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Thought-Leader Julius Solaris on His New Posting and the State of the Industry

April 7, 2021

In this Meetings Today Podcast recorded in March, Meetings Today’s Tyler Davidson talks with Julius Solaris, the founder of EventMB who just joined Swapcard as its head of engagement. 

Always a leading meetings and events industry thinker, Solaris shares his take on the confusing “new normal” we’re all in, as well as recent findings from a meeting planner survey he conducted and how the mix of virtual and in-person events will shape up in the future. 

Listen to this Meetings Today Podcast to find out more.            

Read the Transcript

[start transcript]

Tyler Davidson: Welcome to this Meetings Today Podcast. I'm Tyler Davidson, vice president and chief content director for Meetings Today, and really excited to have a great guest for you, Julius Solaris, a meetings industry veteran, and a real content whiz, and he just joined Swapcard an end-to-end virtual and hybrid event platform, as its head of engagement. Thanks for joining us, Julius. 

Julius Solaris: Thanks for having me. Tyler, what a pleasure. 

Tyler: Tell us more about Swapcard, and what are you going to be doing there as its head of engagement?  

[Related: Julius Solaris Leaves EventMB for Virtual and Hybrid Event Platform Swapcard

Julius: Yeah, well, as you correctly said, Swapcard started as a mobile app, and actually in 2014, so it's been around for a while, as a networking tool and events mobile app for events. And obviously, as a lot of companies did, in March 2020, they pivoted very, very quickly with an amazing looking virtual event platform.  

And that's part of the reason why they grew super-fast over the past year or so, offering a space for event planners to meet. And yeah, as of two weeks ago, I just joined the team looking after their engagement strategies, which is a fancy name for marketing. And, I'm looking after all of their activities. So, very exciting times. 

Julius Solaris, Swapcard.

Tyler: Yeah, in a very, very interesting time for the industry in the last year. You've been covering it for many years in your previous position at EventMB. What are you thinking right now? How has the last year been, where are we at now, and where do you think we're going?  

Julius: Well, you know, it's been a crazy year, obviously—no need to state the obvious here. I think that the level of disruption is just crazy, especially on the technology side of things, for people like me, having worked on EventMB as editor and founder.  

For years, I've been keeping an eye on technology, and we've never seen—they just announced like another round of $400 million for [unintelligible] today. It's just all over the place, right? You know, we never got these numbers in technology for events before... How do you reconcile that with what used to happen—it's not reconcilable.  

So, the level of disruption is just incredible. We're reshaping an industry I believe. This is going to be a turning point for the industry in terms of going forward for whatever going back to business means in terms of in person, hybrid and virtual; three components that are going to be there—how is this going to play out?  

Not a lot of people can guess that, to be honest, right now. 

Tyler: What's your guess, of how this will play out after...let's just say the vaccine rollout goes successfully and we're sort of back to sort of what would be the traditional sort of setup we used to have in, you know, the third quarter, fourth quarter of this year, or maybe into 2021? What are meetings and events gonna look like.  

Julius: So, yeah, the last research we ran at Event MB before I left said that planners look at Q4 and then Q1 and 2 of 2022 as that bigger comeback for in-person events.  

But you know, they used to say Q2 and Q1 2021. They used to say Q4, 2020 before then, so what planners think, unfortunately, is not necessarily what is going to happen, I believe.  

So, that's the first starting point. Whatever the feeling is, we have to deal with the reality of, you know, the comeback of the virus that we didn't expect, in this scale, right now. So, a lot of people were planning for in-person events for Q1 and Q2, 2021, and then they pivoted to 100%, virtual. So that's what is happening.  

People are booking for hybrid events for Q3, Q4, 2021 right now, but with a backup—a solid backup plan—of going 100% virtual during those times. That's what's happening right now.  

Then what the future looks like: There's three categories of needs that we need to look at. The need for meetings that could be replaceable, before the pandemic hit, right? There was a lot of meetings that, honestly—we have to be honest about it—they weren't necessary, right? They were just happening; that was the way of doing things. And those will be substituted 100% by virtual events, no questions about it. 

Tyler: What types of meetings do you think fit into that bucket? 

Julius: Well, it's tough to say, right? It's more like what is the why of those meetings, and is there enough reasons why we need to travel for miles and miles to get in person for, say, like half a day for an internal sales presentation, for example?  

I see a lot of those internal meetings, opportunities to be replaced. And those internal meetings were a big chunk of the industry as well, right? So, all of that—questionable. Virtual, like this collective experience of the past year taught us, that we can do great virtual meetings and replace those unnecessary, meetings that we used to do.  

Then there's a need to connect people that cannot attend in-person events. And those people are going to be a big chunk going into 2022. It's going to be a lot of people that will not, not want to, attend in-person events in 2022. So, you need to cater for those with hybrid experiences, right?  

So, for different percentages, by the way; right now, 100% virtual; six months’ time, 20% in person, 80%, virtual; 2022 to 50/50; then probably more in-person than virtual. So, you have to cater for these people going forward. And different sectors, different representation.  

