going back to old ways: If there was ever a time to be more like Netflix and less like Blockbuster, now is the time. They stuck around for a really long time, but eventually, there’s only one Blockbuster left in the world. Sometimes you have to go outside of your comfort zone to reinvent yourself. Don’t let the industry reinvent you; you take the reins and reinvent the game.'
"My message to those going back to old ways: If there was ever a time to be more like Netflix and less like Blockbuster, now is the time. They stuck around for a really long time, but eventually, there’s only one Blockbuster left in the world. Sometimes you have to go outside of your comfort zone to reinvent yourself. Don’t let the industry reinvent you; you take the reins and reinvent the game."
Photo: Bigstock Photos

Joe Schwinger is the founder of MeetingPlay, a virtual, hybrid and in-person conference platform. The event technology company has been tapped by brands such as Facebook, Marriott, Dell and more for online and in-person meetings and events. 

It’s difficult to say it’s been a great year when the industry has had so much devastation. I characterize 2020 as a monumental year of innovation and change.

Many of the companies we used to compete with don’t exist anymore. Those that had the wherewithal to innovate quickly, the infrastructure and the company culture to be innovative thrived. We saw almost 500% year-over-year growth coming out of the pandemic. We increased our employee account from in the 30s to almost 100. And we are not stopping.

When news of the pandemic hit, we were able to take a couple of days and feel sorry for ourselves. One hundred percent of our business canceled in literally 48 hours. We looked at this as a challenge. Three weeks after everyone canceled, we sold our first virtual environment. Two weeks after that, we started crawling back to profitably. Two months after that, we started to outpace our forecast for year-over-year growth.

I was in disbelief. I would sit down at the end of the week and reflect, and I couldn’t believe what was happening. We went from triage mode of cutting all costs including our cleaning bill at the office. We looked at going from five days of cleaning to one day of cleaning—then, suddenly, a fire hose of demand. It was a complete shift in the industry. We were able to create something that meeting planners gravitated to. What really helped us were our hospitality roots. Meeting planners didn’t know what to do and they were looking for direction, and we almost became teachers and mentors, and then we came executors.

At first it just became awareness of us; then when things accelerated, the reputation of our reliability went viral and started popping up on closed Facebook groups and private Google Docs and MeCo groups. They said, ‘Who are you using? What do you like?’ More and more, Meeting Play became the one recommended. That’s when things switched. We were at 50% growth. Agencies we’d been chasing for years were now coming to us.

What we were doing differently was nothing different from before. We have the capabilities of modifying the platform to meet the needs and goals of meeting planners. With other products you have to change your goals based upon the tool you select. We can customize the environment and give them exactly what they want.

We had a tech company client that was first to pivot quickly. They had thousands and thousands of pieces of swag. We used our swag store environment to increase attendee engagement and leverage the swag. It was an encouragement: ‘Go to the keynotes; get swag.’ Then ‘network with other people; get swag.’ We created networking rooms and ask-me-anything virtual rooms and drove them there through gamification to participate.

Prior to COVID-19, I was the kind of person that had to hire local and have them in a room to innovate together. One of the biggest learnings for me was that there were better ways to do that. And one of the issues of scaling the org has actually forced us to go where the talent is instead of bringing the talent to us. That was fundamental to what we said, but it was actually missing from executing. The pandemic allowed us to see a better way to staff up. What we’ve been able to do in 12 months as a company and the communication tools we’ve used in this hybrid environment… well, hybrid is how we’ll work in the future.

Companies are saying virtual is here to stay. Some are saying hybrid. The meeting industry wants to get back on-property, but not everyone will. There will be meetings that won’t happen on-property anymore and they will stay virtual. Last November, we co-partnered with Marriott International to roll out hybrid technology and event technology. We’re seeing small events with 100 to 300 people in person with thousands virtually. We actively have large events on the books for Q3 and Q4 2021, with thousands on-property and hundreds of thousands joining virtually.

We are completely reinventing the hybrid game. Prior to COVID, our strongest components were mobile and badge printing, but we have a very aggressive hybrid technology rolling out in the next couple of weeks that ties it all together. It’s a networking algorithm. Virtual attendees feel like they’re at the event and not missing out. We’re giving them all the content and engagement that’s to be had. We’re investing a lot to put a stake in the ground.

My message to those going back to old ways: If there was ever a time to be more like Netflix and less like Blockbuster, now is the time. They stuck around for a really long time, but eventually, there’s only one Blockbuster left in the world. Sometimes you have to go outside of your comfort zone to reinvent yourself. Don’t let the industry reinvent you; you take the reins and reinvent the game.

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