Tech Giant: Cvent Stalwart Anil Punyapu Seeks to Bridge the Engagement Gap
If you are looking for a pioneer in event technology, it’s hard to beat Anil Punyapu. The senior vice president of sales at Cvent has been with the event registration and software giant since 2003 – or more than three-quarters of its impressive lifespan. Virtual events are nothing new to Punyapu and Cvent, though no one could quite predict what 2020 would bring to the world and events industry.
With more than a year under our belts, and the worst of the pandemic seemingly over in this country, Punyapu is looking ahead to a future in which technology and meetings are more integrated. “We believe that a smart mix of in-person, virtual and hybrid events is our future – and that new narrative is a credit to the planners and marketers who have embraced technology and digital transformation and are prepared to apply the lessons they’ve learned as we look ahead,” he said.
We leaned on Punyapu’s perspective as a lifer in the field for this conversation about the post-pandemic world.
COVID is subsiding and events are happening. What’s your initial take on the past 18 months?
This pandemic has been the worst that our industry has seen, but there is a silver lining. The last year-plus has accelerated the digital transformation of meetings and events, and as long as planners and marketers continue to embrace technology as a critical component of their event programs – and view it as something that adds to the experience, rather than detracts – I truly believe that the best is yet to come for our industry.
What should the priority for planners be going forward?
With so many tasks and to-dos requiring our attention these days, time is precious. So, whether people attend a hybrid event in-person or virtually, they’re going to want (and expect) a personalized content experience. So, from a planning perspective, that means delivering unique content that’s curated specifically for those viewing online, and other experiences crafted for the in-person experience. Personalizing the experience is key. While there are absolutely opportunities where these experiences can (and should) overlap, like for networking sessions and round table discussions, those also have to be thoughtfully planned and executed so that all attendees are able to engage and interact.
Chicken and the egg question: What comes first, setting the event agenda or selecting the right platform for events?
Even before the agenda or the technology, I think the first thing that has to be considered is the event goals. Goals can range from lead generation, pipeline acceleration, improving productivity, revenue creation, etc. The reality is some events may make more sense to host exclusively online. Others work better as an in-person experience. If the goal is to maximize attendance, reach new audiences and drive engagement, then a hybrid event is a great solution because you get the best of both worlds – expanded reach with the online audience and the benefit of face-to-face engagement with those who attend in-person.
Any case studies come to mind?
One of our customers is a perfect example of this. This particular customer hosted a live event in 2019 for 12,000 people. In 2020, they took the event virtual and generated 110,000 registrants with over 30,000 new contacts that had zero engagement with them in the past. In 2021, they are planning a virtual event, with regional in-person events hosted in tandem, to continue to reach new audiences online, but also drive pipeline acceleration with the in-person experience.
Now, if you’ve already decided that your event will be a hybrid experience, the next question should absolutely be, “what technology will we leverage to make it happen?” While we’ve been referring to hybrid events as one event with two experiences, those experiences have to align with each other. The virtual event should represent the same overall theme, brand and messaging that the in-person event delivers. It’s critical that the two experiences feel like one cohesive event
I'm sure you have fielded so many questions over the past year from clients. How have those evolved and what are people asking now that they weren’t before?
Many of the questions we’re fielding now were never even on our radar, or at least were not a primary focus 12-15 months ago. Of course, at the start of the pandemic, the questions were primarily focused on how to manage and host an engaging, immersive virtual event. Now, what’s really exciting is that the questions are focused more on the big picture.
For example, clients want to know how to seamlessly manage all their event types and delivery models (virtual, in-person and hybrid) – or what we’re calling an organization’s Total Event Program. People want to know how they can calculate the return on investment for their virtual webinar, in-person trade show and hybrid user conference – and they want all that information in one place. Right now, many planners feel comfortable planning virtual events, and they’re certainly comfortable planning in-person ones.
Are we still going to use in-person attendees as the ultimate metric for success or how will technology play a role in the ROI?
I believe engagement is the ultimate metric that is going to help us measure success going forward. The level of engagement at an event and the behavioral metrics associated with the engagement are going to define the success of the event. And, the more events organizations host or attend, the more opportunities they’ll have to increase that engagement.
An example is this: A virtual event registrant attends the opening keynote, but then never takes another action during the event. They don’t visit virtual booths, attend breakout sessions or interact with other attendees in a round table discussion. Based on that information, that attendee is very minimally engaged with your event/brand – and likely won’t be a great candidate to schedule a sales demo call with post-event. On the flip side, someone who attends a virtual event, watches key sessions, goes in again a week later to watch the on-demand content, then registers for a webinar to dig into a key topic even further, and then attends an in-person product demo a couple weeks later – they are highly engaged and likely represent a great business opportunity.
So, what you can see from this example is that it’s not about attendance but engagement, and that is why technology is so critical. How else will planners be able to track the digital footprint virtual attendees make, then align that to the actions they take at an in-person event several weeks later?
What should planners look for to know they picked the right partner?
You used the word “partner” and I think it is very apropos. The fact of the matter is, your program or event success is driven by many factors, not technology alone. It involves event or meeting management companies, production companies, hotels and venues, internal teams and other services to support the event. Second, event technology doesn’t, or shouldn’t, operate in a silo. It should operate as part of an organization’s marketing technology stack and tie into other technology solutions like Oracle, Adobe, Salesforce, Concur, Coupa, etc. to provide a more holistic view of how events impact your business.
Finally, what works for one company that hosts two large in-person events a year likely won’t work for an organization that hosts 10 virtual events per month, attends four trade shows a year and hosts several in-person user conferences. What I would encourage planners to do is to take all of the above into consideration in the technology sourcing process and find the solution that works in harmony with your needs and processes.