Then there's the third and final need; that is the need to meet in-person for large events. And the need there is just going to be, I need to be there because everybody's there. Shows, large events, large sporting events, where the component of me of attending in person is very important to close business.  

And whether they're going to have a digital strategy or not, it's for them to decide, but the major driver is going to be in-person attendance to those meetings. Now how we put all of that together, for event owners, meeting owners, business owners and the events industry, that's going to be the challenge in 2022. 

Tyler: So, it kind of sounds like it's gonna ramp up, and maybe, as you mentioned, the ratios of virtual to in-person events, and then hybrid will sort of escalate on a kind of a growth curve. Is what you're saying? 

Julius: Correct. 

Tyler: And I think the people I talked to, the initial impression when this all hit was, "Oh, my goodness, we're in for a bad three months." Nervous laughter ensues, right? And then they're kind of like, "Well, I better learn this virtual event thing and fast." And then, of course, all sorts of vendors sort of enter the scene or ramped up their marketing or presence.  

But I think one takeaway is that now people are more familiar with it, and they see their attendance numbers go through the roof with virtual events. So, I think the argument is that, "Well, you know, we're going to go back in-person events, but hybrid is going to be a big thing." How do you think hybrid—in conjunction with an in-person event—will play out? 

Julius: Well, I mean, that's a big question, because we're still in a very, I would say, not realistic environment right now. Right? So, the big numbers that we have are the results of lockdowns, furloughs, people staying at home extensively, right? So, will that persist once things go back to normal—we don't know, right? So that's kind of where I'm at right now. 

It's a very unrealistic environment we're living in. Basing the fact that you need virtual events merely on numbers, is potentially risky. On the long term, you have to think about your hybrid strategy now. You have to think about touchpoints, whatever they are—virtual—but assuming that you're going to have business because you're having high numbers right now next year is probably not going to be the case, because in some regions, people won't stay home to attend your virtual events, they won't go out, and they will probably be at the office, not home working from home.  

So, you have to keep that in mind, therefore, your engagement strategy for the year is gonna be more important, right? And the different touchpoints, and creating those opportunities for touchpoints, is so important and relevant. 

Tyler: Tell us more about Swapcard, and maybe what their competitive point of difference is, and it's not only just a virtual event platform, too, right? They also do in-person, and then, of course, combining virtual and in-person for hybrid events. 

Julius: Absolutely. Yeah, as I mentioned, we come from in-person, so that's kind of—in-person for large events—so our specialty is large events. So, next week SXSW is going to happen.  

And I can give you the inside scoop of something that we're releasing next week, Tyler, just for you. We just signed a massive deal with Informa for all of their connect and technology events to happen on Swapcard. So, we're talking events with attendees in excess of 500,000 people. So very, very large implementations.  

But we come from that, we come from live. And one of the things the pain points with these large meetings—even if you have 1,000 people, to be honest, you don't have to go to 20,000, 30,000, 100,000—still they have the same problem of how to network, who to meet to do business. That's the key question, right?  

And, we actually use artificial intelligence very cleverly to connect you with the right people within the event. And we are not talking about adding fancy tags and tagging people. That's not artificial intelligence. We're talking about learning about preferences of attendees throughout the use of the platform—any type of interaction—and add those as s learning capability to actually deliver the best potential matches, where there's people to meet, sessions to attend, products to buy, and exhibitors to get in touch with.  

So, all of that, that's kind of very powerful.  

And a second part that I'm very excited about is something that we're about to announce. Which is the community layer that's coming to Swapcard, where you can have your community for your event brand, and then have individual standalone events or webinars, or whatever event-driven type of activity you want to do virtually, in-person or hybrid, but have all the attendees on one platform. And having them essentially just RSVP....to different events and different activities that you're going to do.  

So, we're very excited about that. 

Tyler: Excellent. And in talking with people in the industry who have had to make this pivot—I guess that's the term everyone's throwing around—the one thing they say they have a very hard time with is networking in a virtual environment. I mean, you don't get that meeting—running into someone by the coffee table and striking up a conversation—sort of experience.  

How do you envision that improving in the virtual and/or hybrid environment? 

Julius: So that's the key, right? That networking, making business, especially for large events, like tradeshows, which were very dear to us, that's the game—that's the name of the game in terms of making those connections and creating that serendipitous.  

We're chewing that in two ways.  

One is the artificial intelligence piece, meaning that if you plan to attend multiple events on Swapcard—say you attend IMEX, right, and then you want to attend PCMA Convening Leaders, just to make two examples that are familiar with the events industry. Swapcard will learn about your preferences at IMEX and will save those preferences with your profile. And then if you bump into the same people or exhibitors at Convening Leaders, you will already have that matching capability at the next event. So how powerful is that? 

[Related: Event MB's Julius Solaris Serves Inspiration at IMEX

Because the system is always learning about your preferences and the people you should meet, and then potentially match you already in the new event because you've been on the platform. So, there's a lot of—obviously all GDPR compliant, and all of that, no information stored anywhere on servers, all of that taken care of—but you see the potential of that, and that's going to be the key going forward and making sense of all these thousands of people and incredible amounts of information available, right? You want to be directed from the platform.  

