The sad truth about online events, their makers and what happens when you get creative with online programming.
It’s been over five months since the Pause Fest 2021 Online event, and as an organiser, I had enough time to evaluate it, but most importantly distance myself from the emotional response. Pause Fest is Australia’s premier creativity and business festival attended by over 9,000 people over three days, and had been running for over eleven years.
This post is for all event producers and online platform makers who are looking to create positive online experiences for both attendees and event organisers.
I’ll be focusing on a couple of key virtual platform startups that are dominating the industry and my experience with them, lessons learned and damage they left behind. These are Bevy and Hopin platforms, but I’ll get to them in a bit.
The marketplace fit
I studied a great deal of virtual event platforms last year that all seem to have entered the market overnight; all lookalikes with not a great deal of distinction, mostly in pricing and few features. It felt like a gold rush, where you could get ripped off up to $230K for a bespoke online event solution, depending on how desperate you are. And the question often asked to the event organisers that were sorely hurting was ‘What’s it worth to you?’ or ‘How much do you pay for in-person production?’ followed by ‘Why do you think this is any different?’
To be quite honest, at the time those objection questions made me feel both powerless and sick because 99% of the platforms sold last year weren’t even ready to be shipped. But the sales people were eager to sell, demand was high and it was easy to hook you on features that they didn't even have.
One of those features is VoD or Video-on-Demand. Most platforms still don't have it but the way it’s communicated and sold you’d think it’s included in the package, until you drill them to show you what it looks like and they say ‘we don’t actually host a library of videos post the event, but you can download them’. ‘So you don’t have it then?' '...No, we don’t.’
What should an online event experience be like? I’m not sure many companies really asked themselves ‘Why are we doing this and who is it for?' enough times. Everyone just jumped on a bandwagon copying in-person events to online formats forgetting that online experiences are very different and people don’t behave in the same way.
For Pause Fest 2021, I wanted to create a slightly different event than a standard eight hour, multiple day event with sponsor booths because in our research we found that people were overwhelmed, attention poor and sponsors didn't want booths so we created a two week event instead. We also had four types of tickets that needed different content access and VoD was a high priority for us too. It all sounds like an easy package, doesn’t it?
Out of 50 or so companies on the market at the time, Bevy and Hopin were the top two who claimed they had features to deliver this service. They seem to be very competitive among themselves too with their costs highest in the industry, around the $40K base mark.
Hopin was exploding at the time, they also had a mind-blowing $400M seed round and were taking over the world. Bevy also raised a good round of $40M a few weeks later.
Wild onboarding experience
No privileges in fees were given to independent events, we were expected to pay the same price as corporates. Many events like mine have suffered a great deal in sponsorship decline and cancelations leading to loss of revenue so the high cost for platforms was prohibitive. Unless of course no other platform offers features that you need and you get stuck. And let’s be clear, no platform really has VoD, this is just a lie.
I reached out to Bevy first and managed to strike a mutual deal where the sales person offered us 40% off because of the interesting event format, association with our event in Australia and cross promotion in return. And he did confirm they have VoD, but now you know, they don’t.
We signed the agreement but luckily didn’t pay right away. We were assigned a dedicated two person team for a weekly work-in-progress (WIP) meeting of exactly 30 minutes. If these meetings ever went a minute over time, they would stop the session and send answers by email. It was the end of November last year when we started talking and it was a smooth onboarding process.
We finally got a dedicated person to focus on the online event setup moving forward, but when we asked specific questions, the Bevy team was getting annoyed that they had to provide answers. They would cover us in reading material instead of helping us get set up. Bevy didn’t have many troubleshooting videos at the time, even written stuff was scruffy.
And for the record, if you are putting on a multi-day online event with a few streams of content, you need a dedicated and trained specialist to help you set up. Most virtual event platforms are built that way so you have to rely on them, which is of course a big part of their revenue stream.
I don't have a problem with them making money on the dedicated service, but I want to know how much service I get in the package I’ve purchased. Bevy wasn’t clear on that from the start. Thirty minutes sharp per week was not enough to pick up the complicated new platform. They were not there to help us, they wanted us to figure it out ourselves. The deadline was looming and we had built nothing.
It’s February and our event was in mid-March. We still haven’t set up on the Bevy platform, we don't know how to use it and we haven't worked out the production workflow. Nothing is in place and our support agents are telling us to talk to their Customer Success Team about more hours I’ve been asking for. We were six weeks away from the event at that point.
