I just read this HBS great article about how big corporations should do innovation pilot with startups, and I thought that it would be interesting to customize some learnings about how live event organizers could and should capitalize innovation opportunities working with tech startups.
I wrote in the past about potential disruption in the live events industry and opportunities and challenges for digital innovation in our industry but I think that a critical component of this innovation cycle is starting with successful pilot programs allowing both parts (the corporation/organizer and the startup) to work together and have a positive experience.
But before sharing my own misery and lesson learned with innovation pilot programs from both sides of the story (as an event owner/organizer and as an active investor/partner/advisor on event tech startups) let’s be honest about some real facts.
Many event organizers are still enjoying double-digit growth doing mostly the same stuff that they did for decades. So, if life is beautiful and the business works, why the hell they should have to deal with these crazy tech founders who are doing all these new (and many times difficult and risky) technologies? The answer is quite obvious and simple, but many event organizers don’t like it: because if you don’t do it and reinvent your event audience experience your sponsors, exhibitors and visitors will move away into other marketing investments that are more effective for them.
Some industries like media (Netflix), hospitality (Airbnb), transportation (Uber) learned this on the hard way, but tech startups are currently disrupting many other (I would say all) industries and live events are and will not be an exception.
I’m 100% convinced that live events will change more in the next five or ten years that all changes combined in the last hundred years. I also think that tech startups will mostly drive this change in partnership with innovative and modern event organizers. But usually, the first small step for significant innovation is a successful pilot program. When the pilot program works well both parts (corporation and startup) trust each other and share learnings working together for scaling the opportunity. If the pilot program is not successful both parts directly blame each other and the corporation usually keeps doing the same old school stuff trying to convince themselves and their customers that “life is still beautiful” and the startup complains about these “old school guys “aka the corporation” who simply “don’t get it”.
If you have the time to read the HBS article that I mentioned in the beginning, you will probably see that these challenges are happening in all industries and sizes, but live events are different in many ways, and pilot programs should and could be adjusted based on our unique needs. Let me share some concrete lessons learned, and hopefully, this could be useful for event organizers embracing innovation, taking more calculated risks and, more important than anything else, giving their customer a better and more measurable return of investment.
1. Be realistic and honest with yourself, your company, team, and customers about the pilot
Let’s face it. Most of these innovation pilot programs are R&D opportunities and not short-term revenue or profit opportunities. You are investing in these pilots as a way to improve your events and identify ways to strengthen your long-term goals with your business and continue to be relevant for your customers. It’s unfair and probably a waste of your time (and the startup time) trying to maximize profits as part of the “pilot season” .
2. Identify critical areas for improvement in your events. There are more than 25 event tech categories that I follow and review regularly. These categories go from registrations/ticketing up to marketing, mobile apps, matchmaking, customer engagement, etc.etc. Identify which of these technologies can really have a positive and significant impact on your customers and focus on those pilots first.
3. Don’t do more than 2 or 3 pilots per event per year. Doing these pilots require a significant investment of time and sometimes money and you want to be sure that you can focus your resources to have positive learning and results.
4. Be pragmatic and straightforward setting KPI’s (key performance indicator) for the pilot
There is a common denominator for failure around pilot programs, and it’s lack of clarity on mutual goals (corporation/organizer and startup in this case) and complex goals/KPI’s. This is usually a mistake where both parts are equally responsible. The startup is typically naive and optimistic about everything (that’s why they are entrepreneurs), and the corporation is usually complex (I really don’t know why but I guess that’s because they are big)
5. Reward your team for innovation pilots instead of punishing them
It’s super easy finding excuses to avoid innovation pilots and if the leadership is not rewarding and incentivizing innovation management will avoid taking these risks and keep saying to their bosses that they are too busy for this “innovation stuff”.
Successful and innovative organizers are creating ways to derisk these pilots, learn from them, adjust and scale these opportunities once they validated customer adoption.

In summary, they are hundreds of millions of dollars of new revenues opportunities and cost savings currently being created in the live events industry through event tech solutions. And these tech solutions are growing at exponential speed in every sector and certainly not slowing down soon. There are more than 3,600 event tech startups on a global basis and many of them are very smart founders building amazing technologies. I do not doubt that some of them will create transformational changes and opportunities.
All these revenues/profits are being capitalized from brave leaders who were open to doing these pilots, make mistakes, learn from them, fixed them and do it again until works.
Those organizers are still enjoying double-digit growth, but the difference with others is that their growth is sustainable and long-term oriented and the others could suffer the “Netflix vs. Blockbuster” experience in their companies sooner than later.

Originally published at www.marcogiberti.com