Director of Membership & Events, Speaker, Co-Leader of the Chicago HubSpot User Group, Host of ‘The IMPACT Show’ Podcast
November 5th, 2020
Editor’s Note: Heads up — IMPACT will receive compensation from Accelevents for including them in this article.
Jonathan Kazarian is the founder and CEO of event platform Accelevents which is one of the leading platforms powering virtual events through the COVID-19 pandemic.
In early 2020, when in-person conferences were cancelled and event organizers were forced to get creative with digital experiences, Accelevents was one of the few platforms to specifically offer simulive technology.
In my hunt to find a new virtual event solution, I found Accelevents and it had just what we needed. From how easy their software is to use for attendees to the simulive capabilities for hosting sessions, it checked all the boxes. So, I sat down with Jonathan to learn more about the platform, why they created the specific functionality they did, and get his thoughts on the future of events.
Check out the full interview here or read the transcript below:
Stephanie Baiocchi: Welcome Jon, can you tell us a little about yourself and about Accelevents?
Jonathan Kazarian: Accelevents is a virtual event platform. We are focused on conferences, trade shows, and other opportunities to bring people together. Where we'll differ from something like Zoom, for example, is our platform is all of that. It's everything in one design for multiple sessions throughout the day, giving people the opportunity to interact with one another.
Also, really expanding the opportunities for exhibitors to engage with attendees. But also, to make sure that they get the data and analytics that are most valuable to them.
Steph: Anyone who knows me knows I love bringing people together. I'm all about it, which is part of why I'm so excited to work with Accelevents.
But I'm curious, prior to the pandemic and this whole pivot to virtual events, what was Accelevents like and who did you primarily serve?
Jon: Yeah. And Stephanie, same for me, I mean, that's how I actually got into this space.
My background in the event space started about seven years ago, putting on a 1,000 person fundraiser for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute here in Boston. And going into that event, we realized that there was no affordable solution to facilitate the auction and the raffle digitally. So, having a bit of a tech background, threw something together and it just worked really well.
So, we decided to take that and offer it to more nonprofit organizations as an affordable tool to help them raise money.
We started by focusing on nonprofits. And about a year after that, the feedback we were getting from event organizers was that they wanted a more full service solution. So, incorporating ticketing into it as well and payment processing. So, we began to focus there.
And as we built out our ticketing platform, we realized that there was quite a bit of opportunity to focus more heavily on conferences and festivals and trade shows, on the larger scale for profit events.
That became more of our bread and butter. And towards the end of last year, we started to get some feedback from our event organizers that there was this growing focus on sustainability, minimizing unnecessary business travel and also shrinking corporate budgets for events. So, that all led us to start building more hybrid solutions. And tended to be more on the communication side. So, incorporating chat, other functionality along those lines.
But really the pivot in March is what put us where we are today. The incorporation of video into the platform, and quite a bit more beyond that, especially on the networking side of things and opportunities to bring people together.
The transition to virtual events
Steph: So tell me more about that transition to virtual. What's that been like for you?
Jon: It's been an interesting ride, that's to say the least. So we've grown quite a bit from that perspective. Obviously everybody needs a virtual event solution right now.
We've built our business on our customer success. Our average response time to people down during the pandemic was around 40 seconds. I'll be fully transparent; it's come up a little bit and we're just trying to bring on and grow the team and make sure that the team is there to ensure that every event is successful. So I would say that's certainly been an interesting ride and definitely a challenge for us.
As you know, when it comes to events, everything boils down to a couple of hours. You spend months working on something that needs to go right and we need to make sure our team is always there and able to ensure that we can lend a hand.
Steph: Yeah, absolutely. So, have you seen any trends in fully virtual events that you didn't expect or have been a surprise to you through the transition?
Jon: Yeah. So one in specific, and I guess in hindsight, I shouldn't have even thought it would be a surprise, but yeah, I just mentioned how events, you spend months working on them and they boil down to a couple of hours. And there's obvious reasons for that in person —you’ve got to organize all of your vendors and your venue and people need to travel to and from your event. But in the virtual event world, all of those problems are gone.
And when you build one virtual event, at the click of a button, you can duplicate that event and run it month after month, and reuse quite a bit of the content as well, especially when a big part of that event is just bringing people together.
Now, you've got that vehicle to do that. So we've seen quite a few, whether it be association meetings or software user conferences, different event types of that nature, where they've gone from what used to be an annual event to now a monthly recurring series. And it's been really interesting and exciting to see and great for us as well.
Steph: You know, I didn't know that's what you were going to say, but it's interesting. We had an annual event and we now have gone to every other month we have an event. So essentially the same thing.