Then there's a design stage, right, that is very important. Planners have to create these opportunities, and that's why I'm excited about things like roundtables happening within the platform, where you can have 50 people in a room discussing a topic, audio only, if you want to do it, or with video.  

So, all of that is happening now, and that's the sort of serendipitous opportunity to create networking relationships out of roundtables, for example, or one-to-one conversations in groups.  

I'm excited about that, and the potential interaction with the hybrid component, and have mixed audiences that are attending from their phones in a room, or from their house, so you know what I mean? That's the connection that I'm excited about. 

Tyler: Yeah, that really is amazing, the analytics, and like you mentioned, all this information that just gets carried forward forever, and especially if you're on one platform, that's a very powerful tool and probably creates a lot of revenue-generating possibilities. How is the revenue model changing, say, in virtual meetings, and then hybrid? What are some opportunities out there? 

Julius: So, the message is clear that ticketing is not as big of a revenue model as it used to be, right? The perception of virtual events not delivering tangibility as opposed to in-person events where you get to travel, there's a hotel, there's a buffet, there's activations, there's networking parties, there's so much going on, right?  

That value proposition on virtual kind of decreases a little bit, even though some platforms do better than others in terms of managing enough activation opportunity to give tangibility. But still, there's an inevitable perception that whenever you buy something that is digital it's not as valuable as something physical. I mean, that's human nature, I believe.  

So, that means that there's a renewed interest on the planner side to make a lot out of the sponsorship opportunities with sponsors and engage with brands, and some event owners are doing incredibly well because of the augmented reach of virtual events, right?  

So that's inevitable, right? Some events that used to have 500 people now have 5,000 people, so there is a visible brand, advertising opportunity, there's an inevitable lead generation opportunity. And, obviously, some planners are better than others at designing these opportunities. Some platforms are better than others at creating these opportunities. 

Tyler: You're really a content veteran, and that's why I've loved talking with you over the years, in the virtual and hybrid realm. What are some good examples or tips for good content? 

Julius: That's interesting. So, first of all, you gotta take care of the medium you're using, right?  

So, the most common mistake I've seen are these one-hour-long sessions, adapted from in-person to virtual, and they just don't work, right? This cannot be the same—the attention spans are so short that you have to start designing for those short attention span with enough variety to keep the attention high at all times, but also giving you enough white space for people to disconnect, whether it's a DJ room, a yoga session or whatever.  

So, you need to start to create those opportunities to disconnect with this constant-stream-of-content-is-always-on mentality, that we live in a virtual space. So, the content goes hand in hand with your design process for virtual, and I feel that at some stage, the content that delivers the best is obviously the most engaging one, is the one that is co-created with the audience, and is the one that innovates a little bit in the format of delivery.  

It's not necessarily about the "what," it's about the "how" you deliver on virtual. 

Tyler: Great, and I think we're kind of getting near the end of today's program, but what do you want to leave the audience with, say, the meeting planners, about maybe some of the top-line considerations they should have in this new environment right now? 

Julius: So, the research that we ran on EventMB last month, 70% of planners say they will invest in digital going forward for their events, meaning they will have a hybrid component to their event—there's going to be some form of digital attached to their event.  

So that 70% of them is a pretty big and remarkable number that tells you kind of the trend of where the industry is going forward, right? Therefore, keeping virtual on top of mind for the next year and a half is key, not the next six months—you're not thinking long term if you're thinking six months—you've got to have a digital strategy going forward, 100% throughout 2022.  

Do not schedule just in-person right now. It's just not safe to do that.  

So, hybrid, absolutely. But you know, keep in mind that things may change abruptly, very quickly. Whenever people throw the "new normal" buzzword, the new normal is the unpredictability of the environment we live in. And all this buzz of virtual can go away really fast, and you've got to be ready with in-person.  

So, we don't know. We don't know—the uncertainty is key here. The way things are developing are super-fast. And, so, we need to keep an eye on how things are working on a regional level. We know that, for example, summer was a good moment to plan a lot of in-person activities because things went down.  

So, we can potentially model something like that happening this summer. So, yeah, keep that in mind. Be ready to adapt, be flexible as much as possible. That's the only thing I can say for sure. 

Tyler: Excellent. Well, congratulations on your new position. Looking forward to seeing what you're going to be up to. Thanks for joining us today, Julius. 

Julius: Thanks for having me, Tyler. Pleasure. 

Tyler: And thank you for listening to this Meetings Today Podcast. If you're interested in more Meetings Today podcasts, just head on over to our website, MeetingsToday.com, where we have a number of podcasts with industry thought leaders I'm sure you'll enjoy.  

So, thanks for joining us and have a great rest of the day. 

[End Transcript]

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About the author
Tyler Davidson | Editor, Vice President & Chief Content Director

Tyler Davidson has covered the travel trade for nearly 30 years. In his current role with Meetings Today, Tyler leads the editorial team on its mission to provide the best meetings content in the industry.