The Customer Success Team was super polite, with an agenda to get rid of us as soon as they could so they started with the ‘we are not aligned’ opening sentence and repeated it many times to make sure we got it. Next they said that the weekly support team were feeling ‘depleted and defeated’ each week after our session. I’m wondering if that was from how many clients they had to serve, because they weren’t really interested in helping us onboard our event to Bevy. It was the weirdest customer success team conversation ever.
They admitted they are losing money on this account because the sales person has offered too big of a discount, which they originally approved. So they now presented us with the new Platinum Care Support menu that I have never seen before, with extra service packages in the thousands of dollars. This was their answer to how we get more needed hours to set up and they make more money because they signed a ‘bad deal.’
The last thing they told us was that they were totally ok if we decided we no longer want to use Bevy and go elsewhere, because ‘we are not aligned.’ I think they meant that our event doesn’t fit into their square hole and they couldn’t be bothered helping us onboard. Who knows...
They offered to help me find a new virtual platform, to suit our needs, as long as we quickly disappear but they didn’t say that which made it more awkward. They forced us to quit so they are not seen as the bad guys, instead they are seen as the helpful ones. It was five weeks until the event at that point.
I reached out to previous speaker and Head of Community at CMX, which Bevy bought some years ago, David Spinx to see if he could help me out. But David was waiting for his new book ‘The Business of Belonging: How to Make Community Your Competitive Advantage’ to come out and was busy. He trusted the Customer Success Team was doing the best they could without wanting to hear me out.
Finally, to make me go away, the Customer Success Team threw their business values on the table, saying they are ‘community first’ and pasted the paragraph below.
We believe in the power of community and prioritize the needs of our community members and teammates. Act with integrity, think about the community, not just ourselves. Help community professionals gain a seat at the table. Work for the benefit of the group, not the individual. Build safe, diverse, and inclusive spaces. Always act with kindness and empathy. Do the right thing. Build for the passionate advocates, the local organizers. Make sure they can galvanize their community and drive impact. Empower them to make a positive impact on the world.
The countdown is on
Grappling with making any sense out of this weird breakup that smeared company values all over my face whilst doing exactly the opposite of what their values say, left me wondering what has happened to the world. I respect StartupGrind, their startup community and all chapter hosts that I met from London to Tel Aviv and even here in Melbourne and Sydney they have been incredibly helpful over the years.
Bevy has quite the opposite vibes to the company values they claim to uphold in the way they treated me as a customer. How is it worth having company values, cultivating inclusive culture, writing books about it and preaching community matters if you throw your customers down the gutter and march all over them, in the most desperate moment of their business? It’s actually one of the reasons why I’m writing this article.
As you can imagine, the situation of being dumped by the platform company five weeks before the event, doesn’t leave you with anything but to scream out loud into the void. I’m very used to rejections but this is very bad timing. Luckily we had spoken to the Hopin team before when getting a quote and had kept that relationship open so we could quickly reach out and take it from there.
We had four weeks before the event started and were switching to a totally new platform. It was insane! We also had to pay full Hopin fees and sink deeper into debt. But I wanted our attendees, speakers and sponsors to get the best experience, so it was worth it - because of them.
Hopin’s amazing support team gave us a dedicated person who offered as much time as we needed to onboard and was always there for any questions. Their support team saved the event from disaster. And of course my team who worked overtime to deliver a flawless experience and make it happen at the last minute.
At the time of our transition from Bevy to Hopin, it didn’t click but StartupGrind Global Conference online event was also happening from Feb 23-25, 2021 which could have caused Bevy to be stretched too thin and therefore let us down. Who knows what set of circumstances may have led them to not honour the signed agreement and ditch us in the most disrespectful way.
Stand up for your customers
No matter what, I personally would never let anyone down like that even if we’re not making money. It's principal. We lost bucket loads of money this year on the online event but have still kept our honour to deliver exceptional and world class event experience for our attendees and sponsors.
I haven’t checked the virtual event platforms for the last six months and I hope there has been some progress and improvements. But after experiencing it first hand earlier this year and how limited event organisers are when it comes to tools and platforms to create engaging event programming, we are going to continue having problems with online event engagement.
And let’s not even talk about the hybrid option until we master virtual, or let's talk about it when we go back to IRL. The event industry is sorely hurting and attendees need exciting new ways to be engaged from home. Sponsors need something else that no platform is offering right now. Business events can’t deliver creative programming unless the platforms allow them more options.