What have been probably the best and worst parts of this massive pivot to virtual for you and for Accelevents?
Jon: Let me start with what I think is best for the industry.
Historically, event professionals have often been considered a cost center within corporations. When organizations, when companies are thinking about their marketing spend, it's been so hard to tie the results of events to revenue, and that problem has gone now. There's so much more data that can be collected in the virtual event space. It just makes it so much easier to tell that story.
And I was actually looking through LinkedIn the other day, and I saw a really interesting post by a gentleman named Allen who was talking about how historically you've got, basically, this Venn diagram of growth marketing professionals and event professionals. And this is able to bring them together.
Event marketing professionals are now, in some essences, becoming growth marketing professionals with their access to data and how that can help sales teams and the business as a whole build that community, build those relationships.
Most challenging? Well, it wasn't a fun summer. I'll say that. It's certainly been busy, but no, I think most challenging is just trying to service everybody and ensure that their event is everything that they had deemed it would be.
In the beginning of the pandemic, I think a lot of people were thinking about their event within the box of their in-person event and they were trying to make technology replace that. And now that people have been through a series of virtual events or hosted their own, they've since realized that a virtual event doesn't have to replace the way that you thought about an in-person event. It's its own beast.
And I think that mindset shift has really, it's really changed the dynamic of virtual events for the better.
The future of the event space
Steph: Definitely. I couldn't agree more. Speaking of, what do you think the future of events will look like maybe next year and even down the road in a couple of years?
Jon: Yeah. Well, I'm certainly not going to sit here and predict when we're going to go back to in-person events or when a vaccine might come out, but I do feel that we're well past the inflection point. Had a vaccine come out in April,I think that the virtual event landscape would probably be not all that different than it was back in January.
But now that everybody has experienced virtual events or most people have, and they know how to capitalize on them, and they know the benefits of a virtual event as compared to in-person.
Again, beyond just the obvious lower cost, no need to travel, a greater reach, but the ease of bringing in additional speakers that you otherwise wouldn't have access to and the data, which is huge.
Also, from the exhibitor's perspective, you go to an in-person event and you might be working an expo booth there, maybe every hundredth person who walks by you, you have a conversation with, every 300th you get their contact information.
That whole problem is alleviated when you're running your event virtually. So there's so much more value for the sponsors and exhibitors. I think those reasons are certainly going to keep virtual events here, indefinitely.
Once large-scale events start to return, there are going to be some events that do go back and probably will be very much like they were pre pandemic, but they're all going to have a hybrid component.
It just makes no sense to remove that.
Raising the bar on virtual events
Steph: Well, we're still in the land of virtual events and the novelty has kind of worn off for attendees. Do you think that's forcing event planners to have to raise the bar a bit?
Jon: I hope so. It keeps it more fun and it's not just the event organizers, it's the platforms as well. We all have to do a better job of increasing experience and that's, at the end of the day, what events are about.
Steph: It's so true. I mean, it's so refreshing to hear you talk about individual customers of yours and individual events. I've obviously done a ton of research on virtual event platforms and some have taken weeks to even a month or two to get back to me about things, which I think is just wild.
Why do event planners choose Accelevents?
Steph: Obviously things are crazy right now, but I've really felt the care of your team throughout planning our entire event, which leads me into, I want to talk specifically about your platform a little bit. What are some of the main reasons that event planners choose Accelevents?
Jon: Well, customer service is definitely a big part of that. We've got a great team. Fairly confident that everybody on our team has at least some experience working in-person events as well. So they certainly understand the landscape and can talk the language. That's the first aspect of it.
The other is that the event organizers we work with often view our team as an extension of their own. And we're there to act as a coach as people are attempting to pivot to virtual and whether it be their first virtual event or their first event with us, because they've used a different platform previously. So it's helping them to learn all of the options available to them, to make sure that the event is a success from their perspective, whoever they're reporting to. But also from the perspective of the attendees, we need to ensure that they get the value out of the event. They're giving up their time, sometimes their dollars.
And then certainly for the exhibitors. And I've already talked about a couple of the reasons that it is so beneficial for exhibitors. In terms of the actual technology, the platform itself, a big part of it is that it's all in one. You don't have to sit there and try to figure out how to connect the dots with Zapier integrations or dropping in Zoom links. Everything you have is under one roof.
You've got integrated video. So you don't have to send your presenters and speakers a three page PDF explaining how to actually use the platform. It's all there ready to go, which just makes the experience better across the board when things go off without a hitch.
