By Dave Mueller, President & Founder of ImageAV
Many industries have suffered at the hands of COVID-19; few have had to suffer the drastic and continuing impact as the live events industry.
Even while chatting with friends at the annual Meetings Industry Council of Colorado event this past March, talking about having a break for a month or so until events would, as we assumed, ramp up back to normal levels. Even as the beginning of the pandemic took shape, none of us could fathom what the rest of the year would hold.
Going into this year, our company, like many others, was on track to have our best year yet. Business was good. Clients were happy. Our shows were happening nationwide. Then one by one, the cancelations started to flow in. We cut refund checks for deposits for shows months away, watching our business start to slip through our hands. It was a stressful time for everybody; there were a lot of unknowns.
But being a business owner, I couldn’t just worry about the effect the pandemic was having on my family. I also had to think about my incredibly loyal and hard-working employees who depend on our company to support themselves and their families. We felt an immense amount of pressure to fix a problem that could not be controlled.
We were fortunate to receive PPP funding to keep our full staff employed for as long as we could. And while I was grateful for the program, it was a real headache. The rules changed weekly and there was no one who could explain them clearly. It was death by a hundred webinars. Soon the funding ended, and we had to make tough, heartbreaking decisions. This is our family; we have employees who have been with us for over twenty years and I had to tell them they would be out of a job by the end of the week.
I couldn’t have anticipated the level of empathy and grace they showed us through this process. We were amazed, and forever thankful for their kindness and support in what was no doubt a difficult time for them, too. We whittled our staff down to about 30%, and everyone had to take a temporary reduction in pay.
So, now what? How do we save our business? Our smallest division, Systems Integrations (think installing conference room technology), was the only one bringing in revenue. We obviously couldn’t rely on that revenue to support our entire payroll for very long. Serendipitously, we spent most of 2019 rebuilding our recording and streaming platform, e-Attend™.
We built a robust and secure cloud-based platform, added enhanced user features, automated our processes, and created remote functionality. The platform was used most often to capture content at in-person events then sold to attendees or to those who couldn’t attend. It was most prominent for medical meetings or events that had many concurrent sessions attendees would have to miss. As the idea of adapting in-person meetings to virtual was starting to swiftly take over the industry, we already had the solution in place with e-Attend™. We then did what we do best, we got to work.
Our pivot happened in two phases. We immediately transformed our video production studio into a virtual meeting control room with the capabilities to remotely coach, rehearse, record, and edit presentations from across the county and the world. Once edited with custom branding and graphics, these presentations bore no resemblance to a standard, run-of-the-mill online (pick your software of choice here) presentation that millions of us yawned at. We already had the platform and (most importantly) experience to be able to execute at a high level.
We let our networks know about our new virtual offering and started to work with organizations, usually on very tight timelines, to convert their scheduled live conferences into virtual ones as quickly as possible. We oversee the entire show behind the scenes, so it’s a lot of moving parts for our team to manage. But the result was a product we were able to control from start to finish. We also built our own virtual stage in our warehouse where speakers can pre-record their content or go live on hundreds of different backgrounds.
As these projects were underway, we noticed we were in only half the equation. We had the tools and technology to host all the content we recorded but our clients were going elsewhere for a virtual conference platform. So, we built our own, using e-AttendTM as the core. We formed an advisory board of many of our best clients, asking them for feedback on our feature-set, allowing us to quickly identify the most requested features and create synergy for our platform.
We became one of the first single source solutions to the market, offering clients both the virtual experience platform and broadcast-quality recording, content creation and live streaming. We believe we have an incredibly strong value proposition that leverages technology, experience, and customer service.
Our industry is seeing new entrants from software and app companies trying to compete for virtual business, but many have no experience in the events industry, helping to fashion and create the message the client wants to express or the true sense of urgency that only a quality production company brings to the table. Not to say it’s not a quality product, but they can’t replace decades of on-site production and event experience.
It feels like we’re working at a start-up – the days are long, and the weekends are no longer ours, but there’s a different energy in the building. We’ve all committed to developing something new and great and it’s really reinforced our culture of creativity and design. I’m amazed what we’ve been able to accomplish in such a short period of time, a testament to our incredible team and our external partners who have been instrumental in reimagining our business for 2020 and beyond.
We continue to pour a lot of love into the business and are very proud of what we’ve built and the people we’ve formed life-long friendships with along the way. I think the icing on the cake for us is that e-AttendTM and its ability to capture meetings and provide on-demand content will never cease to be relevant. I am proud that we are pioneering in the virtual and hybrid experience space. We’re still learning and growing as we go (and managing to have some fun along the way), but I’d bet big on us no matter what the “new normal” holds.