Julius Solaris, Alon Alroy, and Nicola Kastner sit down for a lively discussion about the event industry’s hottest topics.
In this episode, three of the events industry’s top experts debate some of the hottest — and most controversial — topics in the events industry today. From the future of in-person events to leveraging a data-informed approach for your event strategy to the challenges of hybrid events, this conversation will leave you with plenty to think about.
Julius Solaris is the founder of Boldpush, Alon Alroy is Bizzabo’s cofounder and CMO, and Nicola Kastner is the founder of The Event Strategist.
This conversation was just one of many we held as part of our Event Experience Summit, in which we brought together the world’s most innovative event professionals to share their secrets and strategies.
Here’s just some of what you’ll hear about in this conversation about top event industry topics:
[00:00:00] Chaviva Gordon-Bennett: Welcome to Event Experience by Bizzabo. The podcast where we bring the best and brightest Event Experience Leaders together to share stories, tips, and lessons learned from creating some of the world’s biggest events. I’m Chaviva Gordon-Bennett, senior editorial content manager here at Bizzabo. This week we’re joined by Julius Solaris, Alon Aroy, and Nicola Kastner for a lively discussion about the events industry’s most pressing issues.
[00:00:32] Julius is the founder of Boldpush. Alon is Bizzabo’s cofounder and CMO. And Nicola is the founder of the Event Strategist. In this episode, our trio of industry veterans exchanges bold opinions and nuanced perspectives about trending event topics, including in-person and hybrid strategies, event data, sustainability, and more.
[00:00:56] If you wanna hear more conversations like this one, click the link in the show notes to watch Bizzabo’s Event Experience Summit on demand. Without further ado. Here’s Julius, Alon, and Nicola.
[00:01:21] Nicola Kastner: We’re thrilled to be here. We’re gonna talk about three different topics today. We’ll discuss returning to in-person events. We’re going to talk about data, and we’re going to talk about what I call the dirty H word hybrid.
And this is a debate. There we, you know, as we prepared for this session, we discussed whether we would, you know, should we call this the great debate and let’s agree to disagree, but I think we all agreed that that might be kind of confusing.
[00:01:46] There are some topics that we all agree on. There are other topics that we absolutely do not. And so I think this is gonna be really fun. So let’s get it started. So we’re gonna start talking first about in-person and the return to in-person. And I think we can all say that we’ve seen, you know, a substantial increase because before we couldn’t have them, but of the return to live and maybe a decrease in the actual virtual events.
[00:02:15] And as we discussed for this and prepped for it, we thought about, well, is this a norm? Is this the norm? Is this what we can expect? And what can you all learn as you develop your event program? Should you go all back into in-person? Or do you need to find the right mix? So we’re gonna talk about that a little bit here today.
[00:02:34] So Alon why don’t I start with you? Why don’t you share your perspective?
[00:02:39] Alon Alroy: Sure. First it’s very fun to be here in-person at a studio. So let’s acknowledge that I’m very happy that we were even talking about in-person because just two years ago in-person was not a thing. It looked like this far dream, and now it is very much a reality.
[00:02:56] And we’re talking about, are we there yet, etcetera, etcetera. First of all, this is a lot of fun. And thank you for being here with a Bizzabo family at the studio. I’m so happy. So thank you. I’m not sure if it was allowed. I’m sorry, studio people. One, I’m also happy that marketers, attendees, and organizers are choosing in-person.
[00:03:21] And I mean choosing, because I do not think that we’re going back to in-person. I think people are choosing in-person. While it may look and I’m sure many of us have attended some in-person events over the past few months, I’m sure some thought or felt that we just went back in time to 2019.
[00:03:46] And I think if we do that, that’s gonna be a very big missed opportunity. We have a huge opportunity ahead of us to reinvent in-person. The fact that yes, attendance is down. I’m not sure if it will go back to what it used to be, but should it, people now have so many different options and flexibility, and it requires us and those who are driving this industry forward to just really disrupt all of the existing formats to rethink in-person.
[00:04:23] I’m very excited about the possibility of us to rethink the format, the length, the attendance, the venue, and the possibilities are really endless. But bottom line: I’m not sure if it’s virtual versus in-person in my mind. It’s virtual and in-person, because it has the potential to become the most powerful, most impactful marketing channel we’ve ever seen.
