The opportunity to launch Event Tech Tribe and Women in Event Tech was no stroke of dumb luck for founders Leonora Valvo and Marie-Claire Andrews. It came after years of running their own businesses, trying various partnerships and learning what was missing. In their opinion, it takes a village to provide the right sort of tech support to events. One vendor may ideal for pre-planning stages while another might be best suited for real-time messaging and production, etc. Event Tech Tribe prides itself on finding the right matches through its conglomeration of partners—a veritable “super channel” of technology vendors. Valvo and Andrews tell us how they built the tribe.
How did each of you get your start in event tech?
LV: I have been sort of a serial re-inventor for many years. From an early start at KLM airlines, I have to co-ownership of a full-service travel management company, I’ve been in the travel and events business since the beginning of my career. When I sold the travel management company I retained the conference division, which was mainly air and hotel support for conferences. Then 9/11 happened which wiped out commission revenues and, for the most part, my company. I realized I needed to re-engineer so I moved my company closer to home and launched a full service outsource agency which ranked 55th fastest growing services business by Inc. magazine in 2007. With fast growth came new challenges and lots of risk – events are highly perishable with many opportunities for costly mistakes. Out of this challenge emerged my first technology venture, e-touches. I remember the conversations we had with customers in 2006 and really for a few years. Event tech wasn’t a category, event pros had never heard of SaaS, there were concerns about Internet connectivity and venues were charging astronomical rates for broadband access. Though I would love to say I was a software visionary, I think the real truth was that I was an efficiency zealot and there wasn’t existing technology available to do what I knew we needed to service our customers well.
MC: Well, randomly my very first job, when I was 20 out of university, was as an event planner. It wasn’t my career choice but I was really good at organizing and so I ran graduation ceremonies for a large university - as a result, I learned about events and started using tech to help me - just because I have no patience and technology allows for concurrent activities to be done. After that, I moved around in project management and then moved into capital raising and raising money for technology firms so I got to understand what a good tech business looked like. 10 years ago, friends and I thought that people would stop going to events given the dangers of travel so we tried to start a virtual events technology company before the internet was frankly very good. The experience we created was appalling and we closed that company down and used the learnings to open an event app company called ShowGizmo.
What sparked your initial idea to start Event Tech Tribe?
LV: What started the idea long before the Event Tech Tribe was born: investors, people in the market, other companies would ask me the question, “Well how do you build a Cvent killer in event tech?” That question was a great reflection of how undervalued the events industry was in terms of market size and how little headway event tech had made. It was clear to me then that recreating an enterprise solution in the event tech space to try to beat Cvent at their well-established game was not the future for tech companies. The future was going to be in a well-developed ecosystem. When we were about to launch Swoogo I decided to put my theory to the test and begin to research really great complimentary technologies existing in the market. The concept was simple. Pull together the best products serving a component of the event lifecycle, great leaders with a customer first mindset and deliver best in class solutions now and over time. The overtime part becomes possible when each company is serving 100% of their customer base with 100% of their product. Compare that to an enterprise solution that is serving 80% of their customer base with 20-30% of their product. It is clear where resources will inevitably be channeled.
Sounds like a strong idea. How has it grown since?
MC: With the proliferation of event tech, marketers and planners now have more choices than ever. But with that comes this lack of knowledge of what differentiates two similar technologies, or will one piece of event software play nicely with another? Can a customer trust a piece of technology that’s so new in the market? Through this, Event Tech Tribe has become a sort of beacon of knowledge and resources for other companies, and we can make sure that they do play well with one another and put the customer first.
What do you attribute most of Event Tech Tribe’s success to?
LV: The idea and the vision were great but the execution is everything and the reason the idea was executed so well is because we chose a well-led group of companies and put Marie-Claire at the center, who was and is, a sophisticated, wonderful and talented professional within our space. She’s able to understand how to have conversations within the event industry about the Tribe that make people feel comfortable, understand it, and embrace it. To build a ‘super channel’ successfully you need not only great leaders and technologies but a central resource that is persistent in driving momentum I think that’s what makes our business model unique. It’s not about arguing which percentage of sales are we each going to give to each other when we make referrals (no money is exchanged between us), our conversation was, “How much money are we each going to contribute to having a really professional, strategic person at the center?” MC: Because we’re all entrepreneurs and we’ve all grown our own businesses, we’ve all tried the various partnership structures out there and what works about the Event Tech Tribe is we’re committed philosophically to each other’s success. One tribe partner’s success is our success. It’s a true collaboration and we’ve experienced and understood what that means - as LV said, it's not about the money at all! We’re a group of leaders who all passionately believe in the same thing—and I hold them all to account in the middle!
As two successful founders, what advice do you have for women striving to earn their keep in the event tech space?
MC: Well I would throw out the phrase “earning our keep”, I would say ‘blazing a trail’. To be successful you’ve got to think big, drive hard and work with each other to achieve that. So my advice is, look around to the other women doing that, ask for their help and if you’re the one that’s being asked, you give that help. I’d say have the confidence to know that we have the right to be leading in this space, we don’t have to earn our keep. One of the projects Leonora and I are working on is Women in Event Tech and we’re building a community of women doing great things in various elements of event technology. We think women can really take charge of event tech since it’s such a nascent industry and Women in Event Tech is a great place to start building those connections. LV: Generally, tech is difficult for women, but generally business is difficult for women. I was just talking to someone about how great the #MeToo campaign is in shining a light the ‘sensational’ issues. Most women have experienced awkward and overt encounters with male counterparts. But in many ways the more damaging problem is sort of like the gas leak in your house that you don’t smell, right? Subtle sexism is pervasive and endemic. I have led my career and mentored other women to lead their careers not by complaining or feeling defeated by the impacts of gender bias but by recognizing it, noticing where it is having an impact on them or other women around them and reaching out to mentors, influencers and colleagues who can help them navigate through it.
Are there any event tech ideas that have stuck out to you this year?
LV: I think AI is really interesting and will definitely continue to make the marketing experience better for the end user. New privacy laws may have an impact on its application. My experience with event marketing is that we are a bit behind in personalizing messaging. Swoogo is one of the first solutions to enable customized messaging and content from the landing page on, but only about 20% of our customers have executed. In large part the challenge for event marketers is resources. Typically event teams are understaffed so often repeating/replicating comes from sheer need for speed and efficiency. Perhaps the ubiquitous use of AI is still a bit futuristic, but the availability of data intelligence solutions like InsightXM combined with the versatility of simple persona-driven marketing can have an immediate impact on registration conversions. MC: I get inquiries from probably two or three event tech companies every week who want to join the tribe with a new product or app, and the ones that I’m seeing most are very niche products as opposed to anything that’s going to fundamentally change the way events happen or the experiences that happen. To me, this year’s going to be about strengthening the relationships with participants through a personalized experience since that’s how the consumer has changed in the last year and a half. We as consumers expect everything to be personalized. I think personalization is the trend, not necessarily the new product, we’re seeing.
Event Tech Tribe is fairly young, what are some goals you have for it this year?
MC: There are lots of different goals. I would love to see heaps more companies that we work with work with ALL of our tribe customers. We don’t mandate that customers work with every piece of the tribe, it’s just what fits and what works for their specific need. But I would love to see the whole suite be used by customers, and that’s a personal goal for me that a customer will use the tribe from beginning to end. I’d also like to deepen our European relationship. Right now, we have two European tribe members and now we can go for a strong foothold there.