I think one of the other pieces to that is if you look at some of the platforms out there, there are some that are designed to be self-service and there are some that you work with a specialist and help build out the event.
The route that we've always taken from the inception of the company is that our event organizers should be able to do everything they want to do on their own without needing us. That said, we're always there, but if you need to make a change on the fly in the middle of your event, you have all the tools you need to do that.
Steph: So who is Accelevents maybe not a good fit for?
Jon: So we're definitely more focused on larger scale events. We generally don't work with any events under a couple of hundred attendees. In that case, to be fully transparent, Zoom or another webinar platform is often a great bet and it will probably save you some money as well. But for conferences, trade shows, anything that's going to have multiple sessions and agenda to it, the networking component, that's really where we fit in.
Delivering superior event support
Steph: So we talked a little bit about your customer support team. How does your team manage all of these different clients and events and answering questions so quickly? What's that like?
Jon: They're just a bunch of rock stars.
Steph: That's been my experience with them.
Jon: I don't know how they do it. That's all I can say.
Steph: Well props to them. I know we specifically have had a great experience with them. We get detailed, comprehensive answers quickly, or they go and find an answer to something if we... I have a habit of digging out questions that no one knows the answer to, and we always get a snapshot, which is great.
Human connection at virtual events
Steph: So networking is such a huge part of in-person events and we talked about Accelevents bringing people together. How do you recreate or re-envision networking in a virtual setting?
Jon: Yeah, so there's a couple of different components to that, but the two predominant ones are meetups.
So that's professional speed dating style video chat where you get paired up with somebody for some period of time. And then, after that connection, you get matched up with somebody else.
As the event organizer, you can also define the rules on who's going to get matched up with who. So if the event was the career, for example, you would want to match up employers with candidates. And then there's also some AI that is in the backend that also assists with the matching there.
Another component [is] what we call lounges. So these are kind of similar to like a Facebook group or a LinkedIn group where you can have a particular topic and people can go in, they can share ideas, sort of like a Reddit forum inside of there. They can also join a live video forum and interact with one another, or do a meetup within that lounge and just have an opportunity, again, to network with like minded professionals. And of course, all of this activity is saved to their profile. So they can always go back and see who else they matched with, who they had a great conversation with. They can request a meeting to continue the conversation with those people and jump on another video chat or message them at any time throughout their experience within the virtual event.
Steph: I love those. That's sometimes my favorite part of virtual events, much as I like learning and hearing from experts, I love connecting with other people. I mean, that's one of the things we miss the most, right?
Event data in Accelevents
Steph: So people love data, obviously, especially marketers. What can an event planner expect in terms of getting data through Accelevents from there?
Jon: Yeah, so I'm a bit of a geek. Data's one of my favorite parts as well. On the data front, I mean, it's really everything down to the clickstream data. The different components of what's accessible, I mean, some of the obvious things like what percentage of people who registered actually showed up to the event based on ticket type or any other factors there.
From an exhibitor's perspective, they can know who visited their booth and what those attendees did, such as downloading documents, reviewing video, engaging in chat. And then, as the event organizer, you can actually specify which data attributes or fields are made accessible to those executors.
And if you want to dig deeper, you can look and see which sessions performed the best in terms of how long people stayed involved with those sessions. You can see how much time people spent networking and how many connections they made through the networking opportunities within the platform. And again, it all drills down to the quick stream data. I mean, you can go that granular if you want to.
But in terms of how you actually use that data, I think that's probably the better question. So we do see a lot of event organizers exporting the data to their CRMs and it does depend quite a bit on what type of event you're hosting.
So for example, if you're hosting a user conference and you're a software company and you hosted a breakout session talking about a feature that you might've recently released. Well, that's super helpful information to the sales team, who can then go and reach out to those people and potentially upsell them.
The scenarios for lead collection for exhibitors, I think, are pretty obvious already, but it does come down to how you're going to use that information. And another example might be identifying which speakers had the highest engagement rates. So you can make sure that you're inviting the speakers back, especially when you're hosting that event in a higher velocity. And also use that as an opportunity to market some of those speakers that are performing particularly well.
Standout virtual event technology
Steph: So one of the reasons we chose Accelevents for our next event was specifically the simulive capability. And for those who don't know, when I say simulive, I mean beyond just having a video available on demand, having a pre-recorded session play at a certain time scheduled, not where I'm going in as an event organizer and sharing my screen and playing a recording, but it's uploaded to the platform. It plays automatically, and everyone is experiencing it at the same time. They're able to chat and watch together at the same time.
What inspired your team to make this feature part of your platform?