[00:04:51] Nicola Kastner: I couldn’t agree more. I often have said that I think this was a gift as an industry that we didn’t know that we wanted. Very rarely do you have an opportunity to reinvent your industry, and we’ve been given that. I also agree that, you know, there is a place for in-person. There is a place for virtual, and there is a place for hybrid. And it really starts fundamentally with understanding your objectives and what you’re trying to achieve, and then bringing the events back in the right way. I also think as we return to in-person, I just came from an event that I was at last week and I was exhausted. Our social batteries are so different than they were in the past. The speed of business is so much faster.
[00:05:31] And I think as event organizers, we really have to resist the urge to go back to what we used to do. And we have to think about a new way of bringing in-person events back. Julius. What’s your thoughts?
[00:05:43] Julius Solaris: Well, first off, I’m so excited to be here in-person with you. Thank you so much Bizzabo and the family.
[00:05:49] It’s, it’s an amazing feeling to feel close to all of our audience. And I feel that, you know, the concept of planning events, it’s a very fluid one. I don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like it in the past. I think that, you know, even calling different events, different types, I think it’s gonna go away very soon.
[00:06:11] An event is gonna be an event, whether it’s in-person hybrid, pre-recorded sometimes with some level of interaction. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like it in terms of the evolution of what planning an event means for many planners today. As a result, as we were talking about inclusivity and diversity, I think we have to be inclusive and really embrace the diversity of planning events today and what it means for audiences that all of a sudden, for the first time in their lives, they felt recognized.
[00:06:44] Think about introverts attending in-person events, one of the most upsetting experience, I’m introverted. I always stay on the lines of networking moments and all of a sudden in a virtual environment, I can thrive and connect with people without feeling awkward. So are we gonna say no to all of that all of a sudden? I feel that the missed opportunity we’re talking about Alon makes a lot of sense. We don’t have to miss that opportunity to really embrace the holistic perspective of what planning an event means. Right? We reached saturation in 2019. There also always, there were no more ideas we could think think of, and we’re presented here with the biggest creative opportunity that we’ve ever had in the event industry to really unleash our creativity.
[00:07:33] In the metaverse in whatever it’s gonna be next. Right? That the skills that we have as event professionals, that’s what people want because, at the end of the day, the need to connect. However, whenever, wherever, you know, that’s, that’s what sticks. And I think that’s the big opportunity there.
[00:07:50] Nicola Kastner: I couldn’t agree more.
[00:07:52] I think as we think about the return to in-person, I think the pendulum has swung really far in one direction because we’ve been not been able to it for so long. But I think we’ll start to see that swing back a little bit. And as people think about, you know, what are we trying to achieve?
[00:08:11] Why are we hosting this event? And what’s right for the audience, cuz sometimes, and we’ll talk about, I call it the dirty H word for a reason. Because it means everything. It means nothing, and it is the most confusing topic. And so we’ll spend a lot of time on that talking about hybrid, but you know, how are the right way to bring, bring these different pieces in-person virtual hybrid together in your portfolio?
[00:08:31] So I think it’s, I agree super exciting time. And I fast forward to a year from now. It’ll be really interesting to think back to this conversation. And to see where the industry’s gone. I sometimes cringe when I see what I said early on in the pandemic and how wrong I was because none of us knew, you know, when we were talking about the book and you know, fantastic book for any of you that haven’t read it.
[00:08:58] Nicola Kastner: I strongly recommend you do, but things are changing so fast when you publish a book. Not saying it’s out of date because it 100% isn’t, but everything is changing. And so it’s an exciting time, and will continue to be for all of us. All right. We’re gonna move to the next topic.
[00:09:18] My favorite one for any of you that have heard me speak before or have read the book where there’s a whole chapter of me gushing about data or the podcast cuz it’s just my favorite thing to talk about, which I know is a really weird thing as an event professional because I’m, I’m sort of an anomaly, but it’s something I would actually recommend that the audience really embrace because it has been a differentiator in my career.
[00:09:44] But it also makes you allows you to make the right informed choices. And so, as we think about digital events, the beauty of them was the amount of behavioral data that we could get and attendee data, the things we could understand, we could look at drop-off rates. We could look at, you know, just so many different things.
[00:10:05] But the reality is, what did we do with that data? How do we use that data? And I think that’s an important conversation that we need to have because collecting data for the sake of collecting data is pointless. Right? So if your data shows that people are gonna drop off at 20 minutes in a session, why are you running 30- or 35-minute sessions if you’re not using the data? So that my little bit of a high horse there, and I’ll get off that.
[00:10:28] But you know, people are now worried about the conversations we’re hearing as we return to in-person events — we lose that data. And I don’t think that has to be the case. I think you can be very prescriptive and really intentional in the data that you collect in, in-person and has so many insights that can come out of that data.
[00:10:49] So how do you marry the two? What are you seeing from your customers?
[00:10:52] Alon Alroy: First data is a big word. I’ll say that data was never, the objective. Data was meant to get to your objectives, which are, you know, usually about accelerating revenue, amplifying your brand, activating your community, and creating meaningful connections.
[00:11:13] And data is either to help you make decisions, as you said. And in my mind, without a doubt, we got spoiled or we are, we had a contributing role in actually spoiling the industry in terms of having access to amazing data, to help the most sophisticated marketers really amplify their plans. And we saw some amazing things that people did over the past two years.
[00:11:38] I agree 100% when we go back to in-person. I’ll say that what I see most organizers do not yet have access to that wealth of data at in-person events. And that can definitely create this frustration of, should I run a virtual event because I have all of that amazing data to inform my marketing strategy, or do I go back to in-person where I know that there will be a meaningful connection, but it’s more challenging to capture.
[00:12:15] We believe that marrying the two has the potential again to create the most amazing data opportunity to then turn your marketing teams into a very, very strategic muscle in any organization. Well, one of the reasons that we acquired Klik last year is that people used to call them the Google Analytics of in-person events.
[00:12:37] So with smart wearables, you suddenly have access to all of that data as if it’s a virtual event. How do you operate in the space? What are some of the meaningful conversations you have? And you can think about the potential of that. It is truly amazing, and you’re right. Data is there to help you tell a story, and if you do it right, and that’s what we have a team that we call, we call that team.
[00:13:02] The mission of that team is humanizing data. Because at the end, data should tell a good story. If you have a good story, making decisions is just easy. So I hope that soon we’re gonna see a lot of innovation around onsite so that we don’t go back to 2019, but we reinvent even how we use data, because we’re only moving forward from here.
[00:13:22] We’re not going back. We’re not going back to in-person. We’re moving forward to a new generation of in-person events.
[00:13:28] Nicola Kastner: I couldn’t agree more. And if you think about it as marketers or event professionals, which I consider us marketers, we are one step in a customer journey. And the data from an event is such a huge source of insights, whether it’s a virtual, hybrid, or an in-person event.
[00:13:44] Such a huge source of insights into your customer’s behaviors and buying signals, all of those things that happen in the digital world. So I think my call-to-action to everybody is to think about not just your event data in that event silo, but the holistic marketing ecosystem.
[00:14:06] And how does the data come together to drive business performance, Julius? What’s your perspective?
[00:14:11] Julius Solaris: Well, I guess every panel becomes great when there’s a little bit of controversy on it. So I guess that’s why it was brought on stage here as well. You know, as you call hybrid the “H word,” they call data the “D word,” because you know, we’ve been talking about it for the past 10, 15 years in the industry.
[00:14:29] So. You know, it’s been kind of a big objective that we’ve all had. We understand that being strategic about what we do — it’s key. But you know, between what we think and what we want and the actual reality of things, we have to be realistic that there, there are problems with data right now.
[00:14:49] I think there’s a problem with some event tech platforms that provide a lot of data, which you know, can be seen as great. But once you have all of that data, you’ve overwhelmed with a lot of vanity metrics. And the question within marketing teams — within event planning teams — is so what? What am I gonna do with this?
[00:15:13] Because you know, it’s too much, I speak with a lot of event owners and event leaders. You know, look at these dashboards, and they just ask me or their team, what are the top three things we need to look at? And, you know, even having that focus right now for all the leaders listening in, I think it’s gonna be very important.