Jon: Yeah, definitely. So frankly, it was a necessity at the beginning of the pandemic. Everybody was moving to working in the home, internet speeds were just getting hammered. And we were having event organizers who were hosting events and their speakers were just having video cut out. It wasn't anything to do with the server side on our side, it was simply that their internet connections weren't stable enough.
So giving them the opportunity to pre-record their presentations and then, upload them to our servers means that we don't have to worry about connectivity. It just ensures that the attendees are getting the content at the time that they're expecting it without the hiccups, adding a level of comfort for the speakers. And then the speakers can sit there and can field questions as they come in, instead of having to be distracted with what they're saying.
Steph: Yeah, that was, gosh, I sent you a LinkedIn message about that before we even decided to use Accelevents. That was one of my main, just something we have to have at this point, not knowing the internet situation for all of our speakers and just knowing that we want to deliver the best, most reliable experience to our attendees.
Jon: Yeah. And it's no fault to anybody. I mean, look, I'm CEO of a virtual event platform who I spent my evening last night looking at routers at BestBuy because mine has gone out for no reason. That's the reality of the world we're in right now.
Event promotion vs. event experience
Steph: It is. So in your platform you have the events landing page and then the virtual event hub. Can you tell me a little bit about the difference between those and how that improves the experience?
Jon: Yeah, definitely. So the event landing page, that is your marketing website for promoting your event. Now, I did see your website. You guys built an incredible website. If anybody wants an example, check that out.
Some of the organizers either don't have the time or website experience. So, we've given our event organizers the opportunity to very easily build a website that communicates everything that they need to, whether it be the agenda, information about the event, the speakers, the exhibitors, the sponsors, et cetera.
Now, that's accessible as far in advance of your event as you want. But then when it comes time for the event, that's going to be your gateway, your door into the virtual event portal where your event takes place.
So the virtual event portal, that's essentially your venue. That's where your event's happening. People are greeted with a lobby, which often has an intro video welcoming people to the platform, telling them a little bit about what's going to be happening and where they can find additional resources. They can also participate in some different engagement games, communicate with attendees, view the agenda, and navigate the rest of the platform from there.
Steph: And don't be fooled guys, this isn't like an Eventbrite landing page. I mean, we did build ours in Accelevents as well, just to have that. And we were able to style it and add images and our logo and change the colors. It was super easy to set up and it looks great. So if you need that, it's definitely a benefit for sure.
What’s to come for Accelevents?
Steph: So what can you tell me about any exciting things on the roadmap for the future of Accelevents?
Jon: Yeah, definitely. So this goes back to an earlier question. What's the landscape going to look like? Well, we know that events are going to return to in-person at some point in the future. One of the areas of focus for us is expanding our mobile app. So we do have a mobile app right now.
It's intended for in-person events, but it doesn't have all the functionality that we make accessible for the browser. So building that out to assist with hybrid events and making it easier for those attendees that are attending in-person to interact with those attendees that are participating online. So that is one of our bigger projects that we're going to be working on through the end of this year. And for Q1 of next year.
Obviously, we're always expanding on the functionality throughout the platform, but that's a big part of it. One of the other projects that we're working on is enhancing the video production tools within the platform. So being able to add additional graphics, overlays, and backgrounds to the video, and then, also being able to more easily managed who's on the screen at a given point in time.
What powers the Accelevents team?
Steph: So one more question I love to ask, we talked a little about the amazing rock stars on your team who help support event managers and event planners and make all these things happen within your platform. What would you say is your favorite key characteristic of a member of the Accelevents team?
Jon: I would say it's a way they think about a team. Everybody's just super helpful to one another, whether that be getting new people up to speed or playing off each other. I mean, the platform itself is just, it's growing so quickly that there's a lot to stay up to date with. And it's just really exciting to see how well the team plays off each other, whether that be coaching each other, we're also aggregating the feedback that we see from different event organizers. I mean, at the end of the day, they really are the front lines. They're hearing everything firsthand from the event organizers and the attendees, because they're popping into those events and checking out what's going on. And that allows us to really communicate with the engineering team and make sure that we are continuously evolving and growing what we're putting out there.
Steph: I love that. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Jon. This was really interesting. I took a couple notes myself.
If people want to learn more about Accelevents, obviously, we'll link it in the article here, but if they're watching the video, where can they go to learn more?
Jon: If you go to accelevents.com you'll be able to find one of our rock stars in the chat in the bottom right corner of the page. And we'd be happy to set you up with a demo of the platform and answer any other questions that we can.
Steph: Sounds great. Well, I thank you so much for spending some time with us today and sharing your insights and we'll see all of you soon.
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