[00:15:36] You know, across different metrics. It cannot be all about. You know conversions and how many people visited an exhibitor booth or whatever. It’s also about, you know, satisfaction and understanding how we’re being successful with something that, it’s been perceived as an exchange of air.
[00:15:53]Julius Solaris: As I call it, events are very intangible, very tough to measure. So all of a sudden, we have that opportunity, but it’s also on event teams, I think, to kind of like step it up and start investing in event technologies roles, data analyst roles, people that are functional within the team and can make sense of all of these data coming in.
[00:16:17] In the same fashion, as an event planner, I mean, you like to look after your FMB and maybe choose the mini burgers that you’re gonna have right there, but you’re not making them yourself. So why all of a sudden you need to be a data scientist when you can probably have someone within the team that gets it and can give the information intelligence that you need to make the right decision.
[00:16:39] I feel the data concept is evolving. I feel that opportunities like Klik as you were mentioning, the wearables part. It’s an interesting one. Costs of that technology are going down. So we tend to assume also, I think it’s important for the audience here. Don’t assume that the costs are RFID, Bluetooth, whatever it’s gonna be the same as pre-pandemic. Things are evolving very quickly. There are event technology companies that are becoming incredible with smart in making the right acquisitions or, you know, having the right logistics in place to then help people connect. So there are solutions for in-person as well.
[00:17:18] And, you know, the potential of data unlocking the data of in-person, something that we all perceive as being incredible. When we attend an in-person event, we always have this feeling of, how was it? Oh, it was great! But how do you translate that into actionable opportunities for the leadership who makes the decisions?
[00:17:38] This is the opportunity that we have right now. I hope we can capitalize on it once and for all.
[00:17:44] Nicola Kastner: Yeah. And I agree with you too. I expected you to be way more controversial, and you weren’t, you know, you will be.
[00:17:55] I think as professionals, we have to think about, you know, everything must start with the objectives.
[00:18:05] Why are we doing an event? What are we trying to achieve then from there, we start to think about, okay, well what is the data that I need to capture to tell me if I was successful in achieving those objectives that inform your data. Don’t collect data for the sake of collecting data and do nothing with it.
[00:18:22] It becomes like garbage. Right? You got to do something with it. So, so that’s, that’s something that I think is such a massive opportunity for us as an industry and for you as, as an event tech provider to guide your clients on, because you know, we look to you as the expert to help us figure that out.
[00:18:40] Alon Alroy: I think oftentimes people look at data as an afterthought that, yes, I’m gonna go into that dashboard and watch the metrics. But as you said, as well, people should understand their data strategy, and it must align with their objective. And I think the vanity metrics are changing. Maybe we used to think that attendance, for example, is the definition of success, but that is not the case.
[00:19:05] Now we talk way more about instead of Return on Event (ROE), which is a broad term, the Return on Attention (ROA), for example, in a way, and you need a lot of actually good technology to start thinking. What does that actually mean in terms of Return on Attention? Because at the end, it is not about the quantity anymore.
[00:19:24] It is about the quality. Specifically, when we talk about in-person events, engagement, attention, and meaningful connections — those are the things that move the needle. Not whether your attendance is 50% of what it used to be. So what, so it’s 50%, but you have other, you have other ways to include your audience and to capitalize on the fact that our industry has been transformed and data should be your compass to take decisions. Should I do that in-person event again? Should I go back to virtual? Lean on your objective, make sure you have a good strategy. And oftentimes, you just did five metrics to really decide whether your event was successful or not.
[00:20:10] And the success metrics should be modified. They have changed. It is not about the attendance anymore.
[00:20:16] Nicola Kastner: They definitely change based on your objectives, but I would also caution that we have to talk the language of business. And when you’re talking to your CFO and asking them to invest, you know, sometimes multimillions of dollars into an event.
[00:20:29] If you start talking about return on engagement, they will look at you. Like you’ve got six heads and tell you you’re not getting the money. Right? So I often think about it. If you think about an iceberg, there’s the tip, which is what you see, but there’s so much below the water that you don’t see. For us as professionals, those engagement metrics, those things that allow us to make the event better. To achieve the overall objectives are important, but make no mistake, the CFO, your CMO, whoever, they really wanna know, what are those hard-line metrics as well? So it says so as professionals, I think we have to find that balance between the, between the two.
[00:21:05] Julius Solaris: Great valid point here. I think that at the end of the day, yes. I mean, we need to be able to make better business decisions first. Then we have to look at how these business decisions are influenced by other factors as well. Even the connection between, I know we have people like Liz and Nicole are coming later talking about ROE, and we have a whole event on experience today because there is a connection between the experience and the business outcomes.
[00:21:39] So data is the key to uncover that connection and make it more obvious for the CFO and for the customer alike. So that’s the big opportunity in front of us.
[00:21:49] Nicola Kastner: 100% agree. I could talk about this the entire time, but we were, but we have to get to the dirty H word, hybrid, which isn’t my favorite topic because it’s just, that it’s such a confusing topic.
[00:22:06] I think we can all agree for everybody. Early on in the pandemic, I described what I thought about what the future of a hybrid event was, I used the analogy of a sporting event. You know, the experience you have, let’s use a football game, an NFL football game, the experience that you have at the game, tailgating in this crowd with all these people, actually the quality of the content that you see is probably less than what you see at your TV on home, but it’s, it’s the overall experience.
[00:22:37] Tailgating, all those things. Then you go take the analogy to a bar with like-minded groups of small people, you know, and that experience. And then you compare that experience to watching it at home on your sofa, drinking your own cold beer, but you’ve got much better content. That was sort of the analogy that I used when I described hybrid events. Right?
[00:22:57] One is not better than the other. They are different experiences. They are delivering different outcomes. As we’ve emerged, and now are, you know, able to go back to in-person events and really develop hybrid strategies. I realize that that’s probably a little bit far-fetched because our events teams haven’t changed. Our budgets haven’t changed. We’re being asked to do more, and we don’t have TV production capabilities in many cases for our events. Right? So as we think about, you know, I use this as an example that, that our perspectives on hybrid are constantly changing, but I think we can all agree that as we’ve come back and we’ve tried to build these hybrid strategies, we realize that we don’t actually have to have audiences interacting with each other, between life and in-person.
[00:23:44] And I think that’s a lesson that most of us have learned pretty clearly coming out of this. And so when we think about hybrid, think about event objectives, you know, what’s the right balance between in-person, digital, and the combination of the two. We’ve got a ton of opportunities in front of us.
[00:24:05] So, Julius, I’m gonna start with you. What are your thoughts on this?
[00:24:07] Julius Solaris: Oh my God. Yeah, we probably need a couple of hours to unpack all of these needs. Yeah, we’re gonna, we’re gonna make it quick. I think it’s about freedom of choice for the event planner to choose whatever the best experience for the attendee is. Right?
[00:24:21] So that’s the starting principle. So whenever I started to hear, in the beginning of 2021, that the future is hybrid as many marketing teams within the industry were saying were sort of imposing to event planners. I started to say, “Hmm, this feels like an imposition because probably you see, and that you’re losing business with, with some of it.”
[00:24:42] So you gotta be honest with it. A lot of it has been you know, something that has been imposed. And I think planners felt that, and many say, you know, the future is whatever I say it is for my audience. And I think that has to be respected. Now said that, I think there’s, there’s a great opportunity with hybrid we cannot deny. So first off, as we mentioned earlier, there’s different learning styles. There’s different capabilities. We gotta be inclusive. We gotta be as diverse as possible in our offering. Hybrid is a great opportunity to keep that going. So let’s not forget that. Second, I feel that, you know, the environmental situation of our world is not improving right now.
[00:25:22] And hybrid is actually a direct way to respond to the environmental crisis that is happening right now. I know there are a lot of marketing people listening to this. So I know you’re conscious of that. And I know that younger generations are very conscious about this. So denying hybrid, you know, as a principle, it’s actually puts you in a very difficult position with your sustainability practices for the future.
[00:25:49] Third, and I’m gonna close with this, I think. For the short term, there are some verticals, some audiences where hybrid it’s a much easier choice than some others, you know, in some cases, pharma for example, medical congresses, and stuff like that, people just wanna go to in-person, there’s not a lot of tech literacy.
[00:26:09] They just, they didn’t even click on a link to join a meeting call. So makes sense to invest in-person. In some other cases, such as tech or media the audience is already used to consume content online. So it makes sense to extend that offering from in-person to online. So there’s a lot of fit between the tool and the audience.
[00:26:36] But then again, we’re not always thinking about synchronous hybrid experiences, meaning everything has to be synchronized at the time. One budget, two events. That doesn’t necessarily have to work. Let’s think about hybrid event strategy, where we can think about virtual opportunities, in-person opportunities. And then, if it’s the right fit, let’s think about synchronous hybrid too. I think we gotta be relaxed, but use the full set of tools. Don’t be polarized and say no to this, yes to that.
[00:27:07] Nicola Kastner: I think about it as a dial, right? One side is fully in-person. One side is fully digital.
[00:27:14] And then in between. Any combination of that is hybrid. So once again, I’m gonna go back to the objectives word. It starts with your objectives. Alon, what’s your perspective on this?
[00:27:23] Alon Alroy: Hybrid is definitely a spectrum. It should not be a scary word. Change is scary by the way. And we live in hybrid world already.
[00:27:34] And when we think about it, some of the most amazing consumer experiences out there are hybrid experiences. When you have an Uber, when you get something from Amazon, those are hybrid experiences. And I think hybrid is about flexibility. It’s about options. It’s about providing our attendees the flexibility to decide how they want to experience your event and provide the option to marketing and events teams to decide how they want to run their events.
[00:27:59] And I feel like hybrid is mainly a big opportunity — or a gift, as you said before — it is definitely not an event technology feature. Some people think hybrid is a feature. Hybrid is a strategy, and hybrid is just the word we live in, whether it is the workplace or events. And it’s on us to capitalize on this amazing opportunity given to us. To keep showing resilience as an industry and take events to the next level, because this is what hybrid is giving us.
[00:28:31] Nicola Kastner: Yeah, absolutely.
[00:28:33] So heck we’ve got a couple more minutes to close things up. So any final parting comments?
[00:28:39] Alon Alroy: First, it has been amazing chatting with both of you in-person, in a hybrid format, by the way. So I’m grateful for the fact that you traveled, you gave me a high-five when I asked for it. and I also thank you for all of the thought leadership and that you are helping our audience at home be better at what they do.
[00:29:01] Nicola Kastner: Thank you for the opportunity, Julius.
[00:29:04] Julius Solaris: A word of acknowledgment, as Alon said, change is not easy. And to be honest, very few industries have seen the impact that we’ve seen in the events industry. So a word of acknowledgment for all the fighters that are listening to this that went through excruciating times to reinvent themselves, and learn a new skill.
[00:29:26] Reskilling themselves, starting new businesses. I think we have to be in awe and appreciation of all the audience and companies that supported them through the route. Pivoted. And if I can still use the “P word” now you know, and, and I think, you know, we gotta be proud of what the industry has achieved between suppliers and planners.
[00:29:48] It’s been a crazy ride, but definitely an interesting one.
[00:29:52] Nicola Kastner: Couldn’t agree more, you know, I’ve said many times for us that we’re in the events industry, we’re, we’re a crazy breed, right? We’re in this industry for a reason, and you know, you either love it or hate it. And we love it. And so becoming digital marketers for the last two years, you know, if we’d wanted to be digital marketers, we would’ve been digital marketers. So it’s been a huge transition for us, and I agree 100% this we should all be really proud of what we’ve achieved and what we will continue to achieve. So with that, we’re gonna wrap up, and thanks both of you for the conversation.
[00:30:25] Chaviva Gordon-Bennett: What an enlightening and thought-provoking conversation. Thanks again to Julius, Alon, and Nicola for joining us on Event Experience. And thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share it with your colleagues and friends. You can also connect with us on social media, and don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you listen to your podcasts, you can find transcripts of each episode as well as key takeaways at bizzabo.com/podcasts.
[00:30:57] On behalf of the team. Thank you. We can’t wait to gather again soon for a new episode of Event Experience.